You may wish to see a section on the Roman heritage in Morocco first.
The Empire of Morocco extends from
the twenty-eighth to the thirty-sixth degree of north latitude; its length, from
north to south, I imagine to be nearly two
hundred leagues; its breadth (..) about a hundred
and thirty leagues, where It is broadest. It
is bounded to the north by the Straits of
Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, to the
east by the kingdom of Tremecen and
Vied d'Elgerid (Algeria), to the south by the Desert,
and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean.
The territories of Morocco are formed
by the union of several small kingdoms,
anciently limited to a single province, and
perpetually at variance among themselves,
till at length they were subdued and united
under one sovereign by the Sharifs.
Louis de Chénier (a French diplomat and the father of poet André) - The Present State of the Empire of Morocco - 1788
Detail from the 1900 Times Atlas; the red dots indicate the towns covered in this section; the blue dot indicates the town of Tarifa which is covered in another section
At the beginning of the VIIIth century the Arabs managed to consolidate their control over Morocco; the country was ruled by governors appointed by the Umayyad Caliphs of Damasco; the overthrowing of this dynasty by that of the Abbasids of Baghdad had an impact on Morocco and Spain, the two westernmost provinces of the Caliphate.
Abd ar-Rahman, a member of the Umayyad family fled first to Egypt and then in 755 he reached Spain where a number of local chiefs greeted him. With their support he was able to establish an independent Emirate (Caliphate after 929) having Cordoba as its capital.
In 789 Idriss ibn Abdillah, a descendant of Fatimah, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, fled Mecca after a failed revolt against the Abbasids and reached Walila (today's Moulay* Idriss), near the site of Roman Volubilis. He married the daughter of the leader of the local tribe and with his help he established an independent kingdom over most of Morocco. His successors ruled the country for two centuries, although in the Xth century their rule was weakened by supporters of the Fatimid Caliphs of Mahdia.
(*) Muley, mulay, moulay means Prince / Sovereign.
Rabat: Bab Zaer, the southern gate of the Almohad walls (late XIIth century)
The Caliphs of Cordoba achieved great wealth and power and embellished their capital with an impressive mosque. Eventually however the Caliphate split into a number of taifas, small emirates which were unable to cope with the armies of the Christian states of Northern Spain, whereas in the first half of the XIth century Morocco was unified by a Berber tribe, whose leaders became known as the Almoravids (those who tie/unite). The emirs of the Spanish taifas sought the help of the Almoravids who repeatedly defeated the kings of Castile and Aragon. The Almoravids were replaced by the Almohads (the monotheists), both in Morocco (1147) and Spain (1172).
Rabat: Tour Hassan, the minaret of a never completed Almohad mosque (1195-1199)
On the south side without the walles
he caused a certaine high tower like the tower of Maroco (today's Marrakech) to be built, saving that the winding staires were somewhat larger, insomuch that three horses a-breast might well
ascend up: from the top whereof they might escrie ships
an huge way into the sea. So exceeding is the height
thereof, that I thinke there is no where the like building
to be found.
*Leo Africanus - The history and description of Africa: and of the notable things therein contained - 1526 - 1600 translation by John Pory
The Almohads had a firm control over Al-Andalus (Southern Spain) until ca 1230 when a combination of internal conflicts and defeats in key battles caused the loss of its main cities. During their rule they embellished Seville with the Giralda, a square minaret which has become characteristic of Islamic art in this part of the world. Its design is very similar to that of a minaret the Almohads built at Rabat for a very grand mosque they never completed.
*Leo Africanus (ca 1494-1554) was an Arab diplomat captured by Spanish corsairs in 1518 and taken to Rome. He was later released by Pope Leo X and enjoyed papal patronage. His work describes the region of north Africa known as the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and was considered the most authoritative account of the cultures, religions and politics of this region until the start of European exploration in the nineteenth century.
From the Cambridge University Press introduction to the book.
Fez: Medrese (Koranic school) Bou Inania, a Marinid building (1351-1356): detail of the courtyard
The defeats suffered in Spain greatly weakened the Almohads who lost control of key Moroccan towns to the Marinids, a Berber tribe from Western Algeria. The latter built a very picturesque necropolis at Chellah, outside the walls of Rabat and imposing mausoleums at Fez. They made an attempt to restore Muslim influence in Spain, but they were defeated in 1340 near Tarifa. Likewise their expansion into Algeria and Tunisia was short-lived. They founded very fine medreses at Salé, Meknes and Fez. Although the Marinids were formally in power until 1465, after ca 1360 the country was de facto split into almost independent kingdoms.
Archaeological Museum of Tétouan: exhibits from a Ksar es-Seghir, a port opposite Tarifa on the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, which was occupied by the Portuguese from 1458 to 1550
The development of cannon warfare during the XVth century had a major impact in the conflicts between Christians and Muslims. In 1453 Sultan Mehmet II was able to open a breach in the walls of Constantinople by using a large cannon. In the same period the Portuguese placed heavy cannon mounted on the bow or stern of vessels to bombard fortresses on shore and later on also smaller guns for attacking other ships. The Portuguese (and the Spaniards) were able to conquer a number of coastal towns of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia which they held for centuries (Ceuta and Melilla are still Spanish enclaves on African soil).
American Legation at Tangier: diorama of the Battle of the Three Kings
In the XVIth century the Ottoman Sultans acted in order to contain the European hegemony on the Western Mediterranean Sea; they supported the establishment of a corsairs' state in Algeria and in 1578 they sent troops to Morocco to help Abd al-Malik against his nephew Abu Abdallah Mohammed II who was supported by Portugal.
The expedition of Don Sebastian, however, was unsuccessful; he was defeated and slain in the plains of Alcassar (near Larache), and Muley Mohamet, who was then in his army, was drowned in crossing a river. Muley Abdelmeleck, who had usurped the crown, and was ill before the battle began, expired in his litter, in the very moment of victory; and thus do vast projects vanish in an instant. Chénier
The Portuguese and their Moroccan allies were defeated. King Sebastian died in the fight, as well as the two Moroccan rivals. The battle marked the end of Portuguese intervention in Moroccan matters, although it did not stop the almost continuous dynastic quarrels and civil wars which characterized the history of Morocco in this period.
There were several years of death
at Tafilet (a large oasis south of the Atlas Mountains), and these countries underwent
all the horrors of famine. The Moors of that province, who then made a pilgrimage
to Mecca, brought back a Sharif, named
Muley Ali, a descendant of Mahomet,
born at the town of Yambo, near Medina whom the people treated with the utmost respect. According to Moorish tradition the palm trees bore no fruit before the arrival of the Sharif. Seasons having returned to their former course, the harvests became so abundant that the simple and
superstitious people of the country attributed a change so miraculous to the presence and religion of the Sharif. Chénier
The rise to power of Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, a son of Moulay Ali, led in the 1680s to a process of unification of the country which put an end to the presence of the European powers in most coastal towns and to the attempts by the Ottomans to extend their suzerainty over Morocco. Moulay Ismail fixed his residence at Meknes which he embellished with monumental gates and palaces. The descendants of Moulay Ismail (Alaouite dynasty) are the current Sultans of Morocco.
Salé: Gate of the Arsenal
The river of Sallee, which brought vessels to the towns of Sallee and Rabat, was at that time more navigable than it is at present, and admitted vessels of great burden, and heavily built. Sallee was a kind of republic, feudatory to Moulay Ismail, the people of which addicted themselves to trade and piracy. The Sallee rovers became formidable to the merchants of Europe (as described in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"), and their very name still preserves some impression of the fears they at that time inspired, but which now daily weaken. Moulay Ismail received ten per cent, on each prize from the Corsairs of this regency, and also ten slaves from every hundred. The gallies that cruised in the straits wholly appertained to the Emperor. (..) There are some dockes for building ships at Sallee, but the difficulty of navigating the channel, and the probability that the sand will continue to accumulate, give ground to predict that, very soon, only vessels with oars will be able to enter the river. Chénier
The Jews are very populous in the empire. After being proscribed in Spain and Portugal, multitudes
of them passed over to Morocco, and
spread themselves through the towns and
over the country. Judging by the relations they themselves give, and by the extent of the places (mellah) assigned them to dwell
in, I have no doubt but there were more
than thirty thousand families. (..) The Jews possess neither lands nor gardens, nor can they enjoy their fruits in
tranquillity; they must wear only black,
and are obliged, when they pass near
mosques, or through streets in which
there are sanctuaries, to walk barefoot.
The lowest among the Moors imagines
he has a right to illtreat a Jew, nor dares
the latter defend himself, because the Koran and the Judge are always in favour of
the Mahometan. Notwithstanding this
state of oppression, the Jews have many
advantages over the Moors; they better
understand the spirit of trade, they act as
agents and brokers, and profit by their
own cunning, and the ignorance of the
Moors. In their commercial bargains
many of them buy up the commodities of
the country to sell again. Some have European correspondents, and others are mechanics; such as goldsmiths, tailors, gunsmiths, millers, and masons. More industrious, artful, and better informed than
the Moors, the Jews are employed by the
Emperor in receiving the customs, coining
the money, and in all affairs and intercourse which the Monarch has with the
European merchants, as well as in all his
negotiations with the various European governments. Chénier
The mellah was established at Fez in 1438. Today the Jewish community consists of only a few thousands. Their mellah have been occupied by immigrants from the countryside, but the layouts and characteristics of these neighbourhoods are still very noticeable at Fez, Meknes and Sefrou.
Casablanca: buildings of "Ville Nouvelle"
the present unsettled state of the country, however, few
tourists penetrate into the interior to Fez, Mequinez or
Morocco city (Marrakech), mostly confining their visits to Tangier and
Cook's practical guide to Algeria and Tunisia - 1908
In March 1912 the Sultan accepted the French Protectorate over Morocco; in November Spain was granted similar rights on the northern part of the country. Marshal Lyautey, first French Résident Général, chose to develop a modern administrative and trade centre at Dar Al-Bayda (Casablanca), a minor port south of Rabat, rather than in the latter town or in the other "Imperial Cities" of Morocco, namely Marrakech, Meknes and Fez. Casablanca is the largest city of today's Morocco.
Fez Railway Station (2009)
The architectural heritage of the country, chiefly square minarets and imposing gates, is visible in many modern buildings.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a wooden panel of Medrese Attarin at Fez.