A Basic History of Morocco

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For Your Consideration:
  1. Describe the geography of Morocco.  How does it compare to the geography of your hometown or country?
  2. What factors have brought foreigners to Morocco over the centuries?
  3. Who was King Hassan II? How did he want to be remembered?  How should he be remembered?
  4. Based on the information in this article – as well as further online research – design a two week tour itinerary of Morocco that focuses on historically and culturally significant sites reflecting Morocco’s history.  Where will you go?  How will you travel between attractions?  Where will you stay?  What will you eat for each meal?  Be sure to explain why each of your stops is significant enough to be included in your itinerary.

Geography

The nation of Morocco is in the northwest corner of Africa, with a coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, reaching past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Spain to the north (a water border through the Strait and land borders with three small Spanish-controlled exclaves, Ceuta, Melilla, and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera), Algeria to the east, and Western Sahara to the south. Since Morocco controls most of Western Sahara, its de facto southern boundary is with Mauritania.

Dark green: Undisputed territory of Morocco Lighter green: Western Sahara, a territory claimed and occupied mostly by Morocco as its Southern Provinces
Dark green: Undisputed territory of Morocco. Lighter green: Western Sahara, a territory claimed and occupied mostly by Morocco as its Southern Provinces.

A large part of Morocco is mountainous, which isolates various villages and familial groups from one another, leading to the strong tribal and cultural divisions that have characterized the nation’s at times unstable political history.

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The Atlas Mountains are rich in natural resources. There are deposits of iron ore, lead ore, copper, silver, mercury, rock salt, phosphate, marble, anthracite coal and natural gas among other resources.

The Rif Mountains stretch over the region bordering the Mediterranean from the north-west to the north-east. The Atlas Mountains run down the backbone of the country, from the northeast to the south west. Most of the southeast portion of the country is in the Sahara Desert – in the rain shadow of the Atlas Mountains – and as such is generally sparsely populated and unproductive economically. Most of the population lives to the north of these mountains, while to the south lies the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Morocco claims that the Western Sahara is part of its territory and refers to that as its Southern Provinces, though its southern neighbor Mauritania contests this claim.

berber desert 2Morocco’s capital city is Rabat; its largest city is its main port, Casablanca. Other cities recording a population over 500,000 in the 2014 Moroccan census are Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes, Salé and Tangier.

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Casablanca, located in the central-western part of Morocco and bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is the largest city in Morocco. It is also the largest city in the Maghreb region, as well as one of the largest and most important cities in Africa, both economically and demographically. Casablanca is Morocco’s chief port and one of the largest financial centers on the continent. According to the 2014 population estimate, the city has a population of about 3.35 million in the urban area.

The country’s Mediterranean climate is similar to that of southern California, with lush forests in the northern and central mountain ranges of the country, giving way to drier conditions and inland deserts further southeast. The Moroccan coastal plains experience remarkably moderate temperatures even in summer, owing to the effect of the cold Canary Current off its Atlantic coast.

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The world’s ocean currents have a profound impact upon climates around the globe.  The cold water of the Canary Current keeps temperatures on the coast of Morocco cool year round.

Prehistoric Morocco

Archaeological excavations have demonstrated the presence of people in Morocco that were ancestral to Homo sapiens, as well as the presence of early human species. The fossilized bones of a 400,000-year-old early human ancestor were discovered in Salé in 1971. The bones of several very early Homo sapiens were excavated at Jebel Irhoud in 1991, these were dated using modern techniques in 2017 and found to be at least 300,000 years old, making them the oldest examples of Homo Sapiens discovered anywhere in the world. In 2007, small perforated seashell beads were discovered in Taforalt that are 82,000 years old, making them the earliest known evidence of personal adornment found anywhere in the world.

Figuig
Prehistoric rock engraving from Figuig, Morocco.

In Mesolithic times, between 20,000 and 5000 years ago, the geography of Morocco resembled a savanna more than the present arid landscape. While little is known of settlements in Morocco during that period, excavations elsewhere in the Maghreb region have suggested an abundance of game and forests that would have been hospitable to Mesolithic hunters and gatherers.

During the Neolithic period, which followed the Mesolithic, the savanna was occupied by hunters and herders. The culture of these Neolithic hunters and herders flourished until the region began to desiccate – or dry out – after 5000 BCE.

Map-MENA-Maghreb-1303-x-652-1-313x200The indigenous – or native – people of North Africa are known as Berbers, and they make up the majority of Morocco’s population both in the modern day and throughout its three thousand year-old recorded history. The Berbers have historically been a people who practiced both settled agriculture and nomadic herding of animals. They have also developed extensive trade routes across the mountains and deserts of Morocco and North Africa generally, a region often referred to as the Maghreb. Berber society has historically been defined not by modern nation-states or empires, but by more local clans or tribes – extended familial and geographic identities. Modern Berbers are largely Sunni Muslim, but historically have practiced their own native religion, as well as Christianity and Judaism.

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In the twenty-first century, Berbers pragmatically blend ancient patterns of life – such as the traditional kaftan style of dress – with modern developments – such as cell phones and satellite TV.

Morocco in Antiquity

Northwest Africa and Morocco were slowly drawn into the wider emerging Mediterranean world by the Phoenicians, who established trading colonies and settlements in the early Classical period.

The arrival of Phoenicians on the Moroccan coast heralded many centuries of rule by foreign powers in the north of Morocco. Phoenician traders penetrated the western Mediterranean before the 8th century BCE, and soon after set up depots for salt and ore along the coast and up the rivers of the territory of present-day Morocco.

By the 5th century BCE, the state of Carthage had extended its hegemony across much of North Africa. Carthage developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes of the interior, and paid them an annual tribute to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials.

Mauretania was an independent tribal Berber kingdom on the Mediterranean coast of north Africa, corresponding to northern modern-day Morocco from about the 3rd century BCE. It became a client of the Roman empire in 33 BCE, then a full province after Emperor Caligula had the last king, Ptolemy of Mauretania, executed in AD 40.

Rome controlled the vast, ill-defined territory through alliances with the tribes rather than through military occupation, expanding its authority only to those areas, that were economically useful or that could be defended without additional manpower. Hence, Roman administration never extended outside the restricted area of the northern coastal plain and valleys. This strategic region formed part of the Roman Empire, governed as Mauretania Tingitana, with the city of Volubilis as its capital.

 

Christianity was introduced to the region in the 2nd century AD, and gained converts in the towns and among slaves as well as among Berber farmers. By the end of the 4th century, the Romanized areas had been Christianized and inroads had been made among the Berber tribes, who sometimes converted en masse. Schismatic and heretical movements also developed, usually as forms of political protest. The area had a substantial Jewish population as well.

In the Islamic World

The Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, that started in the middle of the 7th century, was achieved by the Umayyad Caliphate early in the following century. It brought both the Arabic language and Islam to the area. The indigenous Berber tribes adopted Islam, but retained their customary laws. They also paid taxes and tribute to the new Muslim administration based in the city of Kairouan.

rightlyguidedumayyad
The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE) was the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 11,100,000 km2 (4,300,000 sq mi) and 33 million people, making it one of the largest empires in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population. The dynasty was eventually overthrown by a rebellion led by the Abbasids in 750.

The Great Berber Revolt of 739/740–743 AD (122–125 AH in the Muslim calendar) marked the first successful secession from the Arab caliphate (ruled from Damascus). The Berber revolt against their Umayyad Arab rulers began in Tangiers in 740, and was led initially by Maysara al-Matghari. The revolt soon spread through the rest of the Maghreb (North Africa) and across the straits to al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula).

The Umayyads scrambled and managed to prevent the core of Ifriqiya (Tunisia, East-Algeria and West-Libya) and al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal) from falling into rebel hands. But the rest of the Maghreb was never recovered. After failing to capture the Umayyad provincial capital of Kairouan, the Berber rebel armies dissolved, and the western Maghreb fragmented into a series of small Berber statelets, ruled by tribal chieftains and Kharijite imams.

Some of the first Muslim states outside the Caliphate emerged from this revolt. In particular, this is sometimes regarded as the beginning of Moroccan independence, as Morocco would never again come under the rule of an eastern Caliph or any other foreign power until the 20th century.

Morocco was at its most powerful under a series of Berber dynasties, which rose to power south of the Atlas Mountains and expanded their rule northward, replacing local rulers. The 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the founding of several significant Berber dynasties led by religious reformers, each dynasty based on a tribal confederation that would dominate the Maghreb and Al-Andalus for more than 200 years. These dynasties – the Almoravids, Almohads, Marinids and Wattasids – gave the Berber people some measure of collective identity and political unity under a native regime for the first time in their history.

That is not to say that any of these dynasties were particularly stable or long-lasting – in fact, most rarely survived for more than three or four generations before chaotic in-fighting between heirs to the throne paved the way for the successive dynasty to rise up on the promise of political stability and religious reform, taking the previous dynasty’s place.

The Alaouite dynasty is the current Moroccan royal family. The Alaouite family claim descent from Muhammad through his daughter Fāṭimah az-Zahrah and her husband ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib.

The kingdom was consolidated by Ismail Ibn Sharif (1672–1727), who began to create a unified state in the face of opposition from local tribes. Since the Alaouites, in contrast to previous dynasties, did not have the support of a single Berber or Bedouin tribe, Ismaīl controlled Morocco through an army of slaves. With these soldiers he drove the English from Tangiers (1684) and the Spanish from Larache in 1689. The unity of Morocco did not survive his death — in the ensuing power struggles the tribes became a political and military force once again, and it was only with Muhammad III (1757–1790) that the kingdom was unified again. The idea of centralization was abandoned and the tribes allowed to preserve their autonomy.

saadi
The Saadi dynasty was an Arab Moroccan dynasty, which ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659. Their tombs, located in their capital of Marrakech, are the final resting place of some sixty members of the family, all buried with their heads toward Mecca, according to the Muslim tradition.

The Colonial Period

As Europe industrialised, Northwest Africa was increasingly prized for its potential for colonisation. France showed a strong interest in Morocco as early as 1830, not only to protect the border of its neighboring Algerian territory, but also because of the strategic position of Morocco with coasts on the Mediterranean and the open Atlantic. In 1860, a dispute over Spain’s Ceuta enclave led Spain to declare war. Victorious Spain won a further enclave and an enlarged Ceuta in the settlement. In 1884, Spain created a protectorate in the coastal areas of Morocco.

Tens of thousands of colonists entered Morocco. Some bought up large amounts of the rich agricultural land, others organised the exploitation and modernisation of mines and harbors. Interest groups that formed among these elements continually pressured France to increase its control over Morocco. Governor general Marshall Hubert Lyautey sincerely admired Moroccan culture and succeeded in imposing a joint Moroccan-French administration, while creating a modern school system.

The 1912 Treaty of Fez made Morocco an official protectorate of France, and triggered the 1912 Fez riots.

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In 1943, the Istiqlal Party (Independence Party) was founded to press for independence, with discreet US support. That party subsequently provided most of the leadership for the nationalist movement.

In December 1952, a riot broke out in Casablanca over the murder of a Tunisian labor leader; this event marked a watershed in relations between Moroccan political parties and French authorities. In the aftermath of the rioting, the French government outlawed the Istiqlal.

France’s exile of the highly respected Sultan Mohammed V to Madagascar in 1953 – justified by his desire to pursue gradual independence – and his replacement by the unpopular Mohammed Ben Aarafa, sparked active opposition to the French protectorate both from nationalists and those who saw the sultan as a religious leader. Two years later, faced with a united Moroccan demand for the sultan’s return and rising violence in Morocco, the French government brought Mohammed V back to Morocco.

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Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco wearing a jalaba in 1934. On 20 August 1953, the French who were occupying Morocco at the time forced Mohammed V and his family into exile on Corsica. His first cousin once removed, Mohammed Ben Aarafa, was placed on the throne. Mohammed V and his family were then transferred to Madagascar in January 1954. Mohammed V returned from exile on 16 November 1955, and was again recognized as Sultan after active opposition to the French protectorate. In February 1956 he successfully negotiated with France and Spain for the independence of Morocco, and in 1957 took the title of King.

In late 1955, in the middle of what came to be known as the Revolution of the King and the People, Sultan Mohammed V successfully negotiated the gradual restoration of Moroccan independence within a framework of French-Moroccan interdependence. The sultan agreed to institute reforms that would transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. Further negotiations for full independence culminated in the French-Moroccan Agreement signed in Paris on March 2, 1956.

On April 7, 1956, France officially relinquished its protectorate in Morocco.

In the months that followed independence, Mohammed V proceeded to build a modern governmental structure under a constitutional monarchy in which the sultan would exercise an active political role. He acted cautiously, intent on preventing the Istiqlal from consolidating its control and establishing a one-party state. He assumed the monarchy in 1957.

Upon the death of Mohammed V, Hassan II became King of Morocco on 3 March 1961. Morocco held its first general elections in 1963. However, Hassan declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament in 1965. In 1971, there was a failed attempt to depose the king and establish a republic. A truth commission set up in 2005 to investigate human rights abuses during his reign confirmed nearly 10,000 cases, ranging from death in detention to forced exile. Some 592 people were recorded killed during Hassan’s rule according to the truth commission.

 

Political reforms in the 1990s resulted in the establishment of a bicameral legislature in 1997 and Morocco’s first opposition-led government came to power in 1998.

With the death of King Hassan II of Morocco in 1999, the more liberal Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed took the throne, assuming the title Mohammed VI. He enacted successive reforms to modernize Morocco, and human-rights record of the country improved. One of the new king’s first acts was to free approximately 8,000 political prisoners held by his father, King Hassan II, and reduce the sentences of another 30,000. He also established a commission to compensate families of missing political activists and others subjected to arbitrary detention.

Morocco was an authoritarian regime according to the Democracy Index of 2014. The Freedom of the Press 2014 report gave it a rating of “Not Free.” This has improved since, however, and in 2017, Morocco was upgraded to being a “hybrid regime” according to the Democracy Index in 2017 and the Freedom of the Press report in 2017 found that Morocco was “partially free.”

Moroccan authorities continue to restrict the rights to peaceful expression, association and assembly through several laws. The authorities continue to prosecute both printed and online media which criticizes the government or the king. Homosexual acts are illegal in Morocco, and can be punishable by 6 months to 3 years of imprisonment. It is illegal to proselytize for any religion other than Islam, punishable by a maximum of 15 years of imprisonment.

On the other hand, tourism in Morocco is well developed, with a strong tourist industry focused on the country’s coast, culture, and history, welcoming 12.3 million tourists to a country of 36 million in 2018. Morocco has been one of the most politically stable countries in North Africa, which has allowed tourism to develop. Tourism is considered as one of the main foreign exchange sources in Morocco and since 2013 it had the highest number of arrivals out of any African country.

The country’s attractions can be divided into several regions:

  • The four Imperial cities — the four historical capital cities of Morocco: Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat, offering fantastic opportunities to learn about Berber history and culture
  • Casablanca — Morocco’s largest city; home of the Hassan II Mosque, which has the world’s tallest minaret at 656 feet
  • Tangier and the surrounding area, including the blue city, Chefchaouen
  • Ouarzazate — a noted film-making location; the fortified village (ksar) of Ait Benhaddou, which lies on the edge of the Sahara and was an important stop on the caravan trade
  • Essaouira, Agadir, and their beautiful Atlantic beaches
  • Fes – Morocco’s second largest city and it is the science and spiritual capital of Morocco, containing a medina, or old city, which is considered as the biggest area in the world where vehicles can’t get in. It is also the home of “Al Qarawyien” the world’s oldest university.

This article was adapted in part from:

  1. History of Morocco
  2. Morocco

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