Information on Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

This page is meant to be viewed by students who have already completed the activity Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art.

The art of the Upper Paleolithic represents the oldest form of prehistoric art. Figurative art is present in Europe as well as in Sulawesi, Indonesia, beginning at least 35,000 years ago. Non-figurative cave paintings, consisting of hand stencils and simple geometric shapes, is at least 40,000 years old.

According to a 2018 study based on uranium-thorium dating, the oldest examples of Iberian cave art were made as early as 64,000 years ago, implying Neanderthal authorship, which would qualify as art of the Middle Paleolithic.

The emergence of figurative art has been interpreted as reflecting the emergence of full behavioral modernity, and is part of the defining characteristics separating the Upper Paleolithic from the Middle Paleolithic. The discovery of cave art of comparable age to the oldest European samples in Indonesia has established that similar artistic traditions existed both in eastern and in western Eurasia at 40,000 years ago. This has been taken to suggest that such an artistic tradition must in fact date to more than 50,000 years ago, and would have been spread along the southern coast of Eurasia in the original coastal migration movement. It is important to note that most of the art of this period is expected to have been lost, as it was submerged in the early Holocene sea level rise.

Niaux
A. Grotte de Niaux.

This painting of a bison hunt is between 17,000 and 11,000 years old, dating from at the latest 9000 BCE.  It is located deep inside a cave in southern France known as Niaux, meaning that ancient humans would have needed to carry lit torches to reach this site.

A scholar has described this giant artwork, saying: “The predominating animal is the bison, represented in the upper part of the panel. The bison standing out in the left central part is usually catalogued as a female, due to the shapes presented, such as the scarcely prominent hump. By contrast and in opposition to this is the male, found on the right-hand side and showing a more prominent hump.

The lower part of the wall represents several horses which, with painted hair, represent a member of the equine family with a great amount of hair, the Przewalski. The bestiary is finished off with two goats.”

Laas_Geel
B. Laas Geel.

Laas Geel are cave formations on the rural outskirts of Hargeisa, Somaliland (situated in the Woqooyi Galbeed region of the self-declared but internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland). They contain some of the earliest known cave paintings in the Horn of Africa. Laas Geel’s rock art is estimated to date to somewhere between 9,000 and 3,000 years BCE.

Laas Geel rock – the paleolithic art is preserved under the pronounced overhang near the top of the formation.

Although the Laas Geel rock art had been known to the area’s inhabitants for centuries, its existence only came to international attention after the 2002 discovery.

The Laas Geel cave paintings are thought to be some of the most vivid rock art in Africa. Among other things, they depict cattle in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans, who are believed to have been inhabitants of the region. The necks of the cattle are embellished with a kind of plastron. Some of the cattle are also portrayed wearing decorative robes. Besides long-horned cattle, the rock art also shows an image of a domesticated dog, several paintings of Canidae as well as a giraffe. The site is excellently preserved due to the location of the paintings which are covered by the granite overhangs.

CuevaManos
C. Cueva de las Manos.

Cueva de las Manos is located in modern day Argentina. The art in the cave dates to between 11,000–7,000 BCE.

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Canyon at the Pinturas River, view from the caves.

The images of hands are negative painted, that is, stencilled. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand or they put the back of their right hand to the wall and held the spraying pipe with their left hand.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave, then discarded thousands of years ago on the cave floor.

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D. Venus of Willendorf.

The Venus of Willendorf is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. It was found on August 7, 1908 at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Austria. It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area – meaning that it was probably traded for with people who lived far away – and tinted with red ochre.

Similar sculptures, first discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are traditionally referred to in archaeology as “Venus figurines,” due to the widely-held belief that depictions of nude women with exaggerated sexual features represented an early fertility fetish, perhaps a mother goddess – an item with supernatural powers that  could help a man and woman conceive a child. The reference to Venus is metaphorical, since the figurines predate the mythological figure of Venus by many thousands of years.

800px-Willendorf-Venus-1468Like other similar sculptures, it probably never had feet, and would not have stood on its own, although it might have been pegged into soft ground. Parts of the body associated with fertility and childbearing have been emphasized, leading researchers to believe that the Venus of Willendorf may have been used as a fertility fetish. The figure has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair, or perhaps a type of headdress.

Other scholars hypothesize that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits by women. This theory stems from the correlation of the proportions of the statues to how the proportions of women’s bodies would seem if they were looking down at themselves, which would have been the only way to view their bodies during this period. They speculate that the complete lack of facial features could be accounted for by the fact that sculptors did not own mirrors. This reasoning has been criticized by still others, who note that water pools and puddles would have been readily-available natural mirrors for Paleolithic humans.

Bradshaw_rock_paintings
E. Bradshaw Rock.

Bradshaw rock art or Gwion Gwion art is found in the northwest Kimberley region of Western Australia.  This particular piece is referred to by modern archeologists as tassel figures: identified by their characteristic tassels hanging from their arms and waists, various other accessories can be recognised, such as arm bands, conical headdresses and sometimes, boomerangs.

The Bradshaws are not the regions’ earliest paintings. The earlier art consists of crude animal drawings that are believed to be up to 40,000 years old. The Bradshaws have nothing in common with this earlier art and is dated between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago.

The height of the art is variable; most are between 40 and 50 cm in length with some examples up to 2 metres in height.

Artistically, Bradshaws are unusually advanced both in technique and style. Image processing has revealed that the outline of the Bradshaw figures are often painted first, then filled in. Engraving in the rock often follows the outlines of figures and may have served as a preliminary sketch which implies planning. Some faces of the figures are painted with anatomically correct features with enough detail to be considered portraits. Due to the fine detail and control found in the images, such as strands of hair painted in 1-2mm thicknesses, it has been suggested that feather quills may have been used as a technique to apply the paint to the rock walls; an imprint of a feather found at one site may support this possibility. No evidence has yet been found of any corrections or changes in composition during or after painting, while evidence of restoration has been found. In a detailed study of 66 Bradshaw panels, approximately 9% of the Bradshaw images have clearly been vandalized. Some were scratched with stones, some damaged by thrown stones, and some have been broken by hammering with large rocks.

What art will you leave behind as a testament to your presence on Earth?  Create your own piece of “rock art” – though please don’t paint it on the classroom wall – depicting the important things in your life.
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What Is It That Makes Humans Unique? Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Culture

Aside from our genes, what makes humans different from other animals?

Humans (Homo sapiens) are the only extant members of the subtribe Hominina. Together with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, they are part of the family Hominidae (the great apes, or hominids). A terrestrial animal, humans are characterized by their erect posture and bipedal locomotion; high manual dexterity and heavy tool use compared to other animals; open-ended and complex language use compared to other animal communications; larger, more complex brains than other animals; and highly advanced and organized societies.

Human-Family-TreeEarly hominins—particularly the australopithecines, whose brains and anatomy are in many ways more similar to ancestral non-human apes—are less often referred to as “human” than hominins of the genus Homo.[5] Several of these hominins used fire, occupied much of Eurasia, and gave rise to anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa about 315,000[6] years ago. Humans began to exhibit evidence of behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago, and in several waves of migration, they ventured out of Africa and populated most of the world.

The spread of the large and increasing population of humans has profoundly affected much of the biosphere and millions of species worldwide. Advantages that explain this evolutionary success include a larger brain with a well-developed neocortex, prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes, which enable advanced abstract reasoning, language, problem solving, sociality, and culture through social learning. Humans use tools more frequently and effectively than any other animal; and are the only extant species to build fires, cook food, clothe themselves, and create and use numerous other technologies and arts.

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The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in the cultural aspect of human evolution. Fire provided a source of warmth, protection, improvement on hunting, and a method for cooking food, which allows humans to digest food for efficiently. These cultural advancements allowed for human geographic dispersal, cultural innovations, and changes to diet and behavior. Additionally, creating fire allowed the expansion of human activity to proceed into the dark and colder hours of the evening.

Humans uniquely use such systems of symbolic communication as language and art to express themselves and exchange ideas, and also organize themselves into purposeful groups. Humans create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families and kinship networks to political states. Social interactions between humans have established an extremely wide variety of values, social norms, and rituals, which together undergird human society. Curiosity and the human desire to understand and influence the environment and to explain and manipulate phenomena (or events) have motivated humanity’s development of science, philosophy, mythology, religion, anthropology, and numerous other fields of knowledge.

Homo_heidelbergensis_adult_male_-_head_model_-_Smithsonian_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_2012-05-17
Modern reconstruction of what a Neanderthal probably looked like in real life. In a sense, this species of human went extinct about 40,000 years ago – after living side-by-side with Homo Sapiens for tens of thousands of years. In another very real sense, they haven’t gone anywhere – if you have European ancestry, you likely carry Neanderthal DNA.

Though most of human existence has been sustained by hunting and gathering in band societies, increasingly many human societies transitioned to sedentary agriculture approximately some 10,000 years ago, domesticating plants and animals, thus enabling the growth of civilization. These human societies subsequently expanded, establishing various forms of government, religion, and culture around the world, and unifying people within regions to form states and empires. The rapid advancement of scientific and medical understanding in the 19th and 20th centuries permitted the development of fuel-driven technologies and increased lifespans, causing the human population to rise exponentially. The global human population was estimated to be near 7.7 billion in 2019.

Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

Humans have been producing art works for at least seventy-three thousand years.

Look at the following art, which dates back to the Paleolithic Age – the Old Stone Age, before humans discovered how to farm.  For each piece, respond to the following:

  1. Describe what you see with your eyes (figures, colors, size, etc)
  2. Offer an interpretation – What was this artist trying to communicate?/What was the purpose of this art?
  3. What can we learn about this artist’s way of life from this art?
  4. What modern artwork or form of expression does this ancient piece remind you of, and why?

 

 

What art will you leave behind as a testament to your presence on Earth?  Create your own piece of “rock art” – though please don’t paint it on the classroom wall – depicting the important things in your life.

More information about each piece can be found here.

Morocco: The Western Kingdom

LESSON PLANS

  • A Basic History of Morocco (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): A brief overview of the geography, culture, and history of Morocco.
  • The Berbers: A Free and Noble People (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who are the Berber, and what makes them a distinct and special people?
  • The Sahara, Camel, and the Caravan Trade (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Highlighting the role of the caravan trade in Morocco’s ancient economy.  That trade was made possible in large part by the camel, which allowed Berber, Arab, and sub-Saharan peoples to traverse the harsh Sahara desert, moving trade goods, and establishing religious and cultural connections where none could otherwise exist.
  • Fes: Center of Moroccan Empire and Culture (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): The first capital of a united Morocco has been a dynamic player in culture, education, and the economy of North Africa for more than a thousand years.
  • The Medina: Sustainable Cities of the Ancient World (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Examining the characteristics of a traditional medina, and evaluating those traits as a possible template for a more walkable, communal, sustainable future.
  • Chefchaouen and the Moroccan Quest for Independence (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Exploring Morocco’s experiences as an imperial power – and as the subject of imperial power from abroad.  This history has shaped a distinctive culture at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, European, and African worlds.

Background on Islam, the dominant religion in Morocco:

  • Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who was Muhammad, and how did the Arab world of the seventh century shape his teachings?  
  • Five Pillars to Hold Me Up: What Do Muslims Believe? (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): What are the basic teachings of Islam, and what does it mean to be a Muslim?

THIS UNIT WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

The Medina: Sustainable City of the Ancient World

This lesson was reported from:

For Your Consideration:
  1. What is a medina?
  2. This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
  3. Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this?  Would you live in one?
  4. Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water.

A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة‎ al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct city section found in a number of North African cities, including in Morocco. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة‎ madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.

Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical fountains, palaces, public squares, mosques, and churches.

The Medina of Chefchaouen.
The medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco – densely clustered, multipurpose buildings, many of which are both homes and businesses. (Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2019.)

Because of their very narrow streets, medinas are generally free from car traffic, and in some cases even motorcycle and bicycle traffic. The streets can be less than a metre wide. This makes them unique among highly populated urban centres. The Medina of Fes, or Fes el Bali, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.

Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most medinas in Morocco today look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years ago. The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand – no trucks or cars can penetrate, so most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow. Furniture and modern appliances are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, and down a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house. 

Don’t think of a city like this as “backward” – think of it as a template for a life many in our modern times have forgotten… But which many of us are trying to rediscover.  What appear to be drawbacks at first glance, described another way, are what many Americans and Europeans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.

It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.  

It is communal – there are basically no police present, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, clean water can be found at most major intersections.  Same with mosques, which, in addition to the square full of small shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives. 

Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.

The narrow streets, paved with stone, between high mud-walled homes are many degrees cooler than the open air outside the medina, meaning that while most who live within don’t have air conditioning, they don’t really need it either.

Without glamorizing the social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas, there is a good reason that this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times, while the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old – but are killing the people who live there via social isolation, urban sprawl, excess carbon emissions, and water wasted irrigating green lawns.  

Which is really the ideal here? Can we learn something from our human past?

It’s not backward if it offers answers to questions of sustainability and community that so many in countries like the United States are trying in vain and at great cost to reinvent.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Medina Quarter

The Berbers: A Free and Noble People

This lesson was reported from:

For Your Consideration:
  1. Who are the Berber? Briefly describe their culture.
  2. What do Berbers call themselves, and what does it mean in English?
  3. Write your name in the Berber alphabet.
  4. An anthropologist is someone who examines culture, artifacts, religion, language, lifestyles, and traditions to describe and understand a group of people, either from the present or the past. How would an anthropologist describe your community’s culture and history?

The main ethnic group inhabiting the Maghreb – which literally means “the west” in Arabic, and includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – are known as the Berber people. They and their ancestors have inhabited North Africa for more than 10,000 years, and possess a rich history and culture shaped by the varied geography of the area, as well as by their interactions with other groups, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French.

The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, which means free or noble people in their own language. It is a fitting descriptor.

Historically, the Berbers have been successful in trade, navigating the harsh conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains, linking Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean world when other groups struggled to do so.  In ancient times, this wealth – as well as Berber prowess on horseback meant that groups such as the Carthaginians were paying them tribute in North Africa.

Unlike the conquests of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have extensive and long-lasting effects on the Maghreb. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of Berber society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political traditions influenced by the Arab world.

Almohad_Expansion
The Almohad Empire, a Berber empire based in Morocco that lasted from 1121 to 1269.

Traditionally, Berber men take care of livestock such as sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels. Families migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter with the changing seasons. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton, and plants used for dyeing.  For their part, women look after the family and produce handicrafts like clothing, rugs, or blankets – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in local souqs, or markets. While many Berber still live according to these patterns, many more no longer follow these traditional patterns – they now have jobs, homes, and lifestyles similar to any of those found in your country.

The traditional social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe through a generally democratic process. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern. The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe.

beber tea
Berber hospitality centers on a sweet mint tea, offered upon the arrival of guests. Refusal of this offer is considered to be quite rude – take the tea! Let it cool! Have a sip!
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The Berber are known for creating beautiful, artist front doors for their homes, featuring striking patterns, carvings, metal work, and sometimes bright colors.

Imazighen (Berber) cuisine draws influence and flavors from distinct regions across North Africa and the Mediterranean world.

Principal Berber foods include:

  • Couscous, a staple dish made from a grain called semolina
  • Tajine, a stew made in various forms
  • Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with squab (fledgling pigeon) often today using chicken

Writing in 1377, the scholar Ibn Khaldun offered a general description of the Berber that applies nearly as well in the twenty-first century:

“As for [their] moral virtues, one can cite: respect for one’s neighbours; the protection of guests; the observance of obligations and commitments; faithful adherence to promises and treaties; resolve in misfortune; indulgence towards the failings of others; renouncement of vengeance; kindness to the unfortunate; respect for the elderly; veneration for men of science; hatred of oppression; resolve before states; determination to win in matters of power; devotion to God in matters of religion.”

Indeed, nearly eight hundred years later the anthropologist Ahmed Skounti echoed these sentiments:

“The Imazighen (singular Amazigh) also known as the Berbers are among the original peoples of North Africa. Their myths, legends and history span 9,000 years, back to the Proto-Mediterraneans. They have achieved unity by keeping up their unique language and culture which are, like their land, both African and Mediterranean.
The Berbers of Morocco share this duality, reflecting the diversity of their nature and stormy history. Through contact with other peoples of the Mediterranean, they created kingdoms but also vast territories organised into powerful, democratic, war-mongering, tribal communities. Both aspects of this social political organisation have left a mark on recent historical events and the two millenia of the country’s history. As opposed to the pagan Mediterranean kingdoms of Antiquity, Berber empires developed inland and were Muslim. Judaism continued to be practiced, and the Sunni Islam majority gradually took
on a Berber hue with its brotherhoods, zaouias, marabouts. and rituals.
The roots of the Berber culture go deep down into Morocco’s proto-history. They are illustrated by a strong link with their land, a sense of community, hospitality sharing food and a specific relationship with spirituality. Its openness to many influences whether Mediterranean, African, Oriental, European or international have defined its current characteristics.
The Berber language, an Afro-Asian idiom, is the melting pot of the history and culture of the country. It has outlived most languages of Antiquity such as Ancient Greek, Phoenician, Latin and Egyptian. It used to be written but is now mainly oral. Though there are fewer now that can speak it, the language is nevertheless still used by a substantial number of Moroccans.”

 

Berber Writing

berber writing arabic french
French and Arabic are the dominant languages for many Berber today, as evinced by this street art in Essaouira, Morocco, but Berbers also have their own traditional language that is distinct from either.
berber script
The Berber alphabet has ancient roots.  It is more properly called tifinagh.

The unique Berber alphabet is called tifinagh. Like the Berbers themselves, the writing has been attributed in turn to having Egyptian, Greek, Phoeno-Punic or South-Arabic origins, though none of these theories is definitive. Other research points toward the indigenous origins of Berber writing, linking it closely to cave art. The undecoded signs and symbols that accompany the depiction of humans, animals, weapons and ritual or combat scenes create a sort of visual vocabulary which may have later developed into the writing system.

Historically, Berber writing had limited uses, primarily in memorials and commemorative stone carvings. It was largely replaced by Arabic around the fifth or sixth centuries, and later by French in the twentieth century. Berber was originally written vertically from top to bottom, but today is oriented from right to left, like Arabic. The alphabet is composed of a distinctive geometric written form, in which 33 characters are created from three basic shapes: the circle, the line, and the dot.

This ancient alphabet serves as the basis for the formation of the modern tifinagh alphabet adopted since 2003 by Morocco in order to write the Berber language.

berber symbol
The yaz (ⵣ) symbolizes the “free man”, which is the meaning of the Berber word Imazighen, the Berbers’ own name for themselves. It can be seen here in graffiti, but also in more formal decorative settings, and in a flag that symbolizes Berber pride and culture.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

(Information on the Berber alphabet was adapted from the work of Aline Star, anthropologist at the Institut National des Sciences de L’Archéologie et du Patrimoine. Rabat)

Fes: Imperial City the Center of Trade

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For Your Consideration:
  1. What is barakah?  How did Idris I demonstrate it?
  2. Idris and the wealthy elite of ancient Fes filled the city with fountains, madrasas (schools), library, the world’s first university, and community ovens for baking bread. They also built strong walls and thick gates to protect the residents of Fez – and traveling merchants spending the night. What kind of services and amenities does your city government provide for you?  Did the people of Fes get better or worse care than you do?
  3. How similar are the classes described at University of al-Qarawiyyin to those conducted in your school? Compare and contrast these two educational institutions.
  4. The prosperous economy of Fes was based on its position along the trade routes linking sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean world. What is the economy of your town based on?  Provide specific industries, companies, dollar values, percentages, and numbers of people if you can. Do these industries make your town relatively wealthy, while employing a large number of people?  How does the unemployment rate in your town compare that of the rest of your country?

Fes is the ancient capital of the first unified Moroccan state, founded in 803 CE when Idris I, the great-great-great grandson of Muhammad the Prophet, subdued local Berber tribes.

Idris I was a refugee of sorts – a member of the ruling class of the largest Arab empire based in Baghdad. A successful rebellion led to the death of his brothers, and he fled west, across the harsh Sahara to the land known as the Maghreb – today`s Morocco. There, he settled near the ruins of Roman Volubilis, where he was welcomed by the local Berber tribe – many of whom had converted to Islam after the religion was carried alongside gold, spices, and ivory in the trans-Saharan trade.

trade routesMoroccans, like many Muslims, look for a leader who has a quality they call barakah – blessed by God. This quality can be demonstrated in many ways – the leader brings prosperity to the country, he leads the army to great victories, a drought ends on his watch. It must have seemed miraculous to these Berbers, living at an unremarkable juncture on the Saharan trade routes that a descendant of the Prophet had come to live among them, and before long he was their leader, further demonstrating his barakah by conquering many neighboring Berber tribes and founding the Idrisid Dynasty, the first great Moroccan-based empire, with Fes as its capital.

As these thing go, this success ruined his hiding spot. The Arab rebels – known as the Abbasids – who had killed his family and sent him into hiding, eventually had Idris I assassinated, too.

His son, Idris II attained even greater success in unifying the Maghreb. Fes was an important part of this success, as it occupies a pass in the Rif Mountains – guarding a main trade route between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Coast. Placing his capital at Fes meant that Idris could wield economic as well as military power over his people at their neighbors. He could tax goods as they moved through Fes’s many markets and funduqs. He could use this revenue to fund massive unlicensed works – fountains to provide beauty and freshwater to the city’s residents, for example, or communal ovens and local schools. Fes’s residents were merchants and innkeepers who prospered on his watch. In short, the quality of life for the average Berber under Idris I and II was pretty good. This is the epitome of barakah – which flows from God to those that are closest to God, such as saints and prophets. Those that have received barakah are thought to have the abilities to perform miracles (karamat) – in the case of a king, this could mean bringing peace and prosperity, good harvests, and good health to his people.

While it is not exactly the same thing, barakah could loosely be compared to what Enlightenment thinkers in Europe might have called “the social contract.” If the people of a kingdom are happy and safe, they will accept the rule of their emir. Idris could exercise all of this “soft power” before ever ordering a single act of violence or repression by his great army – and why would he ever need to do anything by force when life for his subjects was so good?

Fes became the center of culture and learning in the Maghreb. While most Europeans of the time were living in what a previous generation of historians called “The Dark Ages,” in Fes, the world’s oldest functioning university – University of al-Qarawiyyin – began operation in 859 CE.

library
Al Quaraouiyine was founded with an associated madrasa, in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Mohammed Al-Fihri. Fatima and her sister Mariam, both of whom were well educated, inherited a large amount of money from their father. Fatima vowed to spend her entire inheritance improving the quality of life for her community.

As it has for over 1100 years, education at Al Quaraouiyine University concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in, Classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Islamic law, although a few lessons on other non-Islamic subjects such as French, English are also offered to students. Teaching is delivered in the traditional method, in which students are seated in a semi-circle (halqa) around a sheikh, who prompts them to read sections of a particular text, asks them questions on particular points of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points. Students from all over Morocco and Islamic West Africa attend the Qarawiyyin, although a few might come from as far afield as Muslim Central Asia. Even Spanish Muslim converts frequently attend the institution, largely attracted by the fact that the sheikhs of the Qarawiyyin, and Islamic scholarship in Morocco in general, are heirs to the rich religious and scholarly heritage of Muslim al-Andalus.

Most students at the Qarawiyyin range from between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degrees, although Muslims with a sufficiently high level of Arabic are also able to attend lecture circles on an informal basis, given the traditional category of “visitors in search of knowledge.”

After the reign of Idris II, the dynasty began to fracture. Royal brother fought royal brother for control of the empire. They would eventually be conquered by a new dynasty arising in the south of Morocco, but the owing to its status as a center of trade and learning, the glory of Fes would not really fade.

Fes remains perhaps the greatest symbol of Morocco, a country at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean, reflected in the cosmopolitan flavor of a city founded by an Arab ruler leading a pan-Berber empire, accepting immigrants from as far afield as modern Spain, and protecting the diversity of Jews and Christians who have long called the city home.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

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