Morocco has been a crossroads of trade, culture, and religion for millennia. Its heritage is rich in complexity and seeming contradiction, evident from its cuisine to its arts to its inhabitants’ style of dress. Other countries and destinations are certainly crossroads, themselves, too, so what is it about Morocco that sets it apart? What is it about this country that begets an inherent tolerance for all comers and their own customs? The answer, as with all answers, lies in its past.
So who were the original inhabitants of Morocco? Though rock carvings in the south support the theory of Neanderthal man some 50 thousand years ago, and theories about separate races of Neolithic peoples exist, permanent settlement had been established in north Africa by 12th century BC, when the Phoenicians began to set up trading posts there. The Phoenicians remained until the fall of Carthage in 146 BC, and Rome dominated the area until AD 429, founding outposts in Tangier, Lixus, and Volubilis, among others. Hot on the heels of Roman rule came the Vandals, followed by the Byzantines. It wasn’t until the 7th century, however, that a force powerful enough to sustain lasting reign would come.
In Arabia, the teachings of a man named Mohammed were spreading quickly, especially westward. Sidi Okba ibn Nafi was the first to bring the Islamic faith to “El Maghreb al Aksa” (“the Land Farthest West,”) in 684. Although he made no attempt to rule, he managed to pass the faith on to the infamously resistant indigenous people, the Azilah, called Berbers by the proceeding Romans. In 711, these people comprised an army that conquered most of the Iberian peninsula in the name of their new faith, and maintained its hold of the region for the next 700 years.
In Arabia, the teachings of a man named Mohammed were spreading quickly, especially westward.
In the 780’s, an Arab noble named Moulay Idriss fled to Morocco to escape persecution in Arabia. Impressed by his devoutness, the Berbers chose him as their leader, thus creating the first official Moroccan dynasty. Idriss founded the city of Fes, and was survived by his son, who ruled over a stable state encompassing all northern Morocco until 829.
At this time, southern and central Berber tribes began to spread northward and dominate the north. Known as the Almoravids, they established Marrakech as their capital in 1062 and united Morocco from modern-day Senegal to northern Spain. Their rule was short-lived, however, and another Berber dynasty, a conservative group called the Almohads rose to power in 1147. They spread their empire to the largest proportions ever in Moroccan history, extending as far east as Tripoli, and is considered by many as Morocco’s “Golden Age.”
In the early part of the 13th century, as Jews and Muslims alike began to pour into Morocco to escape the Spanish Inquisition, a nomadic Berber tribe from the Sahara, the Beni Merin, began to seize power of the empire. When they took Fes in August of 1248, the Mernid Dynasty officially began. Under the guidance of Abou el Hassan, the “Black Sultan,” the empire was reorganized and many Koranic schools, called medressas were founded. Albeit their presence held firm in North Africa, no footholds were ever to be regained in Spain. Under the rule of the Black Sultan’s son, Abou Inan, the lands of present-day Algeria and Tunisia were lost. By the beginning of the 15th century, Europe began to infiltrate.
The Portuguese had established many outposts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, and t was the Arab tribe of Beni Saad that drove them out in the early and mid 16th century. Despite the efforts of Portugal’s King Sebastian, the Saadians held their ground — and their rule. Their leader Ahmed sent a ragtag army south to the Niger River to exploit its resources. An era of riches and slavery followed until the 1660’s.
Moulay Ismail entered Morocco’s history at this time, beginning the Alouite dynasty that exists today. He set the town of Meknes as his capitol, plundering marble from the ruins of nearby Volubilis to furnish it. Ismail unified the disparate tribes of Morocco, through bloody brute force, ousting most of the Spanish and Portuguese from their coastal holds. By the end of the reign, Morocco was stable and independent, but became chaotic again after his death in 1727. Successive leaders continues the struggle for unity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was during this time Europe’s eyes began to notice the advantages of Morocco’s location.
By the early 1900’s, France had negotiated land deals with Spain, Italy, Britain, and other contending nations to become the overwhelming European influence in Morocco. In 1912, the country became a French protectorate, with the port city of Tangier deemed an international zone. Marshal Lyautey, established as the French Resident-General, respected Moroccan culture and recognized the need to preserve it. None of the cities were torn down to be re-constructed, and the country’s youth were encouraged to participate in Morocco’s “modernization,” which included building roads and expanding the port city of Casablanca. In spite of this, there occurred countless rebellions against the French presence, which brought with it not only progress and infrastructure, but also French settlers and a heavy bureaucracy. In 1944, as thousands of refuges sought shelter in morocco from Hitler’s persecution, the Istiqlal party issued a manifesto to the French demanding independence. The reigning Moroccan sultan, Mohamed V, sided so strongly with the nationalists that he was deported to Madagascar in 1953. This only doubled their efforts for independence by the Moroccan people. In 1955, Paris allowed his return, and full independence was granted the following year.
Marshal Lyautey, established as the French Resident-General, respected Moroccan culture and recognized the need to preserve it.
Mohamed V was a strong and moderate leader who understood the importance the French influence still held on the country, and so the transition from protectorate to independent nation was a gradual and deliberate one. Under his rule, Morocco joined the Arab League, the Organization of African Unions, and established good relations with France and Spain. When Mohamed V died in 1961, his son Hassan II succeeded him. During his reign, Morocco’s first and second constitution were proposed, accepted, and reformed, and a parliament was established in 1963. Nonetheless, a state of emergency was declared in 1965 after numerous riots throughout the country occurred, and Hassan II declared himself Prime Minster until 1970. Relations with France cooled at this time, but began anew after the death of Charles de Gaulle, and amity was also established with Algeria and Mauritania shortly thereafter.
In 1975, conflict arose when Spain declared it was granting Western Sahara, its occupied land south of Morocco, autonomous independence. Claiming that the tribes of the sparsely populated area had paid allegiance to Moroccan monarchs in the past, Hassan II organized 350,000 troops to march into the desert region and camp for 3 days; at such time, they marched back to Morocco, their mission, thereafter called the “Green March,” declared a success. Ambiguity over this region exists still today in international quarters, but any Moroccan will tell you there is no Western Sahara — only a unified Morocco.
Following the death of Hassan II in 1999, his son Mohamed VI took the throne, and raised some eyebrows in the process. Sacking cabinet members with doubtful reputations and promising reform in almost every arena of Moroccan society, the young king has been working ever since to make good on those promises. Political prisoners have been freed, centers for human rights training and information opened in the capitol, and many reforms concerning women’s rights are on the current agenda.
The Moroccan people are extremely adaptive, as their history has made them so. The winds of change are always blowing their way across the Maghreb, and while many customs of daily life are still practiced in the same way they have been for centuries, the Moroccan people will continue to make room for progress, and for change.
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