Morocco is an old nation. The current king, Mohammed VI, is part
of the Alawite dynasty that has ruled the country since the 17th
century. Before that, empires and invaders left their mark, from
the Romans to the Arabs who brought Islam and made Morocco
what it is today. Its ties across the Mediterranean to Europe and
across the Sahara to the rest of Africa have given rise to a unique
nation with a singular history.
The Berbers meet the Romans
Morocco’s earliest inhabitants were ancestors of Morocco’s Amazigh (plural
Imazighen, loosely translated as ‘free people’), who may have been distant
cousins of the ancient Egyptians. They were joined by Mediterranean anglers
and Saharan horse-breeders around 2500 BC, with Phoenicians showing up
fashionably late around 800 BC and East Africans around 500 BC.
When the Romans arrived in the 4th century, they didn’t know quite what
to make of this multicultural milieu. The Romans called the expanse of
Morocco and Western Algeria ‘Mauretania’ and the indigenous people
‘Berbers’, meaning ‘barbarians’. The term has recently been reclaimed and
redeemed by the Berber Pride movement, but at the time it was taken as quite
The ensuing centuries were one long lesson for the Romans in minding
their manners. First the Berbers backed Hannibal and the Carthaginians
against Rome in a protracted spat over Sicily known as the Punic Wars (264–
202 BC). Fed up with the persistently unruly Berbers, the new Roman
Emperor Caligula finally declared the end of Berber autonomy in the
Maghreb (northwest Africa) in AD 40.
Defying Orders under Roman Noses
True to his ruthless reputation, Caligula divided relatively egalitarian Berber
clans into subservient classes of slaves, peasants, soldiers and Romanised
aristocrats. This strategy worked with Vandals and Byzantines, but Berbers in
the Rif and the Atlas drove out the Romans with a campaign of harassment
and flagrant disregard for Roman rules. Many Berbers refused to worship
Roman gods, and some practised the new renegade religion of Christianity in
open defiance of Roman rule. Christianity took root across North Africa; St
Augustine himself was a Berber convert.
Ultimately Rome was only able to gain a sure foothold in the region by
crowning local favourite Juba II king of Mauretania. The enterprising young
king married the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, supported
scientific research and performing arts, and helped foster Moroccan industries
still vital today: olive-oil production from the region of Volubilis (near
Meknès), fishing along the coasts, and vineyards on the Atlantic plains.
The Roman foothold in Mauretania slipped in the centuries after Juba II
died, due to increasingly organised Berber rebellions inland and attacks on
the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts by the Vandals, Byzantines and
Visigoths. But this new crop of marauding Europeans couldn’t manage
Mauretania, and neither could Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Justinian’s
attempt to extend his Holy Roman Empire turned out to be an unholy mess of
treaties with various Berber kingdoms, who played their imperial Byzantine
connections like face cards in high-stakes games. The history of Morocco
would be defined by such strategic gamesmanship among the Berbers, whose
savvy, competing alliances helped make foreign dominion over Morocco a
near-impossible enterprise for more than a millennium.
Islam Arrives in Morocco
By the early 7th century, the Berbers of Morocco were mostly worshipping
their own indigenous deities, alongside Jewish Berbers and a smattering of
local Christian converts. History might have continued thus, but for a middleaged
man thousands of miles away who’d had the good fortune to marry a
wealthy widow, and yet found himself increasingly at odds with the elites of
his Arabian Peninsula town of Mecca. Mohammed bin Abu Talib was his
given name, but he would soon be recognised as the Prophet Mohammed for
his revelation that there was only one God, and that believers shared a
common duty to submit to God’s will. The polytheist ruling class of Mecca
did not take kindly to this new religion, which assigned them shared
responsibilities and took away their minor-deity status, and kicked the
Prophet out of town on 16 July AD 622.
This Hejira (exile) only served to spread the Prophet Mohammed’s
message more widely. By the Prophet’s death in 632, Arab caliphs – religious
leaders inspired and emboldened by his teachings – were carrying Islam east
to Central Asia and west to North Africa. But infighting limited their reach in
North Africa, and it took Umayyad Arab leader Uqba bin Nafi until 682 to
reach the Atlantic shores of Morocco. According to legend, Uqba announced
he would charge into the ocean, if God would only give him the signal. But
the legendary Algerian Berber warrior Queen Al-Kahina would have none of
Uqba’s grandstanding, and with her warriors soon forced Uqba to retreat
back to Tunisia.
Although an armed force failed to win the Berbers over to Islam, force of
conviction gradually began to succeed. The egalitarian premise of Islam and
its emphasis on duty, courage and the greater good were compatible with
many Berber beliefs, including clan loyalty broadly defined to include almost
anyone descended from the Berber equivalent of Adam and Eve. Many
Berbers willingly converted to Islam – and not incidentally, reaped the
benefits of Umayyad overland trading routes that brought business their way.
So although Uqba was killed by his Berber foes before he was able to
establish a solid base in Morocco, by the 8th century his successors were able
to pull off this feat largely through diplomatic means.
From Marrakesh to Barcelona; the Ultimate Power Couple
After Yahya was killed and Abu Bakr was recalled to the Sahara to settle
Sanhaja disputes in 1061, their cousin Youssef ben Tachfine was left to run
military operations from a campsite that would become Marrakesh the
magnificent. To spare his wife the hardships of life in the Sahara, Abu Bakr
divorced brilliant Berber heiress Zeinab en-Nafzawiyyat and arranged her
remarriage to his cousin. Though an odd romantic gesture by today’s
standards, it was an inspired match. It would be Zeinab’s third marriage:
before marrying Abu Bakr, she was the widow of one of the leading citizens
of Aghmat, and had considerable fortune and political experience at her
command. Between Ben Tachfine’s initiative and Zeinab’s financing and
strategic counsel, the Almoravids were unstoppable.
The Almoravids took a while to warm up to their new capital of Marrakesh
– too many mountains and rival Berbers around, and too few palm trees. To
make themselves more at home, the Almoravids built a mud wall around the
city, 8m high and 19km long, and set up the ingenious khettara (underground
irrigation) system that still supports the palmeraie – a vast palm grove
outside Marrakesh now dotted with luxury villas. The Jewish and Andalucian
communities in Fez thrived under Ben Tachfine, a soft-spoken diplomat and,
like his wife, a brilliant military strategist. His Spanish Muslim allies urged
him to intercede against Christian and Muslim princes in Spain, complaining
bitterly of extortion, attacks and debauchery. At the age of almost 80, Ben
Tachfine launched successful campaigns securing Almoravid control of
Andalusia right up to the Barcelona city limits.
The Rise of Mellahs
Under the Saadians, Jewish communities also took up crucial roles as dealers
of the hottest Moroccan commodities of the time: salt and sugar. When
European Jewish communities faced the Inquisition, forced conversions and
summary executions, the comparatively tolerant Saadian dynasty provided
Jewish communities with some security, setting aside a section of Marrakesh
next to the royal kasbah as a Jewish quarter, or mellah – a name derived from
the Arabic word for salt. This protection was repaid many times over in taxes
levied on Jewish and Christian businesses, and the royally flush Saadians
clearly got the sweet end of the deal. Yet several Jewish Moroccans rose to
prominence as royal advisors, and in the Saadian Tombs of Marrakesh,
trusted Jewish confidantes are buried closer to kings than royal wives.
By day, Jewish merchants traded alongside Christian and Muslim
merchants, and were entrusted with precious salt, sugar and gold brought
across the Sahara; by night they were under official guard in their quarters.
Once the mellahs of Fez and Marrakesh became overcrowded with European
arrivals, other notable mellahs were founded in Essaouira, Safi, Rabat and
Meknès, and the traditions of skilled handicrafts that flourished there
continue to this day. The influence of the mellahs spread throughout
Morocco, especially in tangy dishes with the signature salted, pickled
ingredients of Moroccan Jewish cuisine.
Once French-backed Sultan Yusuf died and his French-educated 18-year-old
son Mohammed V became sultan, Lyautey expected that French business in
Morocco would carry on as usual. He hadn’t counted on a fiery young
nationalist as sultan, or the staunch independence of ordinary Moroccans.
Mining strikes and union organising interfered with France’s most profitable
colonial businesses, and military attention was diverted to force Moroccans
back into the mines. Berbers had never accepted foreign dominion without a
fight, and they were not about to make an exception for the French. By 1921
the Rif was up in arms against the Spanish and French under the leadership of
Ibn Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi. It took five years, 300,000 Spanish and French
forces and two budding Fascists (Francisco Franco and Marshal Pétain) to
capture Ibn Abd al-Krim and force him into exile.
The French won a powerful ally when they named Berber warlord Thami
el-Glaoui pasha of Marrakesh, but they also made a lot of enemies. The title
gave the pasha implicit license to do as he pleased, which included mafiastyle
executions and extortion schemes, kidnapping women and children who
struck his fancy, and friendly games of golf at his Royal Golf Club with Ike
Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. The pasha forbade talk of independence
under penalty of death, and conspired to exile Mohammed V from Morocco
in 1953 – but Pasha Glaoui would end his days powerless, wracked with
illness and grovelling on his knees for King Mohammed V’s forgiveness.
Although the French protectorate of Morocco was nominally an ally of
Vichy France and Germany in WWII, independent-minded Casablanca
provided crucial ground support for the Allied North African campaign.
When Morocco’s Istiqlal (Independence) party demanded freedom from
French rule in 1944, the US and Britain were finally inclined to agree. Under
increasing pressure from Moroccans and the Allies, France allowed
Mohammed V to return from exile in 1955. Morocco successfully negotiated
its independence from France and Spain between 1956 and 1958.