History of Morocco

Morocco’s emergence as a nation state is astonishingly recent, dating from the occupation of the country by the French and Spanish at the turn of the twentieth century, and its independence in 1956. Prior to this, it is best seen as a kind of patchwork of tribal groups, whose shifting alliances and sporadic bids for power defined the nature of government. With a handful of exceptions, the country’s ruling Sultans controlled only plains, the coastal ports and the regions around the imperial capitals of Fes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Meknes. These were known as Bled el Mekhzen – the governed lands, or, more literally, “Lands of the storehouse”. The rest of the Moroccan territories – the Rif, the three Atlas ranges and outlying deserts – comprised Bled Es Siba “Lands of Dissidents”. Populated almost exclusively by Berbers, the region’s original (pre-Arab) inhabitants, they were rarely recognized as being under anything more than local tribal authority.

Phoenicians and Carthagians

Morocco’s recorded history begins around 1100 BC with the arrival of the Phoenicians, a seafaring people from what is now Lebanon. By the seventh century BC, they had established settlements along the coast, including Rusadir (Melilla), Tingis ( Tangier ), Zila ( Asilah), Lixis (Larache),Chellah (Rabat) and even Mogador (Essaouira) – of all their colonies, the furthest from their homeland – where they maintained a dye factory on the “Iles Purpuraires”. The settlements were small, isolated colonies, most built on defensible headlands round the coast, and there was probably little initial contact between them and the inhabitants of the interior (known to the Greeks as, Barbaroi, or as we now say, Berbers). By the fifth century BC, one Phoenician colony, Carthage (in Tunisia), had become pre-eminent and gained dominance over the rest. Under Carthaginian leadership, some of the Moroccan colonies grew into considerable cities, exporting grain and grapes, and minting their own coins.

Berber kingdoms and Roman rule

Before Rome imposed direct imperial rule in 40 AD, the “Civilized” Moroccan territories for a while formed the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, probably little more than a confederation of local tribes, centred round Volubilis (near Meknes) and Tangier, which gained a certain influence through alliance and occasional joint rule with the adjoining Berber state of Numidia (essentially modern Algeria). The kingdom’s most important rulers, and the only ones of whom any substantial records survive, were Juba II (25 BC-23 AD) and his son Ptolemy (23-40 AD). Juba, an Algerian berber by birth, was brought up and educated in Rome, where he married the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra.
Perhaps discouraged by this unexpected resistance, the Romans never attempted to colonize Morocco-Mauretania beyond its old limits, and the Rif and Atlas mountains were left unpenetrated, establishing an enduring precedent. Volubilis, the most extensive surviving Roman site in Morocco, was a significant city, at the heart of the north’s fertile vineyards and grain fields.

The Islamic dynasties’ rule

Islam had established itself in the Maghreb at Kairaouan in present day Tunisia, but westward expansion was slowed by Algeria’s Berbers – mainly pagans but including communities of Christians and Jewswho put up a strong and unusual unified resistance to Arab control. It was only in 680 that the governor of Kairaouan, Oqba Ibn Nafi, made an initial foray into Morocco, taking in the process the territory’s last Byzantine stronghold at Ceuta. The story goes that Oqba then embarked on 5000 Kms march through Morocco, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but wether this expedition had any real Islamizing influence on the Moroccan Berbers is questionable.

The Al Idrissids (eights eleventh centruties)

Around 787, Moulay Idriss, an evidently charismatic leader and a great grand-son of the prophet Mohammed arrived in Morocco where he was adopted by Aouraba Berber tribe. He had managed to set up the infrastructure of an essentially Arab court and kingdom – the basis of what was to become Morocco – and his seccessors, the Idrissids, became the first recognizable Moroccan dynasty. Moulay Idriss’s son “Idriss II” , born posthumously to a Berber woman, was declared Sultan in 807, after an apparently orderly regency, and ruled for just over twenty years – something of a golden age for the emerging Moroccan state, with the extension of a central authority throughout the north and even to the oasis beyond the Atlas.

The Almoravids (1062-1145)

The Almoravids began as a reforming movement among the Sanhaja Berbers of what is now Mauritania. A nomadic desert tribe like today’s Touaregs, they converted to Islam in the ninth century, but the founders of the Almoravid movement, a local Sheikh who had returned from the pilgrimage to Mecca and Fakir from Souss plain, found widespread abuse of orthodox practice. In 1054, the Almoravids set out from Ribat (from which their label derives) to spread the message, and within four years they had destroyed the empire of ancient Ghana (mostly in what is now Mali) and captured its capital Koumbi Saleh (now Mauritania). Turning towards Morocco, they founded a new capital at Marrakesh in 1062, and under the leadership of Youssef Ben Tachfine went on to extend their rule throughout the north of Morocco and, to the east as far as Algiers.

The Almohads (1145-1248)

Ironically, the Almohads shared much in common with their predecessors. Again they were forged from the Berber tribes – this time in the High Atlas – and again, they based their bid for power o an intense Puritanism. Almohad’s founder Ibn Tumart was aided by a shrewd assistant and brilliant leader Abd El Moumen, who took over the movement after his death. In 1145, he was strong enough to displace the Almoravids from Fez, and two years later he drove them from their capital, Marraech, making him effectively sultan. The third Almohad sultan, Yaacub Al Mansour, defeated the Christians at Alarcos in Spain in 1195 and pushed the frontiers of the empire east to Tripoli. El Mansour launched a great building programme, including a new capital in Rabat and magnificent gateways and minarets in Marrakesh and Seville.

The Saadians and civil war (1554-1669)

The Saadians, the first Arab dynasty since the Idrissids, were the most important family of marabouts to emerge in early years of the sixteenths century, rising to power on the strengths of their relegious positions (they were Shereefs – descedands of the prophet). They began by setting up a small psincipality in Souss, where they established their first capital at Tagmadert in Draa Valley before moving to Taroudant. Normally this would have formed a regular part of Bled El Makhzen, but the absence of government in the south allowed them to extend their power to Marrakech around 1524, with the Wattasids for a time retaining Fez and ruling the north.
Moulay Ismail and the Alaouite dynasty.
The 55-year reign of Moulay Ismail was the country’s last stab at imperial glory, In Morocco, where his shrine in Meknes is still a place of pilgrimage, he is embarked as a great and just, if unusually ruthless, ruler; to contemporary Europeans – and in subsequent historical accounts – he is noted for extravagant cruelty. In his new capital, Meknes, he garrisoned a permanent army of some 140000 African troops, a legendary guard he had built up personally through slaving expeditions in Mauritania and Mali, as well as by starting a human breeding programme.

The French and Spanish protectorates

The fates of Spanish and French Morocco under colonial rule were to be very different. When France signed its protectorate agreement with Sultan Moulay Hafid in 1912, its sense of solonial mission was running high. The colonial lobby in France argued that the colonies were vital not only as markets for French goods but because they fulfilled Franc’s “mission civilisatrice” – to bring the benefits of French culture and language to all corners of the globe. The Spanish saw themselves more as conquerors than colonists and did little to develop their sector, whose government was described by one contemporary as a mixture of “battlefield, tavern and brothel”. Under a huge resistance by Moroccan tribal troops, Morocco gained independence in 1956 following the return of King Mohamed V from exile in Madagascar (grand-father of the current monarch Mohamed VI).

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