Morocco is a land apart, washed by three seas: the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the sand-sea of the Sahara. It is guarded by four great mountain ranges: the Rif stand watch over the Mediterranean coast, the Middle Atlas halts easy access from the east while the High and Anti Atlas mountains stand like a double parapet on the edge of the Sahara. Innumerable fast flowing streams and four great rivers run from out of these mountains to support pockets of agriculture in the valleys; verdant necklaces that cut through the vast pastoral plateau. These geographical determinants are vital to an appreciation of the distinctive culture of Morocco. A country naturally riven into dozens of distinctive provinces but united against the rest of the world.
If East Africa is the original home of mankind, North Africa was the springboard from which the species spread across the globe. The world was innocent of man until a million
years ago when Homo erectus first crossed the Sahara. Evidence of this stone- and fire
using human ancestor have been found in the sandstone cliffs just south of Casablanca. By 40,000BC, modern man had decisively replaced the earlier sub-species, was spread across the old world and had already divided into separate races. The retreat of the last Ice Age was complete by 10,000BC which allowed the Mediterranean to expand into its current dimensions and separate the overwise identical population of North Africa from that of Europe.
The Neolithic revolution - the invention of agriculture and stock-keeping – reached Morocco by around 3,000BC. This enormous change was not by conquest but by a slow cultural dissemination that worked east along the seaboard. It was an uneven process for there seems to be evidencethat stock-keeping may have first evolved in North Africa anyway, whilst it is clear that agricultural techniques were learned –but then abandoned by some communities. Ultimately, however it would transform the drifting groups of hunter-gatherers into settled communities and vastly increase the population. The indigenous people of North Africa can henceforth be described as Berbers, a word of Greek origin, and the earliest historical records speak of their devotion to war, to polygamy, to their chariots and to their herds of sheep and goats.
The Phoenicians and Romans
It was the Phoenician merchants of the coast of Syria that first introduced the higher arts of the civilisations of the Near East to Morocco. They were the fairy godmothers of ancient Morocco, though their motives were entirely mercenary. By 1,000BC they had established a permanent settlement at Tanger which was soon followed by other colonies down the Atlantic coast. From these centres the skills of metal-working, stone-carving, weaving, pottery and improved agriculture, with new varieties of crops and trees, were disseminated. Carthage emerged as the leader of all the Phoenician colonies in the Western Mediterranean during the 6th century BC when they all felt threatened by the expansion of Greek colonial settlements. From this period comes a description of the Carthaginian admiral Hanno's voyage of discovery down the coast to West Africa and the techniques of silent barter with the natives for gold.
After the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146BC, Rome assumed the 'protection' of the scattered Phoenician colonies. The interior of North Africa was ruled by native Berber kings whose territories were slowly annexed by Rome over a two hundred year period. Juba II, who ruled over northern Morocco from the inland capital of Volubilis (as well as central Algeria) was a noted scholar who had been educated in the household of the Emperor Augustus, where he had met and married the princess Silene, the daughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Their son Ptolemy, though he inherited their throne, was murdered on the orders of the Emperor Caligula. His Moroccan kingdom resisted annexation but was finally conquered in AD44, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
This new Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana consisted of just the fertile northwestern coastal plain and was not even connected by road to Roman Algeria. When the Baquates tribe overran the defences at the end of the 3rd century the Empire decided to restrict itself to holding the strategic city ports of Tanger and Ceuta, Later powers like the Vandals and Byzantines followed in their footsteps, and left the fierce Berber tribes of the interior to their own devices.
The spread of Islam and the Arab conquest
This was all to be changed by a theocratic state that had been established in the Arabian peninsula. The prophet Mohammed died in 632 but the cavalry armies of his successors soon conquered an enormous empire. In 682 Oqba ben Nafi made his legendary raid into Morocco, riding out into the Atlantic surf to prove that there was no land any further west to be conquered for Islam – before returning to his base in Algeria. Musa ben Noussir organised a more thorough conquest of Morocco between 705 and 710. He established garrisons at Tanger and the Tafilalt but it was soon made clear that his real objective had been the conquest of Spain and securing the desert trade-route. The only value Morocco held for the Arab governors was as a source of slaves and recruits for their army. In 740 the disillusioned Berber soldiers in the Tanger garrison assassinated their Arab governor and revolted, They adopted a rigorous puritanism in order to make a clear distinction between their passionate support of the Muslim religion and the rejection of their Arab overlords.
The Idrissid Monarchy (789-828)
Berber enthusiasm for the new religion was further demonstrated in 789. Moulay Idriss, the great-great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed, had fled to Morocco to escape the vengeance of Harun al Rashid, the great Caliph of Baghdad. He was acclaimed ruler by the Berber tribes around Meknès but was poisoned by an agent of the Caliph two years later. Fortunately his Berber mistress was pregnant and gave birth to a son who later reigned as Idriss II. He ruled central Morocco and established Fès as a great bastion of Arab and Islamic culture. After his death in 828 his kingdom was divided among nine sons who have attained legendary status as missionary princes who brought the faith to far-flung provinces. Though the power of the Idrissids, the descendants of Idriss II, soon waned, their spiritual prestige remains a strong and continual feature of Moroccan history.
Unity under the Almoravids, 1042-1147
By the 11th century Morocco had deteriorated into a patchwork of petty states and feuding tribes with many of the chief ports and towns under the control of foreign powers – albeit Muslim ones. In the far reaches of the Western Sahara, a native scholar who had returned from Mecca determined to create a true Islamic state. His vision and discipline, allied to the ferocity of the Saharan tribes created a powerful force of warriors. The al-murabitun “the men of the fortress of faith” would become known to Europe as the Almoravids.. These warriors emerged out of the desert in 1042 and conquered an enormous desert empire that stretched south to the Niger river and north towards the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. This was to be further extended by Youssef ben Tachfine, an Almoravid general who crossed the mountains and established Marrakech as his base camp in 1071. Within 20 years Youssef had conquered not only Morocco but also the sophisticated city-states of Muslim Spain. Skilled Andalucian craftsmen, secretaries and architects were employed by the Almoravid court and began to introduce the higher civilisation of Moorish Spain into Morocco.
The Empire of the Almohads, 1147-1248
At the height of the Almoravid Empire, Ibn Tumert, another native scholar, returned from Mecca full of schemes to establish an even more rigorous Islamic state. Rejected by the powers that be, he fled the city and established himself at Tin-Mal in the High Atlas mountains where he created an obedient army from the Berber highland tribes. Victory over the Almoravids was only eventually to be achieved by his successor, Abdel Moumen who established an empire that stretched over Spain, Algeria, Tunisia and part of Libya. It is the golden period of Moroccan history, when Almohad. fleets dominated the Western Mediterranean and great philosophers like Averroës received the full support of the sultan's court. Some of the glory is still reflected in the magnificent buildings that adorn Rabat and Marrakech, like the Koutoubia and El Hassan minarets and the formal gates of Oudaya and Aguenaou. A military defeat in Spain, at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1213, rocked imperial authority and the sultans were faced with a series of escalating revolts. In 1248 the Almohad sultan died while on campaign on the Algerian border, and his leaderless army was massacred by the powerful Beni Merin tribe as it struggled home. The tribal chiefs of the Beni Merin established their capital at Fès but it took another 21 years of war before they could destroy the last Almohad army that defended Marrakech.
The Merenid dynasty, 1248-1554
The reigns of Sultan Abou Hassan, 1331-51 and his son Abou Inan, 1351-58 are the zenith of the long centuries of Merenid rule. In this period Merenid armies twice occupied Tunis and seemed at the point of restoring the unity of the Almohad Empire. The Merenid architecture of the 14th century, particularly the medersas (schools for Koranic studies) that can be seen in Fes, Meknès and Salé testify to the exquisite taste of the sultans and their generous patronage of religious learning. The works of Ibn Battuta, 'the Muslim Marco Polo', and Ibn Khaldoun, one of the world's greatest historians, are proof of the lively intellectual life of the period. Wealth poured into the state coffers from the enormously profitable trans-Saharan caravan trade in gold, precious oils and ivory. The period finished in 1358, when Sultan Abou Inan was smothered with a pillow by his vizier as he lay recovering from an illness. This royal murder is a parable for the gradual decline of the state. The sultans became mere figureheads as real power fell into the hands of a corrupt coterie of viziers, financiers and generals. In the 15th century the expansionist Portuguese kingdom began to seize control of a number of Moroccan ports which the Merenids proved powerless to hold. By the mid-16th century the Portuguese were in almost complete control of the coastline and in 1578 the boy king, Sebastian, attempted outright conquest.
The Saadian Sultans, 1554-1668
The inability of the Merenid rulers to oppose the Portuguese allowed for the rise of a number of local war leaders. The most effective of these were the Saadians, from the oasis valley of the Draa in southern Morocco, who organised the siege of Agadir in 1510. This Portuguese fort finally fell in 1542, by which time the Saadians were already well established in Marrakech as the rulers of southern Morocco. Seven years later they were strong enough to capture the Merenid capital of Fès. In 1578 the Saadian dynasty won eternal fame with the crushing defeat of the Portuguese invasion at the battle of Ksar-el-Kebir. Sultan Abdel Malik died in the hour of victory and his brother Ahmed inherited the throne and took the title El Mansour - 'the victorious'. He gained additional fame by the conquest of Timbuctoo whose treasure gave him another epithet - EI Dhabbi, 'the golden one'. Surviving memorials of Ahmed's reign include the glittering Saadian tombs and the ruins of the palace of El Badia in Marrakech. His sons destroyed their inheritance in a furious succession war and discredited the dynasty by selling the port of Larache in 1610 to the Christians. Though a number of Saadian princes lived on in splendour at Marrakech, real authority was exercised elsewhere. A three-cornered fight developed between petty dynasties based on the Rif, Anti-Atlas and Middle Atlas mountains. However, after 40 years of warfare, power fell into the hands of Moulay Rachid, a young prince of holy lineage whose Alouite family came from the oasis of Tafilalt. Within four years of raising his standard at Taza he had seized complete control of the country. He ruled for just four years and was succeeded by his younger brother, Moulay Ismail.
Moulay Ismaïl, 1672-1727
Certain monarchs breed legends and the reign of Moulay Ismail has always been in danger of being overwhelmed by stories of his cruelty and sexual prowess. He was undoubtedly fertile and tyrannical but his long reign was also a period of great achievement. He reformed the nation's cult-ridden religious life, disciplined the Berber mountain tribes, liberated Tanger from the English and Larache, Asilah and Mehdiya from the Spanish. The imperial city at Meknès was built in this period but there are many other testaments to his energy: the bridges, kasbahs and markets that he built throughout the country and the numerous mosques, palaces and walls that he had restored. It was the proud boast of his reign that the roads were safe enough for a woman or a Jew to travel across the breadth of the country without being troubled. This unaccustomed order was only achieved by an authoritarian regime backed by a standing army of 150, 000 Negro slaves. His failure, and it was a great one, was not to delegate authority to any of his many sons His death was followed by a 20-year war as his regiments and heirs struggled for dominance.
Decline in the 18th and 19th Centuries
None of the immediate descendants of Moulay Ismaïl was to match the great sultan's power. Their authority was in practice restricted to the coastal plains and river valleys, the area which was known as the Bled-el-Makhzen, the land of government, while the mountainous areas of tribal power were known as the Bled-es-Siba, the land of dissidence. Sidi Mohammed -who reigned from 1757 to 1790 was one of the most astute sultans of this period, reforming the customs service, building new ports and quietly suppressing the Barbary corsairs whose ancient profitability was declining against the growing technical superiority of the European fleets.
The l9th century was a period of increasing European Power, graphically demonstrated by the French invasion of Algeria in 1830. After 1856, European merchants in Morocco were running their own law courts while their coinages began to displace the native currency, By the turn of the century the two chief ports of Tanger and Casablanca were effectively under the control of the foreign consuls. Despite the reforms attempted by Sultan Moulay Hassan the country slipped ever more under debt and European influence.
The French Protectorate
The rivalry over Morocco between the European powers was settled by secret negotiations at the 1906 conference of Algeciras. France was given central Morocco and Spain the poorer areas in the extreme south and north. The next year French troops landed at Casablanca. Several years of confused fighting and diplomacy was resolved in 1912 when the sultan signed away sovereignty through the treaty of Fès. Later that year the tribal army of El Hiba, the Blue Sultan of the desert, was destroyed outside Marrakech. The French immediately began work on the colonial transformation of ‘Maroc Utile’ - 'useful Morocco'. The less rewarding mountain regions were not completely pacified until 1934 while the 1921-26 Rif rebellion nearly succeeded in expelling the Spanish from the north of the country.
The technical achievements of the 44 years of colonial rule were impressive. A complete road and rail network was established, and ports, airfields, dams, irrigation projects and new administrative centres were created. The rewards of this new society - the hotels, hospitals and schools - were reserved for the 300,000 European settlers and the traditional Moroccan ruling class.
By 1947 the more ugly aspects of French colonial rule were being questioned by Sultan Mohammed V and the Istiqal, a small independence party. By 1951 both the Sultan and the rapidly expanding Istiqal were working to awaken the political life of the nation. This was dramatically achieved in 1953 when the French deposed Mohammed V and sent him into exile in Madagascar. In 1955 the mass demonstrations for his return had begun to escalate into a guerrilla war. The French government, which was then faced with a revolution in Algeria, decided to quit Morocco with grace. Mohammed V returned and by March 1956 had formally negotiated independence. He changed his title from sultan to king while his popularity helped him outmanoeuvre the party bosses and remain the dominant political figure.
He was succeeded in 1961 by his son Hassan II. In the succeeding three decades parties, constitutions, crises, coups and cabinets challenged the system but the king remained very much in charge. Such key figures as the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defence always remained the personal appointees of the king. Successes like the nationalisation of foreign businesses in 1965 and the Maghrebi Union treaty of 1989 are eclipsed by the Green March of 1975 which was by far the most popular achievement of his reign. As General Franco of Spain lay dying the king led 350,000 unarmed Moroccans across the southern frontier to lay claim to the Spanish held Western Sahara. This enormous territory is now integrated into Morocco, though the irredentist Saharan nationalist Polisario movement sought independence through a guerrilla war. An armistice has led to a permanent UN presence and an agreement to determine the future of the province in a referendum though agreement on the qualifications to vote remains a contentious issue.
In July 1999, the old king died and was succeeded by his young son. Mohammad VI dismissed his father’s unpopular minister of interior and has presided over an increasingly democratic and liberal regime. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a free press and free and open elections. It also faces great challenges: to feed and find employment for its burgeoning population of 27 million and also to remain a shining example of a Muslim nation – all the more devout because of its tolerance, individual freedoms and intellectual diversity.
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by Barnaby Rogerson