Famous Cities in Morocco series (Episode 5 of 13): Essaouira
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
The country of Morocco has so many interesting towns and cities as well as beautiful landmarks. From the astonishing city of Casablanca to Marrakech, Fes, and Rabat, Morocco has everything one might hope to experience. These places boast historical monuments, such as the Hassan II Mosque, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and many others. In this article series, we will be featuring cities and landmarks in Morocco that are historically and culturally significant. In this fifth installment, we will be traveling to Essaouira to visit the Medina of Essaouira, Essaouira Harbor, and its adjoined Fish Market. Finally, we will learn about the history of the cities themselves as well as some of their famous and associated landmarks.
Historical Synopsis and Background of Essaouira:
The city of Essaouira has been a significant place of commerce in Morocco for centuries. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence that the city “has been occupied since prehistoric times.” On multiple digs, they have found numerous items such as a “Tyrian purple dye factory and two items from the Roman Empire of which are a vase and villa” in Essaouira. During the 1500s, Essaouira became the major trading port for goods from Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe as well. At this point in time, Essaouira was called ‘Mogador’ by the Portuguese due to a nearby island with the same name. Up until the 1950s, Morocco was under colonial rule and Essaouira’s strategic location on the Atlantic Coast, unfortunately, made it a target for European powers to use it for their own benefit.
The Europeans took control of Essaouira in the 1500s when the Portuguese established a castle and fortress there called the Castelo Real. However, they only stayed in power for about five to ten years as a local resistance group, the Regraga, fought the Portuguese, and they were forced to give the city back to the Berber population. After that, the area remained a vital trading port as the two most important goods were “sugar and molasses, [and Morocco retained its early reputation as a hideout for] pirates.”
Fast forward into the 1600s, Essaouira was again, under colonial rule, but this time by the French. In the mid-1600s, it was known that the Sultan of Marrakech had planned to take on the French invaders, and the colonial powers thought they could overtake the Moroccans. Again, they thought wrong, and Essaouira survived yet another onslaught. Furthermore, after some expeditions to try and gain an advantage, the French saw that their attempts were useless, and they settled for a treaty which they still got more out of than the Moroccans as they signed under the circumstances that “France is given preferential treatment for tariffs and freedom of religion, among other things.”
After many centuries of attempts at colonizing Essaouira, Morocco in the 1700s started building this city as they wanted it to be. Despite the numerous attacks by the colonial powers, the newly-minted king of Morocco, Mohammed III, desired to build his city up and yet retain strong economic ties and “increased exchanges with Europe.” The city continued to serve as the main trading port of Morocco and still does to this day, and they built up the harbor. It is now most famous as the site of the Essaouira Fish Market and Harbor which will be discussed later in the section about landmarks.
Historical Landmarks—Medina of Essaouira and the Essaouira Harbor and Fish Market:
The Medina of Essaouira:
The Medina of Essaouira is well-known for a couple of reasons. First of all, because of its beautiful scenery, amazing architecture, seascape scenes, and the fact that there is so much history behind this city. For further reference, a medina is usually the ‘old town’ of a city which is akin to a Western modern-day historical district, and traditionally in Arab World architecture, they are usually walled-off with either a gate (al-bab in Arabic), a wall of some sort, or sometimes they even look like a fortress.
The historical significance is so great in Essaouira that in 2001, the medina was named as a(n) UNESCO World Heritage Site. This recognition gave the city access and opportunities to preserve the town and it lets the world know that this is indeed a special place. An interesting thing about the Medina is that it is also nearby to the fishing village that includes the glorious harbor and market.
I remember walking through the medina in that these were cobblestone streets and the area looked like it was a mix between Spanish and Arab architecture. My fondest memory of going to the medina was visiting one of the shops to try on traditional Moroccan attire and being taught how the scarves are worn. I remember this as a very special day!
Now, let us continue our journey over to the amazing Essaouira Harbor and its adjacent fish market!
Essaouira Harbor and Fish Market:
Besides the Port of Essaouira, the Harbor is the second-coolest place to visit. Do you know why that is? Well, first of all, you get to see all these brightly-colored ships that you know either came from some far-off land or maybe from the Atlantic coast of Morocco, or perhaps, it came from this exquisite harbor. I loved visiting the harbor because you get to see the labors that these Moroccan fishermen and fisherwomen go through to make a living. It gives you a sense of what the real world is like, but the harbor almost creates its own subculture.
I remember when I visited Essaouira almost four years ago that the Moroccan children there would play with their toys, stick close to their parents, and then the young men had to (yes, they just had to!) show us their amazing diving skills off the masts of ships and the roofs of the harbors into the water! Mind you this was probably like 10-15 feet off of the mast into the seawater!
Essaouira Fish Market:
So, you have now gone strolling through the Essaouira Citadel, Medina, gotten swept away by the wind, and you are probably wondering, “now where do we go to eat that will still give us a sense of what real and traditional Moroccan life is actually like?” Well, the answer is: stay in the Essaouira Harbor and walk a few blocks over to the nearby fish market. First of all, you get to pick your fish, pay for it, and then they have a little sitting area filled with blue-painted picnic tables where you eat what you bought. The workers at the market and sitting area set up an oven where they cook the fish, serve it with Frites (French fries), red onions, lemons, and of course, the delicious green olives that are ever-present in Morocco! To conclude this piece, this experience is yet another magical one that you get to experience if you visit Morocco! I loved Essaouira when I was there, and I cherish those memories to this day!
In conclusion, thank you for joining me on this fifth episode of the series “Famous Cities in Morocco.” This time we journeyed to the wondrous city of Essaouira which in my opinion is one of the most stunning places on earth due to its beautiful architecture and amazing ports! Stay tuned for the next installment featuring the amazing city of Rabat! I hope you got to learn a little bit more about the majestic landscapes and landmarks that Morocco has to offer. If you are ever in Essaouira, I highly recommend you visit the city itself, the exquisite Medina of Essaouira, and finally, take a walk around the Essaouira Harbor and eat at the Fish Market, you will not be disappointed!
This is the fifth installment in a series of thirteen focusing on cities in Morocco with an emphasis on its history and famous landmarks. Each article will feature a historical synopsis about the city and 2 to 3 significant landmarks. Keep an eye out for the next article about Rabat, Morocco coming soon. Thank you for reading!
To read episode 4 which features the city of Meknes, the Royal Stables, and the Heri es-Souani (Meknes Royal Granary), please click here!
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