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History of Morocco: a long and fascinating journey through time that brings us to the present day.

Morocco is a very old country: although its borders have changed over time, the current kingdom has its roots centuries ago, with a common and integrating history of all its territories. Morocco’s history is behind all the monuments and legends that you will discover during your trip, so a review of its different periods is essential to understand what your eyes will see and your ears will hear.

Table of Contents

Summary of periods

The history of Morocco can be divided into several periods which, in turn, have their own distinct epochs. This is a summary table:

  • Morocco in prehistoric times: first Berber settlers
  • Morocco: From Antiquity to Islam (682)
  • Morocco, after the advent of Islam: 682-19th century
    • The Idrisids (789-1055)
    • The Almoravids (1060-1144)
    • The Almohads (1147-1269)
    • The Benimerines (1269-1472)
    • The Wattassids (1472-1545)
    • The Saadids (1545-1659)
    • The Alaouites (1659-present)
  • Twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Protectorates, independence and modernity

Morocco in prehistoric times: early Berbers

Morocco is a mainly Arab and Muslim country, which considers that the first men on Earth were Adam and Eve. But the demographic and cultural substratum of the Berbers (Amazigh) is also very important, something that can be seen in the history of Morocco itself: they are considered the first stable and recognizable settlers of the Maghreb and, therefore, of what is now Morocco. In addition, they played a leading role in important dynasties in the Middle Ages and even today a good part of the society is of this ethnicity.

The Berbers prefer to call themselves Amazigh (plural, imazighen), which means ‘free man’ or ‘free people’. The Imazighen, as we shall see, accepted and assimilated Islam, but long before that they already had their own religion. And according to their beliefs, there was also a first primitive couple on Earth, who procreated 100 children and sent them to populate the planet.

Beyond this mythical origin of the population in Morocco and in the world, what can be said is that the Imazighen were the result of a crossbreeding of Saharawi cultures (great horse breeders), Mediterranean (expert fishermen) and local (perhaps, distant descendants of the ancient Egyptians), who shaped their culture and way of life between 5000 and 2500 BC, eventually imposing themselves in much of North Africa.

Some prehistoric petroglyphs bear witness to this, such as those found in the High Atlas (Oukaimeden), dating from the Bronze Age (1600 BC). They show scenes of hunting, fishing and horseback riding, activities that were part of their daily life.

Morocco: from Antiquity to Islam (682)

From about the 9th century, the Maghreb Imazighen began to come into contact with other cultures, especially with the East Africans and the Phoenicians, the great explorers of the Mediterranean. The latter’s vocation was always more commercial than conquering, which favored exchange at all levels, both cultural and mercantile.

Lixus, very close to present-day Larache, on the Atlantic coast, was the main Phoenician colony in what is now Morocco. The Phoenicians were interested in livestock and by-products, such as dairy products and hides, and in exchange they gave the Imazighen manufactures, who also assimilated the Punic script.

This stable relationship explains, to a large extent, why the Imazighen sided with the Carthaginians in the Punic wars against Rome, the incipient power of the Mediterranean. This did not prevent North Africa from falling into the hands of the Romans, who created the province of Mauritania Tingitana in the 1st century AD, which reached approximately to the Atlas Mountains.

The name of
derives from the ‘country of the Mauri’: this is how the Romans referred to a kingdom in North Africa that, from the 4th century BC, acted as a kind of confederation of Imazighen peoples. And the term
refers to one of the main Roman cities of the territory: Tingis, in present-day Tangier.

The degree of Romanization of the territory was quite high in some areas, a good example being Volubilis in the time of Juba II (the only local monarch with whom there was a certain stability): a spectacular city of about 20,000 inhabitants near Meknes and which preserves important archaeological ruins that can be visited today. Already in this period, the presence of Jewish communities has been proven.

This Romanization did not prevent that, partly as an act of rebellion against Rome, many Berbers embraced the incipient Christian religion, forbidden in the Roman Empire. In fact, from the 1st century AD, conflicts were continuous, as well as foreign occupations by Vandals and Visigoths north of the Atlas. To the south of this mountain range, the Berber tribes maintained control of the territory.

The crisis and fall of the Roman Empire from the 4th century onwards led to a fleeting period of Vandal rule, in dispute with the Byzantine Empire (6th century), which aimed to maintain the Roman heritage but had only limited success in some cities, such as Essaouira, Tangier and Salé. In short: a climate of political division, socio-religious conflicts and fragile governments that provided the breeding ground for the triumph of Islam.

Morocco, after the advent of Islam 682-19th century

The Arab conquest of Morocco dates back to 682, when the Umayyad general Uqba bin Nafi and his troops arrived victorious on the Atlantic coast. It was far from being a bed of roses, as evidenced by the fierce resistance of the Berber warrior queen Kharina, but several decades later the new dominators had already reached the margins of the Sahara.

With patience, diplomatic skills and the use of force, Islamization was expanding during the 8th century in this territory. The Muslim religion eventually won over the local Berber tribes, who mostly converted because they saw in it many similarities with their own traditions.

Thus, with a society governed by Arab elites but made up of a large majority of the Berber population, a new period began and continues to the present day, although the tables are now turned: today ‘only’ 35% of the Moroccan population is of Berber ethnicity, according to some estimates.

Idrisid Dynasty: 789-1055

Despite the successful Islamization of the western Maghreb, the Umayyad rulers failed to take root here and were forced to emigrate to Al-Andalus, on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, where they occupied the throne. Instead, those who occupied the throne of a more or less unified Arab kingdom (which included northern Algeria) were those who, in the end, ended up being their neighbors and rivals: the Idrisids.

Its founder, Idriss I, was a direct descendant of Muhammad (being the great-grandson of Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the prophet) and was forced to flee Baghdad after a failed uprising against the Abbasid caliph. Idriss I ruled from his capital, Volubilis, but soon after, his successor Idriss II took his administrative, political and religious center to the newly founded Fez, which was also a place of refuge for many Shiites who emigrated from Cordoba (Al-Andalus) and Kairouan (present-day Tunisia).

Its true apogee came in the first half of the ninth century, with its first monarchs, but from then until the middle of the eleventh century, it experienced a progressive decline. This resulted in the appearance of minor principalities and interference from their neighbors: the Umayyad caliphs of Andalusia briefly dominated some territories and the Fatimids of Egypt launched campaigns of harassment at different times by Bedouin tribes.

Almoravid Dynasty: 1060-1144

One cause (or consequence) of the decline of the Idrisid dynasty was the relaxation of Koranic precepts, with apocryphal versions and corruption linked to the collection of ‘obligatory alms’. This occurred mainly in the north of the kingdom, while from the southwest of the Sahara a renewing force burst in: that of the Almoravids, who defended a much stricter and orthodox reading of the Koran.

Their promoters, from Sanhaya Berber tribes, were somewhat like soldier-religious, called ‘marabouts’ (hence the name of the dynasty), who built numerous fortified convents known as
. They founded the city of Marrakech, making it the capital of a new empire. Their dominions extended as far as Ghana and the south of the Iberian Peninsula, as they came to the aid of the Taifa kingdoms, which emerged after the dismemberment of the Caliphate of Cordoba and were threatened by the Castilian kingdoms.

Among the most prominent names are Abu Bakr Ibn Umar or Yusuf Ibn Tasfin, but the constant internal intrigues made the splendor of the Almoravid empire soon declined, less than a century after its peak.

Almohad Dynasty: 1147-1269

Was it possible to be even more orthodox than the Almoravids? Yes, and the proof was the dynasty that came later: the Almohads, from the Berber Masmud tribes, coming from the High Atlas Mountains and historical rivals of the Sanhaya, whom they did not consider as puritanical as they should.

Its founder was the theologian Ibn Tumart, and its spiritual epicenter was the Tinmel mosque, still standing and one of the few visitable in the country, as it is no longer used for worship. However, they erected many other monuments, which are today true tourist icons of the country, such as the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Kutubia Mosque in Marrakech, a city they embellished and modernized, and from which they ruled.

Some of the most prominent names were Abd el-Mumen and Al-Mansur. They managed to dominate a vast territory in North Africa (including Algeria and Tunisia) and southern Spain, achieving a brief unification of Al-Andalus and trading with important Mediterranean ports. In addition, its territory was the cradle of important scientists and intellectuals, such as Averroes.

But as it usually happens with all empires, internal causes (disputes and conspiracies) and external causes (defeats in the Iberian Peninsula, especially that of Navas de Tolosa in 1212), caused the decline and subsequent fall of the Almohads. All that was missing was the coup de grace of another dynasty to take command, and that was the Merinids.

Merinid Dynasty (or Benimerin): 1269-1472

This dynasty also had Berber origins, in this case from the Zenata branch, settled mainly in the north of the country. Their capital was Fez, which they endowed with one of the great hallmarks of their cultural and religious policy: the founding of madrasas, that is, Koranic schools for the formal teaching of Islam. In addition, they promoted agriculture and trade, which they sometimes left in the hands of Christians or Jews, whom they taxed with special taxes.

With the Merinid dynasty it is not possible to speak of ’empire’: although they tried to re-establish territories in Al-Andalus and North Africa, sometimes with a policy of intermarriage, it did not bear fruit. In fact, their greatest efforts were devoted to defending their own territory: their sultanate was roughly limited to what is now Morocco, since the current configuration of the Maghreb, with Algeria and Tunisia as neighbors, dates back to that time.

In this period a new ingredient came into play that complicated the situation: the black plague of 1348, which also wreaked havoc in this sultanate. But again, internal intrigues and blows from outside (the Portuguese conquered Ceuta in 1414) ended up greatly weakening the Merinid sultanate.

Wattassids, Saadids... and Portuguese: 1472-1659

The Merinid sultanate was followed by a period of instability and geographical division: in the north, the Wattassids were the ‘natural’ heirs of the latter, since they shared their Berber Zenata lineage and had occupied high positions (viziers) in the last years of that sultanate. Its political entity is often referred to as the Kingdom of Fez, since that was its capital and main city.

In the south, from the Draa Valley, the Saadis (dynasty of Arab origin) were becoming strong, with Marrakech as their capital. They claimed to be distant descendants of Mohammed… although their enemies did not believe so, and they ended up calling them
in a derogatory way because they were related to the family of Halimah Saadiyya, the Prophet’s wet nurse.

The Wattassid rule in the north was short-lived, as the Saadids finally prevailed in 1545, and soon after came the period of great splendor of this monarchy, with Sultan Ahmed Al Mansur ed Dahbi at the head, who lined his Badi Palace in Marrakech with gold and precious stones… although his successors dismantled it.

So much wealth came, in large part, from the flourishing trade with Europe and the Ottoman Empire, to which they supplied such valued commodities as gold, ivory, sugar and slaves. In addition, control of the desert caravan route was strengthened, and Timbuktu, on the other side of the Sahara, came under their control.

However, its relations with other powers were not simply commercial, far from it: it was also a time of confrontations with Habsburg Spain and with the Ottoman corsairs off the Atlantic coasts.

However, in the equation of this period, the Portuguese also come into play, with an ambivalent relationship: between tense calm and direct confrontation, since this Iberian power experienced a great expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries, founding important enclaves on the Atlantic coast such as Mogador (Essaouira) or Mazagan (El Jadida).

In addition, another element to highlight in Saadian Morocco was the massive arrival of immigrants from Spain. First, of Jews expelled by the Catholic Monarchs after 1492, founding numerous mellahs or Jewish quarters, or expanding existing ones. And later, from the beginning of the 17th century, of Moors expelled by Philip III.

However, the last decades of the Saadian sultanate were very conflictive, outwardly but also inwardly. Outwards, because the seventeenth century was a time of splendor for Moroccan pirates, especially those operating from Salé (kasbah of the Oudayas), who came to create a parallel republic. And inward, because the sultanate was plunged into a real civil war.

Alaouite Dynasty: 1659-1912

The Alawite dynasty is the one to which today’s Moroccan monarchs belong, but their connection with the origins of Islam is also direct: they are descendants of Muhammad, through the line of Ali ibn Abi Talib (fourth successor of the prophet) and Fatima az-Zahra (daughter of Muhammad).

The founder of the dynasty was Mulay Ali al-Sharif, who became sultan of Tafilalet in 1631 and from this location south of the Atlas began a movement of unification and pacification, which culminated in his son Mulay Mohamed al-Rashid bin Sharif in the mid-seventeenth century.

However, the most prominent and remembered member of the early Alawites was Mulay Ismail. Not only for his military victories that strengthened the control of the territory in the face of foreign interference and threats, but also for his cruelty and despotism. He reigned from Meknes, a city made to his measure, where his mausoleum is located.

The 18th century, at the death of Mulay Ismail, was a period of ups and downs: piracy was practically instituted as a foreign policy, but the crisis situation in the country became entrenched, fuelled by plagues and droughts. The reconstruction and urban reforms of some medinas, especially those left by the Portuguese in the Atlantic, were only a mirage.

In the 19th century, Morocco yielded to the external influence of the major powers of the time, and even made territorial concessions. First, with France, which sought to expand its influence in the country. And then, with Spain, which in the 60’s of that century won a war that ensured the control of several territories on the Mediterranean coast. In addition, British and Americans contributed to the declaration of Tangier as an International Zone to encourage trade since 1880 and the establishment of large foreign companies.

Twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Protectorates, independence and modernity

The movements of the European powers and the United States at the end of the 19th century in Morocco were the prelude to what came later: at the height of the colonialist movement, the Conference of Algeciras (1906) and the Treaty of Fez (1912) were held, which resulted in the establishment in Morocco of two protectorates: a French one in the center and south of the country (with capital in Rabat), and a Spanish one in the north and in Western Sahara (with capital in Tetouan). Tangier, for its part, maintained its character of International Zone, which gave it a certain cosmopolitan air.

Thus, the administrative apparatus was left in the hands of foreigners, as well as the levers of the economy and the defense of the territory. Local sultans of the Alaouite dynasty were chosen as puppets, as well as strongmen of the local high society, such as Thami el Glaoui (Pasha of Marrakech), for stability in the south, the Atlas and the desert.

A legacy of that period of the Protectorate has remained for Moroccan cities, which tourists can also enjoy to a large extent: the Ville Nouveau, that is, modern extensions that were designed to decongest the medinas and give an air of modernity to urban centers. The architectural style of the buildings was inspired in some cases by the modernist or art deco style of France (Rabat, Marrakech, etc.) and Andalusian architecture (Tetouan), but without forgetting the traditional Moroccan style. Thus, the result was avenues and squares where the incipient wealthy classes settled, as well as first class institutions and luxury stores.

On the other hand, there was no lack of resistance and nationalist movements. In the Spanish Protectorate, the self-proclaimed Republic of the Rif was the result of the local rebellion in this mountain range, which was finally put down by the Spanish army. And in the French Protectorate, he ignited the flame of what was to become the independence movement, with a young Mohammed V becoming more and more influential, which earned him an exile to Madagascar.

However, the movement had no turning back and in 1956 the independence of Morocco from France and Spain was recognized, with Mohammed V as king. The Spanish kept the Spanish Sahara, to the south, as a Spanish province for a few more years, but in 1975, in the death throes of Franco’s dictatorship, the Green March took place, after which this territory came under de facto Moroccan control. The latter was against the criteria of the UN and neighboring Algeria, which is today one of the main points of disagreement between the two countries, which broke off relations and closed their borders indefinitely.

Since independence, Morocco has faced different challenges that have brought it to the present day. It has been abandoning the French influence, including the official status of its language, to give a more Arab character to its society, as enshrined in its Constitution. That has not prevented, following Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne and after the Arab Spring of 2011, important concessions in terms of civil liberties and limiting the monarch’s power in politics.

At the economic level, Morocco has become increasingly integrated into the globalized world, with important trade agreements with the European Union. In terms of security, the country has taken a determined stance against terrorist movements, which have been successful in the past (Casablanca, 2003) but have not taken root as in other countries.

The Agadir earthquake of 1960 was a first test for the young newly created state, but at the same time, an opportunity to start the path of a strategic sector today: tourism, either through the construction of resorts, golf courses and other services, or through a rich cultural offer in the rest of the territory, from the cities to the desert, passing through the Atlas.

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