Unlike other North African nations, Morocco has been largely occupied by one group of people for as long as recorded history can recall. The Berbers, or Imazighen (free men), settled in the area thousands of years ago and at one time controlled all of the land between Morocco and Egypt. Divided into clans and tribes, they have always jealously guarded their independence. It’s this fierce spirit that has helped preserve one of Africa’s most fascinating cultures. The early Berbers were unmoved by the colonising Phoenicians, and even the Romans did little to upset the Berber way of life after the sack of Carthage in 146 BC.
All the same, the Romans ushered in a long period of peace during which many cities were founded, and the Berbers of the coastal plains became city dwellers. Christianity turned up in the 3rd century AD, and again the Berbers asserted their traditional dislike of centralised authority by following Donatus (a Christian sect leader who claimed that the Donatists alone constituted the true church). Islam burst onto the world stage in the 7th century when armies swept out of Arabia. Quickly conquering Egypt, the Arabs controlled all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century. By the next century much of North Africa had fragmented, with the move towards a united Morocco steadily growing. A fundamentalist Berber movement emerged from the chaos caused by the Arab invasion, overrunning Morocco and Muslim Andalucia.
The Almoravids founded Marrakesh as their capital, but they were soon replaced by the Almohads. Under these new rulers, a professional civil service was set up and the cities of Fès, Marrakesh, Tlemcen and Rabat reached the peak of their cultural development. But eventually weakened by Christian defeats in Spain, and paying the price for heavily taxing tribes, the Almohad power began to wane.
In their place came the Merenids, from the Moroccan hinterland, and the area again blossomed – until the fall of Spain to the Christians, in 1492, unleashed a revolt that dissolved the new dynasty within 100 years. After a number of short-lived dynasties rose and fell, the Alawite family secured a stranglehold in the 1630s that remains firm to this day. Although it was rarely a smooth ride, this pragmatic dynasty managed to keep Morocco independent for more than three centuries.
Morocco has a rich repertoire of artistic traditions – exquisite marquetry, impressive leatherware, attractive ceramics and ornate silver jewellery, as well as a multitude of carpet designs. The Moroccan music scene has evolved to include a vast range of genres from the haunting strains of Arab-Andalucian love songs to the syncopated rhythms of Berber and Gnawa music, with African overtures. Contemporary musicians employ a fusion of African, French, pop and rock sounds. Throw in a serve of couscous washed down with sweet mint tea and you’ll come somewhere close to the cultural flavour of Morocco.
Enter the European traders in the late 19th century, and a long era of colonial renovations. Suddenly France, Spain and Germany were all keen on hijacking the country for its strategic position and rich trade resources. France won out and occupied virtually the entire country by 1912. Spain clung to a small coastal protectorate and Tangier was declared an international zone. The first French resident-general, Marshal Lyautey, resisted the urge to destroy the existing Moroccan towns and instead built French villes nouvelles (new towns) alongside them. Whether this was out of respect for the Arab culture or because the French had no desire to live in rundown medinas with no modern services is a topic up for debate.
Whatever his reasons, Lyautey made Rabat on the Atlantic coast the new capital and developed the port of Casablanca. The sultan remained, but as little more than a figurehead. Lyautey’s successors were not so sensitive. Their efforts to speed French settlement prompted the people of the Rif Mountains, led by the Berber scholar Abd el-Krim, to rise up against both colonial forces. It was only through the combined efforts of 25,000 Spanish-French troops that Abd el-Krim was eventually forced to surrender in 1926. By the 1930s, more than 200,000 French had made Morocco home. WWII saw Allied forces use Morocco as a base from which to drive the Germans out of North Africa.
With the war over, Sultan Mohammed V inspired an independence party that finally secured Moroccan freedom in 1956. Tangier was reclaimed in the process, but Spain refused to hand over the northern settlements of Ceuta and Melilla (to this day they remain Spain’s last tenuous claim on Africa). Mohammed V promoted himself to king in 1957 and was succeeded four years later by his son, Hassan II. This popular leader cemented his place in Moroccan hearts and minds by staging the Green March into the Western Sahara, an area formerly held by Spain. With a force of 350,000 volunteers, Hassan’s followers overcame the indigenous Sahrawis to claim the mineral-rich region as their own.
By the 1960s it had become clear that the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the ‘territory’ wanted independence. Western Sahara’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) didn’t take kindly to the invasion and embarked on a protracted war of independence against Morocco. Despite attempts at international mediation the issue remains unresolved. While the Moroccan masses applauded the southern invasion, it left nearby Algeria about as happy as the Western Saharans themselves. Morocco’s relations with this particular war-torn neighbour have been poor ever since.
It is generally thought that Morocco is populated by Arabs and Berbers. It is true that these two groups are dominant, although they are not alone. Arabs make up about half of the population. Coming from conquering tribes, they are essentially city dwellers. The Berbers (first occupants of Morocco, their name comes from the Latin barbarus), on the other hand, form the bulk of the population of the mountains and the desert. There are generally four groups, speaking four variants of the Berber language: the Rifans, the Middle Atlas group, the Berbers of the High Atlas and the nomadic groups from the southern provinces (mainly Reguibat).
Although speaking a language close to Tamachek, the Reguibat are not Tuaregs. For a Westerner, the most visible difference between them is the saddle; the reguibat saddle is shell-shaped and its ornamentation is more sober. An anecdote about the Berbers of the High Atlas, who are essentially Chleuhs. Their reputation as indomitable warriors is so proverbial that their name became, during World War I, the nickname given to German soldiers. The Jewish population is still large and enjoys a strong economic position. It is true that Morocco has always been very tolerant of the Jews, who have never suffered insults and are perfectly integrated. Finally, we should point out two minority populations: Westerners (more than 100,000 people) and, in the south, Haratines, descendants of the slaves of nomadic populations.
Morocco is one of those religious frontiers where orthodoxy and local custom have met and compromised. The veneration of saints is frowned upon by orthodox Sunni Muslims but, in Morocco, mainstream Islam blends with the mystical practises of Sufism, which involves devotional dancing, poetry and trance. Because of this, the Moroccan calendar retains many moussems (non-Islamic ‘holy’ days), honouring holy men like Moulay Idriss. It’s worth asking around for details of festival dates because they alter a little every year.
The two largest moussems in the Moroccan calendar are Moussem of Ben Aïssa, held in Meknès in June, and Moussem of Moulay Idriss II, held in Fès at the end of September when thousands gather to watch the processions to the saint’s tomb. Other, non-religious events, that pull in impressive crowds are the world-famous Gnawa and World Music Festival, held in Essaouira, and the Festival of World Sacred Music held in Fès in June. The Marrakesh Film Festival, held between September and December, is also growing in popularity and showcases Arab and African cinema to an often star-studded audience. Independence Day, one of five national secular holidays, is celebrated on 18 November.
There are loads of trekking possibilities in Morocco, a highlight being the beautiful trail between Tacheddirt and Imlil above the High Atlas snow line. Other outdoor fun includes rock climbing in the Todra Gorge, camel trekking in Erfoud and M’Hamid, desert quadbiking around Ouarzazate and surf fishing in the southwest. The winds and resulting surf off the Atlantic coast are great for surfing and windsurfing.