Essaouira – Morocco

This week’s journey takes us back to Essaouira (Arabic: الصويرة‎‎; Berber: Mugadur), a vibrant and colorful seaport on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Formerly known as Mogador, the city is both a wonderfully-preserved example of 18th-century architecture as well as a delightfully welcoming and laid-back modern oasis.

We had the pleasure of visiting Essaouira in March 2012 with T.’s sister, future brother-in-law, and a family friend who very generously served as our tour guide. The town – with its busy, picturesque harbor, colorful souk and incredible seafood (not to mention its abundance of adorable street kittens!) – was our favorite stop on this journey to Morocco.

Archaeological evidence indicates Essaouira has been occupied since prehistoric times. Carthaginian navigator Hanno visited the Bay of Essaouira in the 5th century BC, establishing the trading post of Arambys. Around the end of the 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE, the Berber king Juba II established a Tyrian purple factory here, processing the dye that colored the purple stripe in Imperial Roman Senatorial togas. Excavation of a Roman villa on Mogador Island – situated just off Essaouira’s shores – produced a Roman vase as well as coinage from the 3rd century CE.

In 1506, the Portuguese ordered a fortress – Castelo Real de Mogador – to be constructed on the site of present-day Essaouira. The castelo fell to local resistance within four years, however, and the Portuguese were forced to abandon their settlement of the area. Throughout the 16th century, powers including Spain, England, the Netherlands and France tried in vain to conquer the locality. Instead, Mogador remained a haven for pirates, as well as the export of sugar and molasses.

The foundation of present-day Essaouira began in the 18th century. In the 1760s, Sultan Sidi Mohammad ben Abdallah (Mohammad III), in an effort to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic for increased exchanges with European powers, chose Mogador – with its coastal location and strategic proximity to Marrakesh – as the site of his royal port. For the next 12 years, the sultan engaged French architect Théodore Cornut to design the new city. Cornut worked three years on the design and construction of the Scala of the Kasbah and Scala of the Port, although the latter project (pictured below) was eventually fulfilled by English architect Ahmed el Aalj (“Ahmed the Renegade”). Both scalas were constructed by the sultan’s slaves under Genoese engineers. Originally called souira (“the small fortress”), the name became es-saouira (“the beautifully designed”).

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Essaouira’s port was known as the Port of Timbuktu, as most “products” of the caravan trade – including slaves, salt, refined sugar, gold, ivory, dried camel skins and ostrich feathers – left Africa from these shores. By 1780, the port was handling almost half of Morocco’s international trade.  Since that time, the port has been enlarged on several occasions, most importantly in 1915 and between 1924 and 1967.

Our adventure in Essaouira began at Bab al Mersa, a monumental sandstone door located directly adjacent to the port scala and the town’s bustling harbor. An inscription on the triangular pediment surmounting the arched doorway reads “PRAISE TO ALLAH, This door, ordered by the glorious one of the kings, Sidi Mohammed, was built by its servetor Ahmed el Aalj” (English translation from Arabic). The gate is also inscribed with the Islamic Crescent, the Star of David and the Scallop of Santiago, a tribute to the city’s history of multi-cultural and multi-denominational co-existence. A step through the door reveals Essaouira’s inner harbor, with spectacular views of the medina and old city walls in the distance.

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Bronze artillery guns brought from Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands line the port scala’s parapets. Inscriptions indicate the bronze used to manufacture the guns came from Mexico and Peru. Most were made in Seville and Barcelona between 1743 and 1782; the final two artillery photographs below feature a Dutch cannon made in the Hague in 1744.

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Today, the fishing harbor, suffering from the competition of Agadir and Safi, remains rather small, although sardines and conger eels are abundant. Essaouira is also renowned for its kitesurfing and windsurfing, with powerful trade winds – known locally as les alizés – blowing almost constantly onto the protected, almost waveless, bay.

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After exploring the port scala and old city walls, we made our way into town in search of food – and boy, did we find some! While unfortunately neither of us recall the name of this restaurant, both the food and drinks were plentiful, delicious and uniquely Moroccan.

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After lunch, we headed on foot into Le Souk, Essaouira’s pedestrian medina. The stalls were overflowing with fruits and vegetables, intricately woven clothing and shoes, hand-painted faience and tagines, and spices of every conceivable color, flavor and aroma. Stray (but apparently well fed) cats darted through and between the stalls in search of food and friendly tourists (T., true to form, obliged with both snacks and a scratch between the ears). It’s no surprise that the medina – with its perfectly cobbled streets, secluded alleyways and snow white structures with striking blue doors and shutters – was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

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We had an especially difficult time getting T. out of Morocco without this wee ginger kitten in his suitcase!

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Although we were reluctant to leave, a dinner reservation in Marrakesh (approximately 2 1/2 hours inland) required that we bring our exploration of Essaouira to an end. Had we more time, we would have liked to visit the Scala of the Kasbah, Essaouira Beach and the Jewish cemetery. A return visit is most definitely in order!

Thank you for joining us on this adventure in North Africa! – T. & B. June

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Next week’s journey: Riquewihr, France

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