Essaouira

essaouiraESSAOUIRA | THE PEARL OF THE ATLANTIC

 

Essaouira, “the pearl of the kingdom”, appears like a mirage suspended between sky and sea at the end of a long beach of exquisitely fine sand. A cosmopolitan and international place, already known throughout the Roman Empire for the extraction of purple dye from molluscs, Essaouira was conquered by the Muslims in the tenth century and invaded by the Portuguese in the sixteenth. Now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Medina and its Jewish quarter offer architectural testimony to the rich history of the city.

We can most likely attribute the founding of the city to Carthaginian merchants settling in a small Berber village. As it became an important trading centre, the Berbers recaptured the town in the third century B.C. Then came the Romans, who in 42 A.D. annexed the city to the province of Mauretania Tingitana.

 

In Roman times, the city’s importance was tied to the extraction of purple dye from shellfish on the tiny archipelago known as the Purple Islands, just across from the city. In the tenth century the Muslims conquered Essaouira. Then, in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese seized the town to use as an African outpost on the Atlantic.

 

La città (il cui nome originario era Mogador, che in arabo significa ben custodita) venne poi abbandonata nel 1541 e lasciata in mano alle tribù locali. Caduta in declino, il suo destino venne segnato nel 1765 dalla decisione del sultano Muhammad ibn Abdallah di rinnovarne i fasti e la bellezza.

kite essaouiraThe city (whose original name was Mogador, which in Arabic means “well guarded”) was then abandoned in 1541 and left in the hands of local tribes. Fallen into decline, its destiny was sealed in 1765 by the decision of the Sultan Muhammad ibn Abdallah to renew its fortifications and its beauty. He commanded the French architect Théodore Cornut to restructure Mogador to make it a place of wonder for foreign guests and, at the same time, a military base. The work lasted three years, upsetting part of the urban layout of the old Mogador with the creation of a long central avenue in European style.

CAt this time, with the construction of the mighty and spectacular walls that distinguish it to this day, the city took the name of Essaouira (in Arabic, “well-designed”). Meanwhile, a small Jewish community had established itself in the Medina and quickly began to mediate politics and trade between the Sultan and foreign powers.

 

At the outset of the French protectorate in 1912, Essaouira once more adopted the name Mogador even as the port’s strategic importance dwindled. The city relinquished its role as the only port of Morocco open to foreign trade, a function that now passed to Agadir, Casablanca and Tangier.

In 1956, upon independence from France, the town took back the name of Essaouira.

Today Essaouira has become a fascinating travel destination while maintaining a simple style not governed by the interests of tour operators. Moreover, in addition to its obvious beauty, this old Moroccan village boasts an unusually mild climate: though windy at certain times (and for this reason a legendary destination for enthusiasts of windsurfing and kite surfing), Essaouira’s equitable climate allows bathers to enjoy the sea even in winter yet not to suffer through sultry summers. And gentle evening breezes across the Medina reward travellers who stroll through lanes of houses and artisan workshops, all painted white and accented by typical blue wooden doors.

medinaWith streets in a grid pattern, like Saint Malo, this massively fortified town was built at sea level. Sparkling white, a splendid urban complex, Essaouira is replete with squares and markets that function both as meeting places and as settings for concerts and other entertainment.

Flanked by its powerful fortifications, Essaouira lives mainly by handicrafts and tourism. Another thriving business is fishing: every morning at the port, fish and shellfish of every sort sell at auction. From the Portuguese tower (Skala du Port) overlooking the harbour entrance, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the entire area. The old Medina can be divided into three parts: the Medina, the Mellah, and the Kasbah; all three are protected by high walls surrounding different and colourful souks.
Essaouira, a fascinating city of retro-style charm, has always attracted artists of all kinds and of all nationalities. In the sixties and seventies, it became a favourite destination of the international hippie counterculture.
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In Essaouira in 1952, Orson Welles filmed mythical scenes of his Othello. In the 1970s, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and other pop stars spent time here regularly. Famous contemporary writers and directors, even today, come to Essaouira to savour its slightly nostalgic and romantic atmosphere, punctuated by the pounding of waves against the rocks and the incessant shrill cries of hundreds of seagulls circling in the sky.

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