Essaouira History

Long before any humans set foot in Essaouira (pronounced Essa-weara), the region was inhabited by giant reptiles.  In 1998, the fossilized bones of one of these large beasts were discovered east of the town, on the right back of the River Qsob.  They date to the Jurassic period (195 million years ago).

  The Phoenicians came here in the 7th century B.C., followed by the Carthaginians. Excavations on one of the offshore islands unearthed a pottery sherd inscribed with the name of the Carthaginian admiral Hanno. A Greek voyager in the 4th century B.C. noted that the people who inhab­ited the coast around Essarouira were very fond of elephant ivory, since they drank out of ivory goblets, the women had ivory necklaces, and "even" the horses had ivory ornaments. At the end of the 1st century B.C., Juba II, king of Mauretania, established a center for the production of the famous purple dye obtained from the local murex shellfish. In the 10th century a.d., the town became known as Amogdur. after its Berber patron saint, Sidi Mogdul. and exported from its port produce from all over southern Morocco. The Portuguese, always on the move, installed a trading post there in the 15th century, and in 1506 built a small fort (now ruined) to protect the entrance to the port. They encouraged trade and the exploitation of the sugar cane plantations of the interior, but didn't stay long in the town. Essouira had no truly safe port, and the Portuguese doubtless preferred to concentrate their energies on El-Jadida, Safi, and Agadir.

The Saadian sultan Abd el-Malik rebuilt the place a bit in 1628, but it was not 1764 that the town really took off, thanks to the Alaouite sultan, Mohammed III, who decided to turn it into a naval base. It seems that Sidi Mohammed's choice of Essaouira came from his desire to punish Agadir, a town which openly defied him and took the lion's share of European trade. Determined to do a good job, the sultan entrusted the design of the new town to a French prisoner, Theodore Cornut.  So its roads were straight, cutting each other at right angles, and the whole place was surrounded with French-style ramparts. Mogador became re-baptized Essaouira ("the picture," said to refer to the Frenchman's plan), and Sidi Mohammed set about making a commercial success of his new town. The foreign consuls established in Rabat and Agadir were ordered to take up residence in Essaouira, rich Moroccan families were invited to settle there, and an important community of Jewish merchants, with their intimate knowledge of European languages and business methods, help trade to expand. By 1780, almost 1,000 Europeans were involved in a dozen commercial enterprises and 40 per­cent of maritime trade passed through Essaouira. It was here that U.S. Consul General, Thomas Barclay, landed in June 1786 on his way to Marrakech to negotiate a treaty of friendship with the Moroccan sultan, Under the Protectorate, the improvement of the ports of Agadir, and especially Casablanca, halted much of this trade, though it was then that the modern town grew up outside the ramparts.  

In the 19th century, Mogador was the only port (outside of Tangier) that was open to European trade.  This protected trade status attracted British merchants, who settled in the Kasbah and a large Jewish community.

The town went into decline during the beginning of the 20th century as the French protectorate favored Casablanca and the Jewish community left. However, thanks to tourism and its fishing port, it is again on an upward swing.

 Its cultural mix, whitewashed buildings and pinkish-red ramparts make it one of the most attractive resorts on the Atlantic coast.  Consistent wind attracts windsurfers from all over the world. 

Essaouira  |  Morocco History