Morocco History

Morocco was the first country, in 1776, to recognize American Independence.


Morocco, slightly larger than California, lies across the Strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean and looks out on the Atlantic from the northwest shoulder of Africa. Algeria is to the east and Mauritania to the south. On the Atlantic coast there is a fertile plain. The Mediterranean coast is mountainous. The Atlas Mountains, running northeastward from the south to the Algerian frontier, average 11,000 ft (3,353 m) in elevation.


Unlike other North African nations, Morocco has been the home of the Berbers since the second millennium B.C. The Berbers, or Imazighen (men of the land) 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 colonizing Phoenicians.  In A.D. 46, Morocco was annexed by Rome as part of the province of Mauritania.  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 centralized authority by following Donatus (a Christian sect leader who claimed that the Donatists alone constituted the true church).

The Vandals (a Germanic tribe) overran this portion of the declining Roman empire in the 5th century. The Arabs invaded circa 685, bringing Islam.  Quickly conquering Egypt, the Arabs controlled all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century.  The Berbers joined the Arabs in invading Spain in 711, but then revolted against the Arabs, resenting their secondary status.

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.  In 1086, Berbers took control of large areas of Moorish Spain until they were expelled in the 13th century.

But eventually weakened by Christian defeats in Spain, and paying the price for heavily taxing tribes, the Muslim (or Moorish) rule 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.

The land was rarely unified and was usually ruled by small tribal states. Conflicts between Berbers and Arabs were chronic. Portugal and Spain began invading Morocco, which helped to unify the land in defense. In 1660, Morocco came under the control of the Alawite dynasty. It is a sherif dynasty—descended from the prophet Muhammad—and rules Morocco to this day.

During the 17th and 18th centuries Morocco was one of the Barbary states, the headquarters of pirates who pillaged Mediterranean traders. European powers became interested in colonizing the country beginning in 1840, and there were frequent clashes with the French and Spanish. Finally, in 1904, France and Spain concluded a secret agreement that divided Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence, with France controlling almost all of Morocco and Spain controlling the small southwest portion, which became known as Spanish Sahara. Morocco became an even greater object of European rivalry leading almost to a European war in 1905 when Germany attempted to gain a foothold in the mineral-rich country. By the terms of the Algeciras Conference (1906), the sultan of Morocco maintained control of his lands and France's privileges were curtailed. The conference was a telling indication of what was to come in World War I, with Germany and Austria-Hungary lining up on one side of the territorial dispute, and France, Britain, and the United States on the other.

In 1912, the sultan of Morocco, Moulay Abd al-Hafid, permitted the French protectorate status.  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, when France and Spain recognized the independence and sovereignty of Morocco.  Tangier was reclaimed in the process, but Spain refused to hand over the northern towns 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 long and gruesome 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 neighbor have been poor ever since.

On his death on Feb. 26, 1961, Mohammed V's son succeeded him as King Hassan II. 

Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) has been repeatedly criticized by the international community. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of Moroccans crossed the border into Spanish Sahara to back their government's contention that the northern part of the territory was historically part of Morocco. Spain, which had controlled the territory since 1912, withdrew in 1976, creating a power vacuum that was filled by Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south. When Mauritania withdrew in Aug. 1979, Morocco overran the remainder of the territory. A rebel group, the Polisario Front, has fought against Morocco since 1976 for the independence of Western Sahara on behalf of the indigenous Saharawis. The Polisario and Morocco agreed in Sept. 1991 to a UN-negotiated cease-fire, which was contingent on a referendum regarding independence. For the past decade, however, Morocco has opposed the referendum. In 2002, King Mohammed VI reasserted that he “will not renounce an inch of” Western Sahara.

In the 1990s, King Hassan promulgated “Hassanian democracy,” which allowed for significant political freedom while at the same time retaining ultimate power for the monarch. In Aug. 1999, King Hassan II died after 38 years on the throne and his son, Prince Sidi Muhammad, was crowned King Muhammad VI, just prior to his 35th birthday.

 The young king accelerated the more liberal trends that began late in his father's rule. In his first speech as king, he promised the amnesty of nearly 50,000 prisoners and apologized for past political repressions. More significantly, he sacked the powerful and much feared long-time head of the security forces, the infamous 'Butcher Basri'. Still, Morocco remains a monarchy in which the limits of political tolerance reflect the king's personal views.

Since then Muhammad VI has pledged to make the political system more open, to allow freedom of expression, and to support economic reform. He has also advocated giving more rights to women, which has been opposed by Islamic fundamentalists.  The new king has made economic development a priority. He has continued his father's policies of economic liberalization and privatization of state industries, forced into place by stagnant growth rates going back to the 1980's. The economy is still heavily dependent on agriculture, which has been hampered by droughts. 

The entrenched political elite and the military have also been leery of some reform proposals. With about 20% of the population living in dire poverty, economic expansion is a prime goal. 

Mohammed VI has shown himself to be most innovative in the field of social policy, and more specifically, in women's rights. In 2002, the king married Salma Bennani, a computer engineer - an event that appeared to symbolize acceptance of an increasingly modern role for women. In 2004, the government adopted landmark changes to the Moudawana, or Family Law, aimed at 'lifting the inequity imposed on women, protecting children's rights, and safeguarding men's dignity'. The new legislation grants unprecedented rights and protections for women concerning marriage, divorce and custody of children.

On May 16, 2003, terrorists, believed to be associated with al-Qaeda, killed 33 people in several simultaneous attacks. Four bombs targeted Jewish, Spanish, and Belgian buildings in Casablanca. In the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, Spain, numerous Moroccans were implicated.


Morocco has developed an elaborate patchwork of artistic traditions - impressive leather ware and jewelry, and fabled carpets. Evolved from Classical Moroccan music, a style that developed in Muslim Spain and the storytelling musical traditions of the indigenous Berbers, while contemporary musicians employ fusions of African, French, pop and rock. Throw in a mess of couscous washed down with sweet mint tea and you'll come somewhere close to the cultural flavor of Morocco.

Although identified more with Algeria, rai (opinion) music is a burgeoning force in Morocco. Despite its distinctly Arab-African rhythms (it owes much to Bedouin music), it's probably the most thoroughly Westernized style, combining a variety of electrical instruments to create a hypnotic effect.

Morocco's Islamic streak has meant that, compared with most African nations, dance is a fairly low key affair (theoretically, Muslim women are not supposed to boogie). So while the circle dance known as ahidous is ancient and symbolic to the Berbers, there'll be no naked decapitating of chickens here anymore thanks very much.


Spectacularly diverse, Morocco combines sand, sea and snow in a way that Club Med developers can only dream about. The southern coast stretches to the edge of the Western Sahara while to the north, the bulk of Morocco's population fills the foothills of the often snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The mountains provide a buffer against the country's dangerously rowdy eastern neighbor, Algeria.

Between the mountains and Morocco's Atlantic coast are plateaus and plains that are fertile and well-watered. In the extreme south, at the edge of the Anti Atlas, the gorges, like the rivers that flow at their bases, gradually peter out into the endless sand and stony wastes of the vast Sahara.

Full country name: Kingdom of Morocco
National name:
al-Mamlaka al-Maghrebia
Area: 446,550 sq km
Population (2004 est.): 32,209,101 
Capital City: Rabat (2003 est. 1,636,600 population)
Largest cities: Casablanca, 3,397,000; Fez, 941,800; Marrakech, 755,200
People: 55% Arab, 44% Berber, 0.7% foreigners
Language: English, Spanish; Castilian, French, Arabic
Religion: 98% Muslim, 1% Christian, 1% Jewish
Government: constitutional monarchy
Head of State: King Mohammed VI - since 1999
Head of Government: Prime Minister Driss Jettou

GDP: US$128 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,000
Annual Growth: 6.8%
Inflation: 3.6%
Major Industries: Mining, leather goods, textiles, tourism
Major Trading Partners: EU, US, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil

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