Rabat History

Rabat and Salé, situated respectively on the left and right banks of the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, on the Atlantic Coast, are so intimately linked, both by their past and their present, that they are best taken together. The two are often referred to, administratively at least, as Rabat- Salé. But each town jealously guards its individuality and, one has to add, keeps up its rivalry with its neighbor. Rabat is both an old imperial city and a new administrative capital.  It was also the residence of the late King Hassan II. It is a well-kept, calm, and peaceful town in which the visitor can relax and enjoy the numerous sights of all periods without fuss or hassle. On the other side of the Bou Regreg River, Salé has an equally rich past and an energetic and fast-growing population.

Early occupation. The earliest record of occupation in Rabat indicates that the Phoenicians, and then the Carthaginians, established a small settle­ment on what is now called  Chellah, near the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, in the 3rd century B.C. The Romans continued to occupy the site, called Sala Colonia, in the 1st century A.D., but it was almost certainly in­habited, too, by the local Mauretanian people. Upon the departure of the Romans in the 4th century A.D., the Berber Berghouatas, set up a small independent state that particularly flourished in the 8th century A.D. They were followers of the Kharijite heresy and for this were attacked and subdued by the Idrissids in the 10th century. Forced to move across the river, they founded the town of Salé.

Almohad and later dynasties. In Rabat, the new powers built a ribat, or fortified monastery, on the site of the present Oudaya Kasbah. Later, in 1146, the Almohad sultan, Abd el-Mumen, converted the ribat into vast for­tified camp, where he assembled his forces prior to the invasion of Spain. At the end of the 12th century, the ribat, now called Ribat el-Fath (Victory Fort) became the capital of the Almohad sultan Yacub el-Mansour. After his victory over the Spanish and Portuguese at the battle of Alarcos in 1195, he surrounded the town with over 5 km of fortified ramparts, with five gates. Two of these gates still exist: the gate leading to the Oudaya Kasbah and Bab er-Rouah. Yacub el-Mansour also started, but never fin­ished, the construction of what was to have been one of the biggest mosques in the Islamic world, the Hassan Mosque. With the decline of the Almohad dynasty came the decline of Rabat when the Merinids chose Fès as their capital, though they did build a necropolis on the Roman site of Sala Colonia (Chellah) at the beginning of the 14th century, where they buried their sultans and important officials who had fought in Spain. The Merinids also built the walls of Salé.  Whi]e Rabat dropped down, Salé climbed up. The town prospered and became an important commercial port, trading skins, wool, and ivory for manufactured goods brought in by English, Flemish, and Italian merchants. In the 16th century the popula­tion of Rabat had dwindled to a few hundred families, while Salé contin­ued to enjoy its prosperity.

Corsairs. At the beginning of the 17th century, Rabat started to look up again with the arrival of Moslem Andalusian refugees fleeing from Christian Spain. Salé  also benefited from the presence of these skilled craftsmen. In Rabat, they installed themselves in the Oudaya Kasbah and became very successful pirates, even setting up an independent pirate re­public with Salé between 1638 and 1647. The raids of the "Sallee Rovers" in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, with their fleet of small, rapid, and well-armed sailing boats—often crewed by adventurers of all nationali­ties—earned them a terrifying reputation, to such an extent that the for­eign powers were forced to negotiate with the Republic to stop the loss of their boats, men, and merchandise. Particularly prized captures were the merchant ships returning from the Americas laden with gold, but theChristian captives also came in useful as slave labor or as a trading commodity to be bought back by their respective countries. The pirates' activities greatly increased the prosperity of both towns. In 1666, Mulay Rashid tried to curtail their activities, but it needed Mulay Ismail's firm hand at the beginning of the 18th century to put an end to all this (albeit only temporarily, for sporadic piracy continued until the beginning of the 19th century).          

The modern capital. The establishment of the French Protectorate from 1912 and the choice of Rabat as capital left Salé to itself, while encouraging the growth of Rabat and its transformation into a modern town.  The two towns, while still being intimately linked in a love-hate relationship, followed different paths. The French Resident General made Rabat the country's administrative center, and built a whole new town known as La Ville Nouvelle, leaving the medina untouched. The sultan, Mulay Yusef, was installed in a palace built on the site of the one briefly used by Mohammed III in the second half of the 18th century. Rabat has remained the seat of government and the principal royal residence since Moroccan independence in 1956. It houses all the ministries, foreign embassies, and international organizations, and so is considered the town of civil servants and diplomats. It also has a university. Both Rabat and Salé have grown enormously in the last decades: Rabat's population numbers 634,000, while that of Sale is 635,000. A further 197,000 people live in the neighboring towns of Skhirat and Temara, south of Rabat, which now almost form a single block with Rabat.

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