Morocco is a very vast and varied territory that was only relatively recently united into a modern nation-state. Its long history records a struggle for ascendancy between the Berber tribes of the mountains and the Arabs of the plains, the rise, and fall of powerful dynasties, the creation and collapse of mighty empires, and, from the 18th century, manipulation and exploitation by European powers seeking to expand their empires.
The Phoenicians were the first to explore this far western land, setting up a trading post at Liks (Lixus) on the Moroccan coast around 1000BC. In the succeeding centuries they and their descendants, the Carthaginians, founded outposts at Tangier and Essaouira, while also building a town on the site of present-day Rabat. Greek traders called the fierce inhabitants of the interior barbaroi, meaning ‘not of our people’, a name that has persisted through the ages as ‘Berber’ (the English word ‘barbarian’ has the same root).
Little is known of the early Berbers until their land became part of the Roman Empire. The Romans built important centers of settlement, including Volubilis, whose remains today are Morocco’s most impressive from that time.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, Arabs introduced Islam to Morocco, and the great Arab dynasties began to rule over vast swathes of the Maghreb and Spain.
One of many remarkable sultans was Moulay Ismail, whose 55-year reign (1672–1727) was one of the longest and most brutal in Moroccan history. He was a cruel and profligate megalomaniac reputed to have had a harem of 500 women and fathered over 700 children. The imperial city of Meknes was his grand project, and thousands died in the building of his palaces and triumphal arches.
Independence and Modernization:
In the “last scramble for Africa” at the beginning of the 20th century, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain vied with one another to dominate Morocco, one of few remaining parts of the continent outside the colonial grasp. With France and Spain’s occupation of Morocco, resentment of foreign rule simmered for 40 years until the country’s independence was regained in 1956.
The elation felt at independence soon gave way to rivalries and insurrection. Following the death of Hassan II and the crowning of a new, young king, Morocco entered into a new era – of hope and change. Today, with the effects of the Arab Spring being felt throughout the region, King Mohammed VI understands the need for reform, and a new constitution is being drafted which aims to devolve roughly half the king’s powers to a prime minister elected by the Moroccan people.
The reign of Mohammed VI:
When Muhammad Ben el Hassan was crowned Mohammed VI in July 1999, Morocco entered a new era. The new king was young, bright, modern, and intent on implementing pioneering reforms. Early on in his reign, true to his word, he overhauled the mudawana (family legal code), which would fundamentally change the lives of Moroccan women and, even more extraordinarily, established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission. At the same time, Mohammed VI saw the need to establish closer ties with the West as well as increase foreign investment in Morocco, particularly noticeable in the tourist mecca of Marrakech, which has seen a boom in the building of tourist hotels and resorts.
Thirteen years after his coronation, Mohammed VI remains a popular and much-loved figure. Step into any shop, hotel or restaurant across Morocco and you will see a framed photograph of the monarch, dressed either in full royal Moroccan dress or in a sharp Gucci suit in front of one of his many classic cars. In spite of the obvious wealth gap between the king (the seventh-richest royal in the world) and his people, he is still hailed as “King of the Poor”.
The Muslim Conquest:
The 7th century saw the rise of Islam in Arabia. In the early years, believers were organized into a small, close-knit community headed by the Prophet Mohammed. Within a century of Mohammed’s death in AD632, Muslim armies had conquered the whole of the Middle East, including Persia, all of North Africa, and parts of Spain and France. From the time of the Muslim Conquest to the formation of a Protectorate in the 20th century, the political history of Morocco is that of an uninterrupted succession of dynasties. After consolidating power, subduing enemies, and building monumental cities, mosques, and palaces, each successive regime slid into decadence, leading to weak government, political chaos and bitter fighting, until a new faction stepped in to fill the power vacuum.