History of Essaouira

When Essaouira was not yet called Mogador…

The expansion of the city of Essaouira has long followed that of its commercial and port activities…

2500 years ago…

The first, the Phoenicians around the 5th century BC, under the leadership of Hannon the Carthaginian, had already apprehended that this harbour in the vicinity rich in drinking water, sheltered from the trade winds by small islets near a coast bordered by dunes, would make an ideal anchorage on the sea route of Cape Verde and Ecuador.

Archaeological excavations undertaken on the islet of Mogador show that an area of approximately 1 ha had been developed to create a small commercial establishment that was to be used punctually while being practicable and affordable at all times.

Then, irregularly frequented by the native Berbers, the Romans invested it during the third Punic war in 146 BC. They place Juba II, king of what was then called the Berber kingdom of Mauretania, on the throne of his destiny.

In addition to the cured meats, Juba II developed the exploitation of the murex, the gastropod mollusc from which the purple dye was drawn, which was particularly fond of the Romans for whom it was a symbol of high social rank. The purple from this mollusc will give the islets the name of Purpurary Islands.

Annexed by the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD

During the second half of the 1st century AD, the Berber kingdom was purely annexed by the Roman Empire which made it a province called Mauretania Tingitane.

The Romans certainly continued this activity of exploitation of the murex in this place which they named “Tamusiga”, which will then become Mogdura for the Portuguese, Mogador for the Castilians, whereas for the Berbers they were named Amogdul, term certainly derived from a holy marabout Sidi Mogdul.

Commercial development as early as the 14th century

It is from the 14th Century that the site appears on the maritime maps.

From the first decade of this century, Dom Manuel, 1st King of Portugal, measures the advantages and creates a commercial port protected there by a military garrison building a defended fortress of a belt of several ramparts, thus becoming the first African port front on the Moroccan Atlantic south coast.

The trade with caravans coming from Timbuktu develops there while the fishing activity becomes a sure value.

In 1764, the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah occupied fighting against the rebellions Abid Al Boukhari and the guich, mercenary army of the Oudayas, takes back Mazagan (El Jadida) from the Portuguese and hires a French architect Theodore Cornut to found the city which will become Essaouira while at the same time he takes Marrakesh as capital.

The city will be designed in the image of the European fortresses, its definitively created port will serve as naval base.

Essaouira approaches the 18th century with serenity, becoming a port city in full expansion, many Jewish craftsmen settle there, leaving their mark with the old mellah which they built as well as with a rich craft industry of jewelry.

This was the era of consular houses allowing the Jewish community to play an important intermediary role, especially in trade, obtaining a monopoly on the sale of wheat to Europeans, which was forbidden to Muslims.

A cosmopolitan population

Many descendants of African slaves settled in the region, the Gnaouas. Several hundred Europeans, French, Spanish, Dutch in particular settled there durably benefiting from the opening of the port to free European competition decided by the Sultan.

The city gradually became cosmopolitan and multicultural, making it the charm of the city of the trade winds. At the same time, ahead of his time, Moulay Mohammed outlawed the export of black populations to Europe with, at the same time, signing new commercial contracts.

Encouraging Essaouira to the detriment of Agadir to which it prohibits commercial activities towards the outside, ban also extended to Larache and Fédala (Mohamedia), the port sees its naval frequentation increasing passing to a reception of 60 vessels in its harbour at the end of the 18th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century, under the aegis of Moulay Slimane, port activities were perpetuated, concentrating 40% of Moroccan maritime trade, but in 1844 the French navy bombarded the city and its port, causing part of the population to flee, thus marking the beginning of the commercial decline of Essaouira.

Essaouira at the time of the protectorate

During the protectorate the French develop the ports of Casablanca and Agadir, the very central geographical position of El Jadida (ex Mazagan) on the ocean coast favours it to the detriment of Essaouira which gradually begins a conversion of fishing port. It now occupies 3rd place in the charts of Moroccan sardine ports.

Two shipyards were built there, maintaining the old fleet and continuing the construction of fishing boats that were traditionally made of eucalyptus or teak wood.

And today

In the twentieth century, Essaouira has rebounded, its secular multiculturalism has allowed it to welcome artisans from all over Morocco, but also many international artists. Many art galleries have opened their doors and the annual number of cultural events is certainly one of the most important in the Cherifian kingdom.

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Riad Ocean Medina

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