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Country of the Week: Morocco

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

Welcome to Morocco! This fascinating and beautiful North African country is just a stone’s throw from Europe and is one of the most stable and safest in the region. We’ll explore the history of Morocco along with its unique culture and varied sights (both natural and man-made).

  • Capital: Rabat
  • Largest City: Casablanca
  • Population (2014): 33,848,242 (39th)
  • Total Area: 446,550 km² (58th) or 710,850 km² (40th) – second figure includes disputed Western Sahara
  • Official Languages: Arabic and Berber (French is also used in business, government, and diplomacy)
  • Currency: Moroccan dirham (د.م.) (MAD)
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The Hassan II Mosque – looking out towards the Atlantic in Casablanca

History of Morocco

Prior to the Islamic conquest of North Africa, Morocco was brought into the wider world under the rule of different empires (Carthage and Rome among them) and as an independent kingdom. Throughout periods of foreign rule, the ethnic Berbers (indigenous North Africans) remained in the region, especially those who lived in the mountains.

Starting in the late 7th century, the Islamic conquest of Morocco began. As part of the Umayyad Caliphate, Muslim customs spread amongst the Berber population. Even as the power of the Caliphate’s waxed and waned, and independent civilizations were established, the Islamic faith continued to take root.

Around the 11th century and continuing for about 500 years, various Berber dynasties came to power. The Almoravid and Almohad regimes dominated the Maghreb and even large swathes of what is now Spain and Portugal. Other regimes later rose and fell until the Christian Reconquista eventually drove them from Europe.

The era of direct Berber rule ended in 1549 when Arab dynasties (the Saadi and later the Alaouite) took control of Morocco. The land was divided and reunited over the course of the next 200 or so years, but the ruling powers were able to defend the region against incursions from both the powerful Ottomans and the Portuguese, while also claiming land from other neighbouring countries. The Alaouite dynasty, which took control in 1666, remains in power to this day as the current Moroccan royal family.

While independence lasted for a while, the land caught the eye of European powers as they fought for dominance in North Africa. Spain initially claimed areas during the 1800’s while France declared Morocco a protectorate in 1912. Despite uprisings and motions for independence, Morocco remained largely beholden to France, with troops serving in the French forces in both World Wars. With some discreet support from the United States and French capitulation to popular demands (and the return of the exiled king), Morocco became fully independent once more in 1956.

As the ruler of an independent country, but not a democracy, King Hassan II weathered some attempts to abolish the monarchy and remained in power. After negotiating with Spain to leave the region (for the most part), Morocco moved to occupy the southern territory of Western Sahara. This brought the country into conflict with Algeria and an Algerian backed regime (SADR). Since the early 90’s, the UN has maintained a ceasefire in the region, though the status of Western Sahara remains in flux.

In 1999, Hassan II died and his son, Mohammed VI, took his place as king. His rule has been characterized by slow reform and liberalization, though the monarchy and government still maintain a tight grip on the country. Activists have called for reform and for more power to be given to the elected parliament. In 2011, a referendum devolved some authority, though demonstrators still look for more drastic action. Despite this, Morocco is one of the most stable countries in Africa and maintains close ties to the West – it is a major non-NATO ally of the US and remains close to France and Spain.

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A traditional Moroccan style room

Culture

Due to the large amount of rulers, civilizations, and ethnic groups that have called Morocco home, the country has developed a rich and diverse culture – though the majority of the population identifies as Berber and Arab. Berber, Jewish, and Arabic traditions can be found within the country along with influences from nearby European countries and Western culture. These have come together successfully, creating a culture that is altogether welcoming and unique.

Moroccan architecture is inspired by what is generally seen in Moorish Spain and Portugal. These influences can still be seen in modern structures and furnishings today, and are popular around the world. Most homes follow the Islamic Dar al-Islam, which feature plain exteriors and lavishly decorated interiors while including outdoor patios and thick walls to protect inhabitants from light and heat.

Geography

Morocco features a wide variety of different landscapes and environments within its borders. It has the rare honour of being one of only three countries that features both coastlines on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The interior of the country includes towering mountains (the Atlas and Rif Mountains are two of the largest ranges) and forests as well as the vast expanse of the Sahara desert. While the status of Western Sahara is in dispute, Morocco controls about 2/3 of it. This land is mostly arid and inhospitable.

Morocco is also home to an abundance of bustling and globalized cities. The capital of Rabat may not be as important a port as it once was, but it still retains large political importance between governmental and diplomatic matters. The most well known city in the country is the port of Casablanca. It is the largest city and economic powerhouse of Morocco. Another well-known city is Marrakesh in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Built by one of the former Berber empires, the city is a window into the past rulers of the land while retaining a bustling trading and market scene.

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A typical street market scene in the city of Fes

Did you know?

  • There are still two small Spanish areas of control in the region (Ceuta and Melilla)
  • Couscous is the most famous of example of Moroccan cuisine
  • The most popular sport is soccer, with the national team reaching the 2nd round of the 1986 World Cup
  • The liver is associated with love as opposed to the heart in Morocco
  • Films shot in Morocco include Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down as well as parts of the TV show Game of Thrones. Casablanca on the other hand, was filmed in and around Los Angeles
  • Mint tea is the national drink of Morocco
  • Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States in 1777. The friendship treaty signed in 1786 is America’s oldest and remains unbroken
  • The Berbers have close genetic links to the Sami people (largely found in Scandinavia)
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The fortified city of Aït Benhaddou. A stop along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech

Last Word

Morocco has a diverse history with a multitude of different traditions and cultures that have helped shape its modern face. It remains a stable country that is a spectacular and popular getaway for people from all over the world.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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