The history of Rabat and Morocco

The history of Rabat and Morocco

The history of Rabat and Morocco

Phoenician and Roman times:

The history of Rabat and Morocco: The first traces of man were found in Rabat, on the present-day site of Chellah, in the 8th century BC. Founded by the Phoenicians like other Moroccan coastal towns, it later fell under the control of the Carthaginians. We don’t really know what role it played in the regional economy.

It was the Romans who gave the name to the city of Salé (sala colonia), which is a deformation of the Latin word Sala, the first name given to the Bou Regreg river that separates the cities of Rabat and Salé. They established a river port there, replacing the pre-existing Phoenician port, which disappeared at the end of the Roman Empire. The “Berber” tribes (the name given by the Romans to the indigenous populations) later settled further downstream, on either side of the Bouregreg, where Rabat and Salé are today.

The history of Rabat and Morocco

The Roman city of Sala, whose remains can be admired on the Chellah site, was unique in that it had its own municipal code and senate, whereas Tangier, under Roman rule, enjoyed no independence whatsoever.

Sala was then at the southern limit of the Roman territory of Mauritania Tingitana. Like Volubilis, it was abandoned by Emperor Diocletian when Tingitana was established. Although the Roman presence remained after the departure of the administration, it ceased to belong to the orbis romanus, i.e. it was no longer part of the “Roman” sphere.

The Almohad era:

One of the first nomadic Berber tribes to settle in Rabat was the Berghouata. They resisted the Vandals, the Germanic tribes who attempted to invade the Maghreb in the 6th century. Converted to Islam after the Arabs took control of the Maghreb in the 7th century, they ruled this territory until 1148, when they were wiped out by the Almohad armies of Abdel Moumen Beni Ali El Goumi.

The Berghouata occupied the southern part of the Oued Bouregreg as far as Safi, while the other Berber tribe, the Ghemoua, shared the north from the Rif to the Bouregreg. These two Berber tribes themselves made up the large Masmouda tribe, one of the three major Berber components before the arrival of the Arabs, along with the Saharaja and the Zenates.

The latter exterminated the Berghouata tribe, whose religious practice of Islam was considered to be inconsistent with the Koran.
They were victorious against the Aouraba tribe, who had brought the Idrissid dynasty to power. Having ousted the Ghemoua from northern Morocco, the Idrissids were seeking to consolidate their territory. Resisting the Almoravids, the Berghouata eventually bowed to the Almohads, who came from the Islamicized Berber tribes of the High Atlas.

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The history of Rabat and Morocco

They even tried to eliminate all traces of the existence of this tribe deemed heretical. To replace them, the Almohads encouraged the establishment of the highly religious Beni Maâqil Arab tribes from Arabia. This is how the Zaërs of Yemanite origin settled in the Rabat region (they gave the region its name).

On the right bank of the Bouregreg, the city of Salé was founded under the impetus of an architect named Acharah, who had returned from Andalusia. On the left bank, in the 10th century, Sodat monks built a ribat (fortified convent) on the rocky outcrop that would later give the town its name. It was from these ribats that the Almohads waged their holy war towards Spain. Seduced by the site, Abdel Moumen settled in Rabat, erected walls and began building Mahdia, the future city of Salé le neuf, renamed in homage to the creator of the Almohad unitary doctrine, his predecessor, Al-Mahdi Ibn Tummert.

Abou Yaqoub Youssouf, his son and successor, helped fortify the Kasbah and turn it into an important stronghold. He built a large mosque, Jemaa Al Atiqa, as well as the Kasbah enclosure. At the end of the 12th century, Yacoub El Mansour (Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur), grandson of Abdel Moumen, wanted to become the most powerful of the Almohad rulers, and turn Rabat into the Alexandria of the Atlantic. He built the Hassan Tower in the image of Marrakech’s Koutoubia and Seville’s Giralda. He fortified the kasbah, surrounding it with two immense walls five kilometers long, pierced by five gates (today’s city walls).

The history of Rabat and Morocco

It was this prestigious sovereign who definitively gave the town the name of Rabat El Fath: “Ribat de la Victoire” (Ribat of Victory) after his victory over the Castilian armies of King Alfonso VIII at Alarcos in 1195. At the time, he was all-powerful militarily, but his prestige also extended to the arts, letters and sciences, and he became the patron of intellectuals such as the philosopher and physician Averroes.

But Yacoub El Mansour died without completing his work in 1199. In 1212, the Almohads of Muhammad an-Nasir, son of Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, were defeated by the Christian coalition at the terrible battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. This marked the beginning of the reconquista and the end of Al-Andalus. The city gradually lost its lustre. The world’s largest mosque, the Hassan Tower, was never completed; it was seriously damaged by the earthquake of 1755, and gradually fell into ruin through fire and looting.

The end of the Almohad dynasty marked the beginning of Rabat’s decline. The kasbah remained inhabited, but gradually abandoned its original vocation. Between the end of the Almohad reign and the beginning of the 16th century, Rabat lost its influence to Salé.

The Marinid period:

The Marinid dynasty, nomadic Berber Zenets from eastern Morocco, drove out the Almohads and reigned in Morocco between 1258 and 1465. The Marinids loathed the Almohads. They had no intention of supporting Yacoub El Mansour’s plan to make Rabat the capital of the Maghreb. Abou Yousouf Yacoub therefore preferred Salé to Rabat. Salé boasted a powerful naval arsenal protected by a river-side wall, made necessary by a deadly Castilian raid in 1260.

The port of Salé expanded in the early 15th century, becoming the most important trading post on the Atlantic coast. The Attalâa Medersa was built, and the town was one of the few in Morocco to be supplied with fresh water by an aqueduct. The town’s already strong religious character was accentuated, and Salé became a hotbed of Sufism, with hermit saints like Sidi ben Achir (a 14th-century Spanish Muslim mystic), marabouts like Sidi Abdallah Ben Hassun (a 16th-century scholar from a village north of Fès) and many others still celebrated today.

The history of Rabat and Morocco

The site of Chella (the ancient Sala), abandoned under the Almohads, became a sanctuary and vast necropolis under Abull-Hasan al Marini. The sovereign erected a prestigious zawiya with a mosque.
In Rabat, only a few noualas remain at the foot of the Kasbah, in the shadow of the ruined Hassan Tower. The only known developments are the construction of Jemaa El Kebir (the Great Mosque) with, opposite, the Maristan al-Azizi with its fountain and the Hammam Ej-Jdid on the outskirts of the Kasbah. Rabat has become a suburb of Salé, further isolated by the difficult Bouregreg crossing.

The Andalusian era:

Rabat took on new life with the arrival of the Moriscos, the name given to Andalusian Muslims, the last Moors to be expelled from Spain in the 17th century by King Philip III of Spain. First came the Hornacheros, equipped with their weapons before the edicts of proscription. They came from the Sierra d’Hornacho, southeast of Mérida in Extremadura, and settled on the left bank of the Bouregreg river. Endowed with a deep Muslim faith, they were wealthy, spoke Arabic and constituted the Moorish nobility. They immediately took over the Kasbah.

Then came, from 1610 to 1614, other Andalusians forcibly expelled from Spain. These highly Europeanized Muslims or Christian converts had mostly forgotten their ancestral customs and no longer spoke Arabic. They are penniless and unarmed.

They had no place in the Kasbah, occupied by the Hornacheros, who forced them to take refuge outside the Kasbah. To secure their position, these Andalusians built a wall inside the Almohad enclosure, the “Andalusian Wall”, and established what is now the medina.
Between the Andalusians and the Hornacheros, a thorny rivalry was born, with numerous conflicts, often armed, sometimes arbitrated by the city of Salé.

The history of Rabat and Morocco

The Hornacheros, masters of the Kasbah, are terribly vengeful warriors. From the Kasbah, they wanted to turn the Atlantic coast into the equivalent of the Algerian Barbary coasts. They armed light ships that would pass the “bar” well, and set out to plunder the rich Spanish coastal towns they knew so well. The “race” was born, for although the Slaouis were already renowned for their brigandage activities, this was limited mainly to pillaging ships that had run aground on the coast. Rabat gradually became a den of brigands and pirates, and the seat of trafficking of all kinds. The “privateers” of Rabat became increasingly intrepid: the famous Dutch renegade Jan Janszoon, alias “Mourad Rais”, reached the Icelandic coast with his ships in 1627, where he spread fear (image below).

Buoyed by their success and new-found military power, the Hornacheros succeeded in convincing the inhabitants of Salé (the old town) to secede. They were all the more successful as the port of Salé became increasingly difficult to access due to the silting up of the Bouregreg. Together, Salé and Rabat withdrew from the authority of Sultan Saadien and formed an “autonomous republic” known as the Bouregreg, which lasted from 1627 to 1641. Power was held by a governor elected for one year, assisted by a 16-member council (the diwan) made up of Rbatis and Slaouis. The 1st governor of this republic was Ibrahim Vargas, whose family (now Bargach) is still one of the most influential in Morocco. Of course, the main activity of this republic was piracy, an inexhaustible source of income.

The history of Rabat and Morocco

To outwit the ships chasing them, the Salé pirates used light craft such as chebecks, the only ones capable of crossing the formidable ocean bar at the entrance to the channel with a shallow draught. Once over the bar, the pirate ships take refuge in the kasbah, which is particularly well armed to respond safely to enemy cannon fire. The Hornacheros recruited captains and crews from among the most renowned European privateers, as well as from Moroccan sailors attracted by the lure of gain. Some local sailors went on to fame, including Abdellah Benaïcha, who was admiral and ambassador to England and France, and Raïs Fennich. The great feat of these two Slaouis privateers in 1691 was the capture of four European vessels in the Canary Islands, which remains the biggest prize ever taken by the Salé race.

The Bouregreg Republic and privateers:

If the pirates of Salé officially took on the title of “privateer”, it was because of treaties with certain European countries in whose name they were supposed to sail and fight. At the height of the race, some ten privateer ships of various nationalities were permanently anchored in the port of Rabat. To stimulate and encourage the Moroccan Muslim crews, the captains added a religious dimension to the race, turning it into a form of maritime jihad, but profit remained the priority.

Rabat (then known as Salé to Europeans) was feared, but seduced. This cosmopolitan, underworld city attracted bandits as well as wealthy, unscrupulous merchants who were quick to seize bargains from the cargoes looted from boarded ships. As well as goods, the men and women captured on these ships were also excellent currency, and the Rue des Consuls was an active center for captive trading. The less fortunate were sold as slaves in the El Ghezel souk square. As proof of its reputation, Daniel Defoe described Salé le Neuf as the capital of piracy in his novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Frenchman Germain Mouëtte spent two years as a captive in Salé’s gaols. On his return to France after eleven years in Moroccan captivity, he wrote a delightful account.

The history of Rabat and Morocco

Over the centuries, the city lost its appeal: victims of dissension between Hornacheros and Andalusians and their internal rivalry, Rabat and Salé had to submit to the authority of the religious powers and then to that of the sultan. The “race” declined sharply and became less interesting, with the sultan taking a larger and larger share of the spoils. The arrival in power of the Alaouite dynasty and Sultan Moulay Ismail extinguished the last attempts at insubordination. However, from 1672 to 1727, taking advantage of the weakness of the sultans of the time, Rabat once again enjoyed a more lavish period, but was definitively brought back to obedience by Sultan Sidi Mohammed, who founded Mogador and diverted Rabat’s maritime traffic to this new port. After the 1765 bombardment of Salé and Rabat by the French fleet, and the conclusion of an unfavorable treaty, Sultan Moulay Slimane then officially put an end to racing in 1818, by abolishing his navy. While civilian port activity was maintained, the city’s prosperity declined, and Rabat owed even the continued existence of its royal palace to the insecurity of the Fez-Marrakech route, Rabat thus constituting a fallback solution for the Cherifian sovereign.

The protectorate and Lyautey:

When the French protectorate was established in 1912, Resident General Lyautey was attracted to Rabat by its climate and strategic position facing the Atlantic. Above all, he feared the constant intellectual and religious turmoil in Fez, where the Cherifian government was based and the Sultan resided. In October 1912, he forced Sultan Moulay Youssef, who had succeeded his brother Moulay Abdelhafid, to leave Fez for Rabat, making the latter the administrative capital of Morocco. The French occupiers attracted young French architects and town planners, who immediately modernized the city, turning it into a laboratory for urban planning while preserving its Moorish character, taking care, with a few exceptions, not to damage this magnificent heritage.

In 1955 (November 16), at the end of the protectorate, Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef, the future King Mohammed V, was triumphantly welcomed by the Rbatie and Slaouie population at Rabat-Salé airport, after his exile in Madagascar. Was it this impressive welcome that motivated his decision to retain Rabat as his capital, perhaps? For the native Fassi was undoubtedly moved by this popular enthusiasm. And although he was born in Fez, it was in Rabat that, a few years after his death, his mausoleum was erected, without anyone taking offense. His son Hassan II, in 1961, and his grandson Mohammed VI in 1999, confirmed the choice of Rabat as capital, while alternating stays in the Kingdom’s various palaces throughout Morocco, in keeping with the tradition of the Cherifian sovereigns.

In 2012, after recognizing the exceptional universal value of Rabat, a modern capital and historic city, and its heritage shared by different historical periods and civilizations, UNESCO inscribed Rabat on the World Heritage List.

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