From the stone ramparts of the old medina you can watch the waves crash against the rocky islands sitting just off shore. In the maze of narrow alleyways within these walls it’s easy to feel lost, not as one who can’t get home but as one who is so far away from anything resembling home that home might as well not exist anymore.
|That long and distant island running off to the left is (probably) the island of Mogador.|
The city sits halfway between the stately and tempestuous Strait of Gibraltar and the sandy wasteland of as-Sahra al-Gharbiyah, also known as Western Sahara. The walls can look as old as time itself, making the colors of the carpets displayed on them seem incongruous, even impossible. Half-ajar doors leading to dim rooms and hallways lend as much mystery as closed ones. There are cow’s brain sandwiches for sale.
I arrived in Essaouira not knowing what to expect. I left with what I take from most places I’ve ever visited: spontaneous photos, fragmented memories, and, at best, a rudimentary understanding of what I’d just seen.
Only now, over a decade later, as I search for things to say about a few of my photographs of Essaouira, am I understanding what I saw – and realizing what I missed.
Among those rocky off-shore outcroppings is an island called Mogador. Facing a crescent-shaped stretch of coastline, this strategically-situated island played an instrumental part in the history of this city.
The Phoenicians settled this stretch of coast at least as far back as the 7th Century BC, calling it Migdor, meaning small fortress or watchtower. In the 5th Century BC a Carthaginian by the name of Hanno set up this area as a trading post, calling it Arambys, said to be from the Phoenician phrase Har Anbin that translates as mountain of grapes. (This made little sense to me. I saw plenty of dates in Morocco, but I don't recall seeing any grapes. I suppose a lot can change in 2500 years.)
The name Essaouira didn’t come around until 1767 when King Mohammed III decided to establish a trading port for the region. It is said he chose this place because its harbor was protected, it was a straight line across the desert to Marrakech, and it would kill off the trade coming in and out of Agadir to the south, a port city with ties to a political rival. Mohammed III derived the name of his city from the Moroccan Arabic word Souira, meaning small fortress, and Es-saouira meaning beautifully-designed.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's go back a couple of millennia.
In the 2nd Century BC the Romans took control of the off-shore islands the Phoenicians had settled a few centuries before. A bit later, around the time of Jesus, the Berber king Juba II established a Tyrian purple dye-making operation here, using rare shellfish from the rocky islands to produce the expensive purple dye used in the togas of high-ranking Roman officials. Those unimaginative Romans would come to call these islands Iles Purpuraries, the Purple Islands.
At the end of the 1st Century AD the Greek geographer Ptolemy (also an accomplished astronomer and an astrologer though he never became an astronaut) named this place Thamuziga. In the 11th Century the Island of Mogador, not to be confused with mainland Migdor, was named Amagdoul, a Berber word meaning well-guarded.
In the 16th Century the Portuguese built a series of six forts along the Moroccan coast. One of them, the Castelo Real, was located here at Migdor or whatever this place was called at the time. After only a few years the Berbers took it over, and in the course of the next hundred years Spain, England, the Netherlands and France all tried to conquer and colonize this important port and trade center. In the 18th Century the French, after descending on Rabat-Sale to the north, sent one of their six ships to Migdor. This served as the catalyst for the transformation of the city into its present form (excluding, probably, the cow's brain sandwiches, which seem very un-French).
What did come after the French were the stone ramparts and the Skala de la Kasbah fortress; the Porte de la Marina, the harbor entrance built by Ahmed il Inglizi, the “Renegade from England” who converted from Christianity to Islam; the special designations to accommodate Christian merchants and diplomats; and the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch cannons that remain up on the ramparts. The Jewish Quarter where synagogues and cemeteries remains, though the Jewish population, once 40% of the city, is gone.
And this is just what my negligible Internet search skills got me after the kids finally went to bed.
Even without all the history it's easy to get a kick out of Essaouira. I would have liked to know a few other things though as I made my way around. Like why the spice pyramids? If I want a spoonful of Safran will the person working there scoop it off the top? Out of the side? I'd hate to be the one to ruin it.
Who am I kidding? I would have loved to ruin it. There was no one minding the shop when I walked by, it was all I could do not to try writing my name in the Melange pour Couscous. And by the way, is that Viagra Marocaine stuff what I think it is? "Pour grimper aux rideaux" - to climb the curtains. Is that a euphemism?
The medina of Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A lot of it looks like the narrow lane pictured above. Peeking down from overhead is the Mosque Ben Youssef, named after Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf who ruled during the first half of the 12th Century over the Almoravid Empire, which covered Morocco as well as the southern part of Spain and Portugal.
Also named after Ali ibn Yusuf was the Ben Youssef madrasa, which was for a time one of the largest Islamic colleges in northern Africa. This only makes it harder to understand why people kept misspelling his name.
Essaouira possesses a certain artistic flair, evidenced by the woven carpets and the painted wares, in those pyramids of spices and the curtain-climbing viagra.
Not all spaces in Essaouira are narrow and dripping with colorful artsy things.
Outside the walls of the medina there are wide open spaces dotted with touristy things.
And outside the city walls is where a lot of Essaouira's action actually happens.
That action is thanks in large part to something going on far beyond even those rocky off-shore islands.
The Canary Current is something that, quite frankly, I only understand as far as I can repeat it. There's the North Atlantic Gyre. There's an eastern boundary current coming off of the North Atlantic current. There's a wind-driven surface current and an upwelling of cold nutrient-rich deep sea waters. All of it gets together here in one big pelagic bouncy house to produce the coastal fisheries that many Moroccans rely on for a living.
In Morocco, coastal fishing accounts for around 86% of the total catch. Of that, the great majority consists of sardines, tuna and bonito. The cats and the birds don't seem too picky.
The air is heavy with the smell of fish. The harbor looks like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. If anyone in Essaouira enjoys total job security it's the person - oh come on, it's got to be people, hundreds of them - cleaning up all the bird poop.
Essaouira isn't a huge place. But it leaves a big impression. And enjoying it doesn't require a degree in North African history.
But when you're out on those ramparts, looking out on the rocks and the islands and the currents, you can imagine the Phoenicians, the Romans, the various Europeans who have come here over the last 2600 years. And that makes Essaouira an even more colorful place.