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From Antiquity to Colonial Morocco

Volubilis, Roman city Morocco history
Volubilis, Roman city


The Coming of Islam
Berber Dynasties: the Almoravids
The Almohads
The Banu Marin
Sharifian Dynasties: the Saadis
The Monarchy
The 19th Century: Encroaching European Powers
Colonial Morocco: the Imposition of the Protectorate

There are some physical remains of the early inhabitants of Morocco, such as the tools of the ‘pebble people’ at Sidi Abderrahman, near Casablanca, and the later flint tools (12,000 BCE) of the Oranian culture in western Morocco. The Sahara began to dry up in about 5000 BCE, and by the third millennium BCE, the Sahara expanded, splitting the Maghreb off from sub-Saharan Africa, and anchoring it more firmly in the Mediterranean basin. By the end of the first millennium BCE, the climatic conditions in Morocco were roughly those of today.

After the 8th century BCE, Phoenicians from Tyre, in what is now southern Lebanon, moved into the western Mediterranean and established a line of coastal settlements to link the Phoenician homeland with the rich minerals of southern Spain. Carthage, in Tunisia, was the most important, and in Morocco there were settlements at Rusaddir (now Melilla) and Lixus, near present-day Larache in the 7th century BCE, and near Essaouira, on the Atlantic, as well as smaller trading posts at Tamuda, near Tétouan, and at Ksar es-Seghir (al-Qasr al-Saghir) and Tingis (Tangier), on the Strait of Gibraltar. The Carthaginians were trading people and had little need to control the hinterland.

The first indigenous kingdoms were that of the Mauri, a tribal federation in the 4th century BCE, and the Maesulians, in the 3rd century BCE, between the River Moulouya and the present-day city of Constantine, in Algeria, which undermined the Carthaginians. The main opponent of Carthage, however, was Rome, with whom it went to war in the 260s BCE over Sicily.

The Romans

In 243 BCE, Carthage was forced to abandon Sicily and pay a huge indemnity to Rome. The Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar Barca and his son Hannibal, regrouped. In 202 BCE, the Romans defeated Carthage, in the Second Punic War. The final defeat of Carthage, in 146 BCE, was achieved with the assistance of local allies, and, in the century that followed, the Romans allowed North African client kingdoms to emerge. But they were not always trustworthy, and after the Roman Civil War (49-45 BCE), Consul Caesar abolished all the native kingdoms including Mauritania, which covered what is now Morocco and Algeria. In 25 BCE Emperor Augustus handed authority in Mauritania to Juba II, who ruled from Iol Caesarea (now Cherchell, in central Algeria), as a faithful ally. Volubilis (near Meknes), the second city of his kingdom, developed into a great metropolis. When Juba died in 23 CE, the Romans found it difficult to crush the rebellion that followed until, in 40 CE, Mauritania was annexed to the Roman Empire. During this period, the towns of the far west remained resolutely pro-Roman, particularly Volubilis, which became the capital of a new Roman province, Mauritania Tingitana, which corresponded roughly to the northern part of modern Morocco.

Mauritania Tingitana was one of a string of Roman provinces along the north coast of Africa, but the Roman occupation did not extend far into the continent. It was marked by a string of military strongholds stretching inland from the Atlantic coast at Salé. The limes, from which the English word ‘limit’ is derived, was a network of forts and ditches that protected the areas under direct Roman control. Volubilis had perhaps 20,000 inhabitants, most of them of local origin, and it was wealthy, because it produced a huge agricultural surplus of olives and grain and minerals such as lead, silver, iron, and copper. It was on the fringe of the Roman Empire, but the villas of the richer inhabitants were comfortable, with decoration that shows Greek influences, and floor mosaics that sometimes resemble Berber designs. The local petty kingdoms beyond the limes were not always peaceful, and relations with the Baquates, whose territory stretched northwards from Volubilis towards the Mediterranean, shifted from hostility to armed truce to a guarded co-existence.

Another challenge to Rome was Christianity, which spread to North Africa in the second century CE, despite the efforts of Roman emperors to persecute it out of existence, but the main Christian centres were to the east, in what is now Algeria. Mauritania Tingitana was the least Romanized part of north-west Africa, and, late in the 3rd century, Roman forces began to withdraw. Rome abandoned control of Volubilis in 285. It became the capital of the Baquates but remained essentially a Roman town, although it seems to have converted to Christianity. There were bishops in Tingis and Lixus and perhaps elsewhere.

Vandals and Byzantines

Late in the 4th century the Vandals, a Germanic people on the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire, rebelled, crossed Europe into Spain, and in 429 invaded North Africa. The far north-west was less wealthy, and the Vandals left little trace there. There is some evidence that local kingdoms maintained the Roman social and political system, but we know little about this period.

Vandal rule did not last long anywhere. In 533 Justinian, the emperor in Byzantium who had begun to rebuild the Roman Empire, sent an army to reimpose Roman rule in North Africa, but once again the far north-west was peripheral: Byzantine occupation was limited to Ceuta and Tangier, although Byzantine remains have been found at Salé, and Volubilis was still occupied. Tribal chiefs used the Byzantine presence to strengthen their own rule, and there were several shadowy local kingdoms; the details are unclear.

The Coming of Islam

Under the Roman Empire, Morocco had been an outpost on the periphery. In the early years of the Islamic empire, it was likewise only a remote province. Once Islam had incorporated north-west Africa, it soon went its own way, but it was greatly affected by the major political events in the Islamic east, particularly the ideological and religious schisms.

The most important of the eastern political developments was the split between Sunnis and Shiites over who should lead the community after the death of the Prophet. This took place during the period of the initial expansion of Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula, and it was not until the Sunni Umayyads had settled the question (at least in practical terms) and established the caliphate in Damascus in 661 that the real conquest of north-west Africa could begin. In 674, the Muslim commander Uqba ibn Nafi founded a new base at Kairouan, in what is now a southern Tunisia. From there he struck inland, outflanking the Byzantines in their coastal garrisons and reaching the Atlantic coast in 682, where, according to legend, he charged his horse into the surf, crying ‘Oh God! If the sea had not prevented me, I would have coursed on forever like Alexander the Great, upholding your face and fighting all who disbelieved!’ Uqba was killed soon after, and Muslim control collapsed in the face of Berber revolt. In 704, a new province was established at Kairouan, and Musa bin Nusayr, the first governor, set about the real conquest of north-west Africa. By 710, he had taken Ceuta and Tangier. At first, Islamic rule followed roughly the line of the old Roman limes, but the Muslims were less inclined to allow Berber kingdoms autonomy. Musa bin Nusayr set up three sub-provinces, in Tlemcen (modern Algeria), Tangier, and the Sous, a savanna region of southern Morocco. These had Arab governors with small Arab military contingents, but the bulk of their armies were Berber.

Christians were not forced to convert, but most Berbers, who were not Christians, converted willingly. The Berber commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, the governor of Tangier, led the first Muslim army, which was also largely Berber, across the Strait of Gibraltar in 715, but many Berbers resented the way the Arab elite behaved, treating the Berbers unequally. From early on, Berbers tended to align themselves with heterodox movements.

One such was Kharijism, a fiercely egalitarian movement that believed that religious belief trumped social status, rejected both Sunni and Shiite ideas and prized commitment to Islam above birth or racial or ethnic origin. A Kharijite insurrection in Tangier in 739 or 740 over taxation was defeated, but Kharijis continued to rebel in the mountains, and, in the mid-8th century, set up a Kharijite base at Sijilmasa, in the Tafilalt oasis system of south-western Morocco, to exploit the growing gold and salt trade across the Sahara. This helped spread Islam through southern Morocco and into the Sahara.

Another heterodox movement was entirely home-grown: the Barghawata had its base in the Atlantic plains and seems to have combined elements of Christianity, Judaism, and animism with Shiism. It had its own holy book influenced by the Koran (but written in Berber) and its own prayers and dietary laws; it lasted until the middle of the 11th century.

The most important movement was Shiite and was centred near Volubilis, where Idris ibn Abdullah, who was descended from Ali and Fatima’s son Hasan, found refuge with the local Berber tribe. In 789 he started a small settlement on the banks of the River Fez, and this so concerned the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid that he had Idris poisoned. His infant son succeeded him and made Fez his capital. By the time the son, Idris II, died in 828, he controlled an area from the Rif Mountains to the Sous, made rich by trade.

The Sunni Abbasids, who replaced the Umayyads and ruled from Baghdad, appointed their own governors in Kairouan but never really controlled Morocco, nor did the rump of the Umayyads who settled in Iberia. Fez became a destination for refugees from both places and added to its wealth and intellectual sophistication. The mosques of the Andalusiyin (begun in 857) and the Qarawiyin (859/60) became centres of learning, and the Qarawiyin (also known as al-Karaouine mosque, masjid al-Andalus or Andalusian mosque) claims to be one of the world’s oldest universities.

At the end of the 9th century, a new heterodoxy entered north-west Africa, this time directly from the east, in the form of the Shiite Fatimids, who first spread their propaganda in Sijilmasa and then founded a new dynasty based at Mahdia, in Tunisia. In 972, the Fatimids conquered Cairo – once again, the mainstream had peripheralized Morocco.

Even though Morocco was marginalized politically, it was rich economically from trade across the Sahara, and with al-Andalus. Fez prospered, grew, and was encircled by new walls. Muslims and Jews arrived in large numbers.

Berber Dynasties: the Almoravids

At the start of the 11th century, the Moroccan statelets were united by the first of two great Moroccan Muslim empires. For the next two centuries north-west Africa was united by political movements originating in the deserts and mountains rather than the coast and plains.

Islam had unified the desert tribes through trade and religious warfare, but the religion was not very orthodox. In the mid-11th century, the leader of one powerful desert tribe, the Gudala, recruited a preacher to instruct his people in orthodox Islam. He was Abdallah ibn Yasin, and what he taught was so rigorous that the Gudala expelled him. He and a few like-minded followers found refuge in a ribat, a fortified post and/or religious centre, and set up a highly disciplined society. They were known as al-Murabitun, ‘people who dwell in a ribat‘, or ‘people who are bound together in piety’. The English name ‘Almoravid’ derives from it.

To spread his message more widely, Ibn Yasin allied with other Saharan tribes to unify Islam on both sides of the desert by seizing control of the desert trade routes. They took Sijilmasa in 1053 and Aoudaghost, on the southern side of the Sahara, in 1054. By 1058 Ibn Yasin’s most important general, Abu Bakr ibn Umar, had defeated the small kingdom of Aghmat, north of the High Atlas. There he married Zaynab, the beautiful widow of its last ruler, who had prophesied she would marry only the man who conquered all Morocco. Abu Bakr founded a military base called Marrakesh, near Aghmat, probably in 1070, but abandoned his wife to return to fighting in the desert. His cousin, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, took over the leadership, fulfilled Zaynab’s prophecy by marrying her, conquered the rest of Morocco, and founded a new empire.

In 1075 Ibn Tashfin’s huge army moved north and took Fez, where he began a huge building program, including mills, baths, and fondouks (urban caravanserais). By 1082, he ruled Tlemcen, Oran, and Algiers. In 1083, the Almoravids took Ceuta and prepared to cross the Strait. Al-Andalus was divided among princelings who were too weak to fight the advancing Christians. The King of Seville, Abbad II al-Mutadid, asked the Almoravids for help. On 23 October 1086 they halted the Christian advance at Zallaca, north-east of Badajoz.

The Almoravids were Sunnis who interpreted the Koran literally. Their austere morality, based on rigorous legalistic elitism, offered little to the population except strictly Koranic (and thus lower) taxes. Marrakesh attracted to Islam scholars from all over, but the Almoravids’ narrow-mindedness collided with the Sufi mysticism, which was developing at the end of the 11th century, and with Sufi writings. Almoravid architecture was splendid but was destroyed almost entirely by the later Almohads: the huge palace in Marrakesh was estimated to cover 9,600 square metres. All that remains is the elaborate system of underground irrigation channels (khattara) that water gardens around Marrakesh, and the huge defensive walls.

The Almoravid dynasty began to decline during the reign of Yusuf’s son Ali (1106-1143), who was more a scholar than a soldier. The empire was divided into its Saharan and Maghrebi parts, depriving Marrakesh of manpower, although trade continued unfettered. The war in al-Andalus drained both manpower and finances. Tashfin ibn Ali (r. 1143-1145) could not resist the Christians in Iberia, and in Morocco he faced a new Berber ‘prophet’.

The Almohads

Both Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Tumart, the ‘Prophet’, and his general, Abd al-Mumin ibn Ali al-Goumi, were Berbers, but they came from the mountains, not the desert. Ibn Tumart came from the northern side of the Anti-Atlas. In about 1106 he began a pilgrimage to Mecca but, instead of completing it, studied in Baghdad or Damascus. He came into contact with both mainstream Sunni theology and Sufism and returned home with the idea of reforming the religion and the morals of the Maghreb. On the way, he met Abd al-Mumin and joined him in a mission of reform. He arrived in Marrakesh, but the Almoravids disliked his social criticism, and Ibn Tumart fled to Tinmel, high in the High Atlas where he built a following.

Ibn Tumart’s teaching was more spiritual than the Almoravids’: he said God was pure spirit, absolute, and unitary. His followers called themselves al-Muwahhidun (unitarians, or believers in the oneness or unity of God), anglicized as ‘Almohads’. The Almoravids, he said, were polytheists because they believed in God’s corporeal nature, but like them, he proposed an austere and moralistic Islam that drew on Shiite ideas of the hidden imam. Ibn Tumart announced that he was the Mahdi, the eschatological redeemer who will return before the Day of Judgment. His followers were highly motivated by the idea of proselytizing for this idea. During the 1120s, Ibn Tumart extended his authority from Tinmel but could not take Marrakesh before he died, in 1130. In 1133, Abd al-Mumin took over the leadership, occupying first the mountains and then the cities on the plain. In the early 1140s, the Almoravids took northern cities, including Taza, Ceuta, Meknes, and Salé. Marrakesh fell last, after a long siege, in 1147. Once the city fell, it was plundered, and Abd al-Mumin declared that all the religious buildings were incorrectly oriented towards Mecca and must be replaced.

Once Morocco had been conquered, Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula turned to them for help against the renewed Christian advance. In 1145, Abd al-Mumin sent troops to occupy most of Islamic Spain and began to turn the Christian tide. He also moved east into Algeria and Tunisia. He died in 1163, preparing to embark another army for Spain. At the end of the civil war that followed, Abu Yaqub Yusuf (Abd al-Mumin’s son) beat off his rivals and occupied the remaining portions of Muslim Iberia. In 1195, he won a great victory over the Castilians at Alarcos, in the modern province of Ciudad Real, and stopped the Reconquista in its tracks.

This was the highpoint of the regime’s power and culture. The vigorous intellectual life in Marrakesh attracted international scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës) and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufail, author of a philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Almohad architecture was massive, with huge mosques and impregnable fortifications. The Kutibiyya (Koutoubia) mosque, built on the ruins of the Almoravids’ palace, had a minaret 67.5 metres tall. The minarets at Seville, the Giralda, and the Tour Hassan in Rabat, begun but never completed, had even larger square minarets, which became the style in North Africa. Their Andalusian architects also built huge fortresses, such as the Kasba of the Udayas at Rabat.

All this building was expensive, but the Almohads were rich because they developed the economy, particularly agriculture, the desert trade was extremely important, and the gold coinage was of such high quality that it was used on both sides of the Mediterranean. But the economy was more fragile than it appeared. During the reign of Mohammed al-Nasir (r.1199-1213) there was war on two fronts, with remnants of the Almoravids and, in Spain, with the united Christian kings who inflicted a crushing defeat on al-Nasir’s army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. By 1266, the whole peninsula was in Christian hands, except Granada. The great Almohad army was dismembered, so taxes could no longer be collected. The dynasty began to squabble amongst itself, and tribal confederations such as the Banu Marin challenged its authority, although it struggled on in Marrakesh until 1269.

The Banu Marin

Bou Inania Madrasa court, Fez
Bou Inania Madrasa court, Fez

The Banu Marin was a Berber tribe in the Almohad army. Originally nomads from north-eastern Morocco, they dominated the mountains around Fez and Taza as Almohad power faltered and occupied Meknes in 1245. By 1269, they had conquered most of what would become Morocco. Because they did not expand eastwards or play any lasting military role in Spain, they can be called the real founders of Morocco. Unlike the Almoravids or Almohads, the Marinids were not a reformist religious movement. Instead, they befriended the scholars and emphasized religious orthodoxy and scholarship, which they encouraged by introducing the madrasa from Saladin’s Egypt. Madrasas were residential colleges, where students lived, supported by charity, and studied the great Islamic texts. It was a major step in the standardization of Islam in the cities.

The countryside, mountains, and deserts were home to Sufi religious brotherhoods (tariqas) that were growing rapidly stronger. Many of their leaders (called sharifs) claimed blood descent from the Prophet Muhammad and, intellectually, from the great Sufi teacher Abd al-Salam ibn Mashish (d. ca. 1227), whose tomb is at Jabal Alam, in the Jebala, was one of the holiest pilgrimage sites. Because the tariqas were so powerful, the Marinids generally tried to incorporate the sharifs and Sufis by marrying into their families.

The Marinids’ religious and political authority can be seen in their capital of Fez, where they built a virtually new city beside the old one to house their bureaucracy and soldiers. It was heavily fortified, with thick crenellated walls and a few strong gates that were closed securely at night. They used the same pattern at Salé-Chella, their fortified necropolis just outside Rabat. Otherwise, their most impressive religious buildings were madrasas such as those built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris (1348-1358) in Meknes and Fez and the Suq al-attarin (spice market) in Fez, which demonstrated the importance of trade in the Marinid economy. Fez was the main economic centre, because the gold routes through the Sahara had shifted eastwards, and Marrakesh declined. The leather work and cloth of Fez were famous.

The reign of Abu Inan Faris was the zenith of the Marinid dynasty. He was strangled by his chief minister (wazir), and a long struggle between sultans and wazirs began. Eventually, the Marinids became so weak that the ruler of Granada effectively controlled the state, a reversal of the past, when the rulers of al-Andalus had been dependent on Morocco.

Granada was the last Muslim outpost in al-Andalus, and Portugal and Castile pursued the Reconquista into Africa. In 1415 the Portuguese took Ceuta and then a series of fortresses on the Atlantic coast: Ksar es-Seghir (al-Qasr al-Saghir) (1458), Asila, and Tangier (1471). The Spanish took Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña near Agadir in 1476. The Marinid dynasty began to break up. The Berber tribe of the Banu Wattas monopolized the position of wazir, and, in 1472, one of them declared himself sultan. After the fall of Granada (1492), the Spanish took Melilla in the far north-east in 1497, Peñon de Alhucemas and two nearby islets in 1559, and Peñon de Vélez in the west in 1564, while the Portuguese seized control of the Atlantic coast by occupying Arguin (in modern Mauritania, 1499), Anfa (modern Casablanca, 1458), Agadir (1505), Safi (1507), Azemmour (1513), and Mazagan (al-Jedida) (1515).

The end of the Christian Reconquista in Iberia brought an invasion of another kind: a flood of refugees from the Iberian peninsula sought refuge in Morocco and settled in coastal cities of the north. Not all were Muslim – there were at least 10,000 Jews. The loss of Iberia and the Christian invasion of the coast led to a wave of jihadist feeling across Morocco, particularly in the south, near the main Portuguese enclaves. It was led by the sharifs and the tariqas, an alliance that laid the foundation for a new dynasty.

Sharifian Dynasties: the Saadis

Morocco was one of the battlefields in the 16th-century struggle for supremacy among the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Ottomans. In 1492, the year Columbus, sailing under Spanish colours, landed in America, the last Muslim king of Granada surrendered to the Spanish Catholic kings. Both Christian powers already occupied enclaves on the coast and continued to take more places, while the Ottomans occupied Cairo in 1517 and leapfrogged along the North African coast, taking Algiers in 1529. Sharifian and tariqa resistance had raised the countryside around the Christian enclaves, but it could not hold off the might of the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent. The leadership was too fragmented, but sharifianism provided the basis for a new legitimacy that has underpinned Morocco ever since.

The Saadis came from the Sous Valley but claimed to originate in the Hijaz and descend from the Prophet. They were war chiefs, allies of the tariqas in the struggle against the Portuguese. On this basis, Abu Abdallah al-Qaim bi-Amrillah al-Saadi won control of the Sous.

Abu Abdallah died in 1517 but his sons continued the war against the European enclaves. Jihad, not reform of Islam, was the object of the new regime. In 1524, they took from the Portuguese Marrakesh and in 1541 Agadir, then Safi and Azemmour; in 1549, they took Fez. Although the Portuguese retreat continued, the Ottoman Turks were an equally dangerous enemy: they too wanted bases on the Moroccan coast in order to attack the Spanish. In 1554, they briefly occupied Fez, and invaded again in 1557. When the powerful Saadi sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah died in 1574, the Ottomans encouraged one of his sons, Abd al-Malik, to attack his brother, Abdallah Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, the new sultan. In 1576, Abd al-Malik invaded Morocco and took Fez. The Portuguese king, Dom Sebastião, determined to stop the Ottoman advance, so he too invaded Morocco in 1578. Abd al-Malik’s army cut him to pieces on the banks of the Wadi al-Makhazin, near Ksar al-Kebir (al-Qasr al-Kabir). This became famous as the Battle of the Three Kings, because Abd al-Malik, Abdallah Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, and Dom Sebastião (Sebastian I) all died there: a dynastic squabble had turned into one of the epic battles of the early modern world. Abd al-Malik’s brother Ahmad, who called himself al-Mansur (the Victorious), led his armies and rebuilt the Saadi dynasty.

Ahmad made a peace with the Ottoman empire in 1582, defining a frontier that is roughly the northern section of Morocco’s eastern boundary today. He built an alliance with Queen Elizabeth I of England against Spain and began a complex trading relationship in animal hides, metalwork, and, above all, sugar. Al-Mansur’s huge sugar industry in the Sous Valley used black slaves to farm and harvest the cane. He also built a new army, which he used to expand his rule across the desert and conquer western Sudan in order to control of trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves, and salt. He justified this by claiming that all Muslims owed him allegiance as caliph. All this made him powerful and rich, and Ahmad rebuilt his capital of Marrakesh with a spectacular palace, al-Badi, of which only the main courtyard and its empty pools now give an idea of its splendour.

Yet, despite Ahmad al-Mansur’s ruthless repression of all opposition and disorder, his rule rested on the flimsiest of bases. When he died in 1603, apparently of the plague, his three sons plunged Morocco into civil war and destroyed the Saadi dynasty. Morocco was for a long time divided into the two kingdoms of Fez and Marrakesh.

The war lasted until 1660. Moroccan control over the Sahara collapsed, the gold routes were diverted towards the Turkish ports on the Mediterranean, the sugar factories were replaced by South American and Atlantic competition, and the political structure fragmented. The various claimants sought support from foreigners, both Christian and Muslim, so that responsibility for jihad against the Christians devolved onto local sharifian leaders. All of this inspired ideological arguments about the nature of just rule and the right to rebel that would echo down to the 20th century. It also allowed the development in Rabat of an autonomous state that was a centre for corsairing (privateering), naval attacks for profit on enemy foreign shipping. Many of the corsairs were refugees from al-Andalus who wanted revenge on the Spanish. They went on to attack other countries and raided the coasts of Wales, Ireland, and even Newfoundland in the 1620s and 1630s.

Even so, despite the Saadi collapse, the skeleton of a central power survived in Marrakesh. The idea of sharifian descent became a principal source of legitimacy, alongside other ideas about the nature of power and how it should be exercised. Despite the civil war that destroyed their dynasty, the Saadis had laid the basis of the Moroccan state that survives today.

The Monarchy

King Mohammed VI Morocco history
King Mohammed VI, with on his left his son crown-prince Moulay al-Hassan, on his right his brother prince Moulay al-Rashid

Each of Morocco’s first five constitutions since independence began the same way: ‘Morocco is a constitutional democratic and social monarchy.’ The sixth Constitution in 2011 added the word ‘parliamentary’: ‘Le Maroc est une monarchie constitutionnelle, démocratique, parlementaire et sociale.’ The monarchy is very old: the current dynasty dates back to the mid-17th century and is the oldest surviving ruling family in the Arab countries. The Constitution is a product of modern nationalism and the struggle for independence, yet there was an early project for constitutional rule in 1908, on the eve of the Protectorate, which proposed limited controls on the sultan and was based on the idea that the Japanese, equipped with a constitution, had defeated the autocratic Russian empire in 1906. This was a common model for early opponents of European imperialism in Africa and Asia.

Constitutionality has a legitimizing role in Morocco, but so does monarchy. As all the constitutions make clear, the head of state is the King (or Sultan, in 1908) who is ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (amir al-muminin). His authority is derived from his role as the political head of a community defined by belief. That authority, baraka, is an inherited quality passed by genealogical descent from the founder of the Alaouite dynasty Moulay al-Cherif and his son Moulay al-Rashid (1666-1672), who seized power when the Saadi dynasty disintegrated in half a century of civil war. Both dynasties claimed their legitimacy ultimately from descent from the Prophet Muhammad, but that was a very large cohort. Prophetic descent was reinforced by the ability to command force and exercise power. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the reigning sultan, Abdelaziz, exhausted his money and power. Increasing European hegemony led religiously inspired nationalists to overthrow him and replace him with one of his brothers, Abdelhafid. He could not resist European pressure and agreed to accept a protectorate, although the French authorities removed him as sultan. The French did, however, maintain the institution of royal family and appointed another brother, Yusef, as sultan. When he died in 1927, he was succeeded by his son Mohammed V, who became the symbolic rallying point for a modern nationalist movement that asserted his legitimacy while trying to limit his powers. In the end, the sultan, after changing his title to ‘King’ in 1956, won the post-independence struggle for power.

Mohammed V’s son, Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 until 1999, maintained the facade of a constitutional monarchy, but he was the master of his realm. He used his constitutional power to appoint the Prime Minister (the leader of the largest party) and to approve and promulgate laws vigorously, repeatedly dissolved Parliament, rewrote the constitution several times, and rigged elections in favour of his supporters. Parliament and political parties were reduced to marginal roles, and there were severe constraints on the media. The judicial system was subjected to interference by the authorities in political cases, and dissidents were arrested, held incommunicado for long periods, and tortured. But individuals did not, in the end, ‘disappear’, and the repression was focused, not generalized. The form of a constitutional monarchy was retained, and, towards the end of Hassan II’s reign and after the succession of his son Mohammed VI in 1999, the repression was eased. The 2011 Constitution, which was immediately the result of the Arab Spring movement, was the long-term consequence of this liberalizing trend. Yet despite its relatively progressive orientation, the new Constitution maintains the monarch as the most important political actor, with his formal rights and legitimacy unchanged.

But Mohammed VI, who came to the throne when he was quite young – he was born in 1963 – has modernizing and technocratic credentials. He earned a BA in law at Rabat-Agdal University and a PhD in law from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where he wrote his thesis on EEC-Maghrib relations. He also spent time training in the office of Jacques Delors, when Delors was President of the European Commission.

The 19th century: Encroaching European Powers

When the French invaded Algiers in 1830 Sultan Abderrahman had to balance a moral obligation to help fellow Muslims in distress against the need to avoid conflict with the French. His ramshackle army of unreliable tribal levies and the remnants of Ismail’s abid al-Bukhari could not take on a European power. So Abderrahman tried to keep out of conflict with France, even though people in Algeria and many of his own subjects wanted him to fight. The leader of the resistance in western Algeria was the head of the Qadiriyya tariqa, Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhyi al-Din, who fought the French successfully and even set up a small state at Mascara, until he was forced to flee across the Moroccan frontier in 1842. Abderrahman could not stop him from using Moroccan territory as a base, and, in July and August 1844, the French retaliated by occupying Oujda and bombarding coastal ports. Finally, the French army defeated the Moroccan army at Wadi Isly on the Algerian frontier, and Abderrahman sued for peace.

The Treaty of Tangier was mild – it insisted only that the border be properly marked – but the defeat at Isly undermined the sultan’s authority, and he lost legitimacy among Moroccans. He therefore began a military reform, creating a European-style army. It soon proved useless against Abd al-Qadir, let alone the French. It did no better in 1859-1860, when war with Spain led to their troops occupying Tétouan. This time the treaty (of Ras al-Oued) was more onerous: it enlarged the frontiers of Ceuta and Melilla, ceded Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña to Spain, and imposed a huge financial indemnity. Abderrahman’s successor, Mohammed IV (r.1859-1873), and then Hassan I (r.1873-1894) continued the build-up of the army, armed mainly with French and British weapons. They were trained by expatriate Frenchmen and Britons like the colourful qaid (administrator) Sir Harry Maclean. This was very expensive, and Abderrahman was an enthusiastic advocate of foreign trade. More ports were opened to commerce, and exports of grain, wool, skins, wax, and gum soared, with the support of European and American diplomatic representatives. In December 1856, the British negotiated a trade treaty that opened Moroccan markets, and other European governments followed, although foreign trade was dominated by the British until the 1890s, when competition from German and French companies increased.

The increase in trade changed Morocco profoundly. Growing imports of manufactured goods undermined Moroccan artisan manufacture, except for carpets, which sold well in the European middle-class market. Tea and sugar imports came to account for about 25 percent of total imports. The Moroccan population began to move to the Atlantic port towns, away from the old cities of the interior; Casablanca grew from a village into Morocco’s greatest port. The government elite was drawn from families that profited from trade, and local traders became protégés of European diplomatic missions and so gained exemption from Moroccan courts and taxes, thus undermining Moroccan sovereignty.

These capitulations were a system of treaties between the North African and Middle Eastern states that emerged in the early modern period. Their original purpose was to encourage trade for the benefit of both sides. They provided that European traders should have expatriate status in Muslim territory in all commercial and in some criminal matters, with jurisdiction granted to the European consuls concerned. By the 19th century they had become the excuse for European residents in Morocco (and elsewhere in the Middle East) to extract themselves from local political jurisdiction altogether and from the burden of local taxation. Because these privileges were extended to local partners of these European traders, the extent of European influence in Morocco grew dramatically. They have been considered an important element in European subversion of Moroccan sovereignty. Most of the treaties encompassing the capitulations were abolished after the Protectorate was imposed, although the British did not finally abandon them until 1937.

The ulama considered these changes irreligious, and they they lost out financially. Large parts of the population agreed: there were rebellions in some cities and localized jihads against the Europeans, particularly around Melilla in 1893 and 1909. These led to the imposition of further financial penalties on the government, increasing its burden of debt.

European governments made various attempts to solve the rapidly growing crisis by negotiation, holding a series of fruitless international conferences. European encroachments continued, not only in the cities but also on the periphery, particularly on the edges of the Sahara, where Hassan I attempted to extend his influence into the desert in the face of European encroachments. In 1879 British commercial adventurers set up a factory at Tarfaya, and in 1887, the Spanish established a military post at Villa Cisneros (now Dakhla) even further south in the territories that became Río de Oro (Oued Eddahab or Wadi al-Dhahab) and Sakia al-Hamra, later the colony of Spanish Sahara. The sultan sent military expeditions to the south in the 1880s and 1890s to extract taxes and enforce loyalty among the tribes, and he appointed a governor, Sheikh Mohammed Mustafa Ma al-Aynayn, who came from a prominent religious family in what is now Mauritania. Sultan Abdelaziz subsidized Ma al-Aynayn’s vast new religious centre at al-Semara. In the Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh, Hassan I relied on local strongmen, particularly members of the Glaoui family, who would wield great influence during the Protectorate period.

In 1894, Hassan I died, having ensured the succession for his young son Abdelaziz, who was only 12 or 13 years old. The court chamberlain, Ba Ahmad, acted as regent, but several of the young sultan’s brothers opposed him. Ba Ahmad’s regime was far too weak to deal with all problems, and European interference grew rapidly. The balance of trade turned strongly against Morocco, and European consuls began to exercise quasi-political authority, especially in Tangier, the diplomatic capital, which turned into a European enclave for tourists and émigrés.

In 1900, Ba Ahmad died, and the young sultan took over. In that year the French army occupied the desert oasis of Tuat, in the far south-east, claiming Moroccan territory for Algeria, and Morocco fell into bankruptcy, partly because of European-inspired reforms that were ostensibly intended to prevent just that. These involved building infrastructure, which was very expensive, and adopting a reformed tax system to pay for it, but it did not produce any revenue. As Morocco’s finances fell into foreign hands as a result of European dominance of trade and increasingly onerous loans, so did its territory. French troops moved in from the Sahara, and, in 1904, the Entente Cordiale between Britain, France, and Russia traded British preponderance in Egypt for French preponderance in Morocco. The Spanish government was promised that its interests would be protected; only Germany protested, insisting on an international conference to settle the Moroccan question.

The Final Act of the Algeciras Conference in 1906 was signed by the foreign ministers of Europe and the United States. While it promised to preserve Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity, it placed the administration of Morocco, its customs, state bank, and police force under European control.

By now Abdelaziz faced opposition across Morocco and the enmity of many of the ulama. The coastal cities, especially Casablanca, were particularly tense. In June 1907, French engineers building a light railway were attacked by local men, and a French warship landed troops to occupy the town. Other French troops occupied Oujda in the east of the country. In August 1907, a movement began to replace Abdelaziz with his brother Abdelhafid, who was a pious scholar opposed to the Europeans. In January 1908, the ulama of Fez declared their allegiance to him on condition that he reject the Act of Algeciras, recover Casablanca and Oujda, expel European advisers, abolish foreign concessions, and reject un-Koranic taxes. The sultan could do none of these things. The tiny beginnings of a constitutionalist movement inspired by the revolution in Iran in 1906 and the Turkish revolution of 1908 did not concern him, because he had no power that might be limited constitutionally. French agents were taking over the operation of the government, and French and Spanish troops were occupying more and more of the land. After rebellions in 1911 that challenged this military takeover of the land, the French sent an army to Fez, which secured Abdelhafid’s agreement to a protectorate on 12 of May 1912.

The Treaty of Fez guaranteed the religious authority of the sultan as well as his secular sovereignty, but placed all executive power in the hands of the French. The Protectorate had begun.

Colonial Morocco: the Imposition of the Protectorate

The Protectorate divided Morocco between France, Spain, and an international zone in Tangier. Spanish troops already occupied some districts, the enclaves on the Mediterranean coast were historic possessions, and the French had promised to preserve Spanish ‘interests’. The Zone of Spanish Influence (not a separate protectorate) included the mountains along the Mediterranean coast in the north and a piece of sandy territory around Tarfaya in the far south, about 43,000 square kilometres in all. The sultan remained the sovereign. The northern enclaves, Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña or Ifni, and the territories of Río de Oro and Sakia al-Hamra (the future Spanish Sahara) were excluded. The city of Tangier, which had been run by the consular corps since the mid-19th century, was placed under international control in 1923, once again maintaining the fictional sovereignty of the sultan. The French held most of Morocco and established its modern administration and law.

Although the sovereignty of the sultan was maintained, Abdelhafid was replaced by his brother Yusef. The highest French authority was the resident-general, to which post Paris appointed Hubert Lyautey, an experienced colonial soldier with clear ideas about how to govern and conquer the country. He faced opposition from a son of Ma al-Aynayn, Ahmad al-Hiba, who called for a jihad in the south that was quickly defeated, and more diffuse but determined opposition among the tribes in the High Atlas, which was more difficult to overcome. The conquest was not completed until 1936.

Further Reading

Fanack’s Morocco country file provides a comprehensive overview about Morocco, its history, politics, culture, economy...
The Moroccan Kingdom enjoys a geographic location that enabled it to play prestigious historic, civil, cultural and scie...
Morocco did not achieve independence until 1956, eleven years after World War II.

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