The Road to Essaouira

Marrakech Medina

Marrakech is not only a fantastic city, it is also a symbol of the Morocco that once was, and which still survives here. While Arabs and Berbers mingle in most parts of Morocco, Marrakech remains a center of Berber culture. Like many North African cities, Marrakech comprises both an old fortified city (the médina) and an adjacent modern metropolis (called Gueliz). Dubbed the “Red City” because of the red color mandated for the exterior of each structure, Marrakech was once the capital of Morocco and lays at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. The photographic and image making opportunities here are outstanding. Click on any image to go to our fine art archive and see more photos of Morocco.

 

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The town square of Jemaa l-Fna with its crowd of storytellers, musicians and the Koutoubia mosque whose minaret is visible from practically anywhere in Marrakech is the largest public square in Africa. The mosque was first built in 1147, but demolished since it was not correctly aligned with Mecca. The “mosque of the booksellers”, was finished in its present shape in 1199. It has ever since been a defining landmark of Marrakech, rising up from the low houses and markets around.

Ammonites

A three hour drive from Marrakech is the charming sea port of Essaouira. Along the way are a number of interesting sites. Ubiquitous throughout Morocco are roadside rest stops that serve coffee or tea and offer local handcrafts and fossils such as ammonites.

 
Moroccan Ammonite

Image of a large unpolished ammonite in a roadside stand on the road from Marrakech to Essaouira.

 

Ammonites were a type of cephalopod that appeared in the fossil record during the Devonian Era. They are related to squid and octopus. The modern day nautilus is their closest living relative. The ammonite shell had sections, with the living animal occupying only the section of the shell closest to the head. As the soft-bodied ammonite got larger, it grew a new shell section and sealed off the old one with a layer called the septa. Ammonites were able to swim, thanks to the unique construction of their shell, which was divided into a series of air chambers.

Moroccan ammonites have lots of variety in both size and preparation. In medieval Europe, fossilized ammonites were thought to be petrified snakes, and were called “snakestones” or, “serpentstones”. Traders would occasionally carve the face of a snake into the empty, wide end of the ammonite fossil and sell them.

The Moroccan Devonian nautiloids are among the oldest cephalopods. They were abundant during the Paleozoic era in the Moroccan Devonian sea some 350 MM years ago and are now found in the Atlas Mountain range of central Morocco.

All ammonites became extinct 65 million years ago.

Argan Oil

Argan oil is produced from the kernels of the argan tree, endemic to Morocco. The oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties. Argan oil and its byproducts are rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids. The tree, a survivor from the Tertiary age, is extremely well adapted to drought and the environmentally difficult conditions of southwestern Morocco. The species Argania once covered North Africa and the oil was sold in Moroccan markets even before the Phoenicians arrived, yet the hardy argan tree is now disappearing. Overgrazing by goats and a growing, wood-hungry local population have whittled the number of surviving trees down to less than half of what it was just 50 years ago. The species is now found almost exclusively in the Sousse region and continues to disappear quickly, UNESCO classified the tree in 1999 as a world heritage, warranting care and attention.

 

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There is a large argan plantation along the road to Essaouira. Argan products sold from this plantation are produced by a women’s cooperative that shares the profits among the local women of the Berber tribe.

The fruit of the argan tree has a green, fleshy exterior like an olive, but larger and rounder. Inside, there is a nut with an extremely hard shell, which in turn contains one, two or three almond-shaped kernels. When goats eat the fruit, the fleshy part is digested but the nut remains. Later, the nuts are collected by farmers to produce oil. The production of argan oil, which is still mostly done by traditional methods, is a lengthy process. Each nut has to be cracked open to remove the kernels, and it is said that producing one litre of oil takes 20 hours’ work.

Argan oil is becoming popular in the worlds kitchens due to its taste and nutrient qualities. It is hoped that the growing popularity of the argan oil on the international market, coupled with increased efforts in the field of conservation, will contribute to the development of the sustainable growing of this Moroccan relic of the Tertiary age.

Essaouira

Essaouira has long been considered as one of the best anchorages of the Moroccan coast. It has been a trading post for almost 3000 years, starting with the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian navigator Hanno visited and established a trading post there in the 5th century BC. Around the end of the 1st century BC or early 1st century AD, Juba II established a Tyrian purple factory, processing the murex and purpura shells found in the intertidal rocks at Essaouira and the Iles Purpuraires. This dye colored the purple stripe in Imperial Roman Senatorial togas.

The present city of Essaouira was only built during the 18th century. Mohammed Ben Abdellah al-Qatib (c. 1710-1790) was Sultan of Morocco from 1757 to 1790 under the Alaouite dynasty. He used a French engineer, Théodore Cornut, who had been captured and enslaved, and several other European architects and technicians, to build the fortress and city along modern lines. Cormut had been profoundly influenced by the work of Vauban at Saint-Malo. The result is an exceptional example of a late-18th-century fortified town, built according to the principles of contemporary European military architecture in a North African context.


Essaouira – Images by Ron Abel

Originally called “Souira”, “The small fortress”, the name then became “Es-Saouira”, “The beautifully designed”. From the time of its rebuilding by Muhammad II until the end of the nineteenth century, Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port, offering the goods of the caravan trade to the world. The route brought goods from sub-Saharan Africa to Timbuktu, then through the desert and over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. The road from Marrakech to Essaouira is a straight line, explaining the King’s choice of this port among the many that the Moroccan coast offers.

The fishing industry is an important part of the economy. The kingdom has a total of 3500 km of coastline stretching along both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. For many people in this beautiful city, fishing is a way of life. Moroccan fishermen put a lot of pride and quite a number of hours in decorating their boats.

Shopping in Essouira is best done if you head for locally produced handcrafts, like shoes or other colorful items. The streets of the old city are narrow and filled with life, providing hours of diversion. An afternoon of pleasant exploration is yours if you take the road to Essaouira.

— Ron Abel

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One Response to “The Road to Essaouira”

  1. well written blog. Im glad that I could find more info on this. thanks