74 ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO
Part One, Arrival and the Port.
December 8, 2008
Essaouira from the sea.
“We may not be able to get into this port, and if we do, we may not be able to stay.” The Captain said after he had called us all to a muster on the quarterdeck. “At best, we’ll have a very rolly anchorage.” We could see the shore and the town a mile or so away and the big swells left after the gale rolling from seaward straight into the mouth of the harbor. The brown walls and white buildings of the old city cast an unmistakable allure, with the minaret towers of the mosques rising above the other buildings. We all very much wanted to stop at this port, but understood that there was a good chance we couldn’t.
As we approached the mouth of the harbor the water became more shoal and the waves grew higher and steeper. Our 150’ ship was lifted and surged forward a little on each wave and we all held our breaths. To port lay the old city, and to starboard some rocky islands topped with ancient fortifications. The problem was that the only area deep enough for us to anchor (I had gotten a peek at the chart when I was in the chart house) was just inside the opening, where we would get no protection from the big swells from either of these. We entered the harbor slowly and carefully, with two range markers (towers) lined up ahead of us, all the watertight doors closed, and everyone on deck.
Once inside the harbor we turned, and the ship rolled heavily. Once we had turned into the swells we were still rolling considerably, but not as bad as I had feared. Three fishermen in a little blue boat came near enough to hail us and addressed us in French and word was passed for Gary, the only one aboard whose native tongue is French. The fishermen directed us to a place to anchor and warned us of some shallows and we slowly followed their directions. I was relieved when the Captain ordered the anchor dropped, since it meant we could stay, and again when it was announced that we would stay two days but we should be warned that the ship might have to leave without notice if conditions worsened.
After a while another small blue boat approached us carrying a man in uniform, an official who told us that the Captain must come ashore with our papers to clear in. The skiff was launched and word was passed for Gary to go along as translator. He was in his grubby work clothes and needed to change quickly. Knowing that he has a bad hand, The Picton Castle anchored off Essaouira.
I helped him change and lent him a decent shirt as increasingly urgent calls came for him to be on deck. He left with the Captain, Lyndsey the third mate and purser, and the boat crew. They were gone a long time and had to return a few hours later for more formalities with the police with a list of all our home addresses and professions, so even though we anchored in mid-afternoon, it was evening before we were cleared in fully, and even then Donald was not allowed to go ashore since his home country of Granada has no agreement with Morocco. I heard that the officials were nice but the process tedious, or as Lyndsey put it, the officials were “the nicest guys you ever wanted to strangle.”
The little inner harbor at Essaouira crowded with fishing boats.
I got to go ashore in the morning. For this expedition I teamed up with Rich, a new trainee from Colorado, who—at a year younger than me—is the only one on the Starboard watch within 24 years of my age. The skiff skirted the waves breaking off the man-made breakwater and landed us at a dock in the little inner harbor crowded with fishing boats that came in two sizes: wooden trawlers 50-60 feet long and small open boats of about 20 feet in length. The latter are identical in design and blue color, and said to come from a design developed by Breton fishermen in France. The identical color may be to aid in identifying them—even far at sea where we first saw them—as from this port, useful to officials trying to identify strange boats to control the drug trade. They are sturdy and seaworthy little craft.
The breakwater, quay, and artificial inner harbor are all of fairly recent construction, and are backed by the first of several old city walls with a gate leading into the city. I saw an old photograph that showed only a ramp leading out from the gate. On the quay fishermen were selling their catch and just inside the gate was a place where they were cleaning their catch on the rocky shore encircled by hundreds of flying gulls each looking for a meal.
I will continue my tour of Essaouira in other journal entries. It is such a unique and wonderful place that I want to include a lot of photographs and let them speak for themselves.
74 ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO
Part two, History.
Just inside the outer wall of Essaouira, near the port, showing the old fortifications.
Essaouira is the most exotic port we have visited so far. It is our first port on the African continent and our only port in the Arab Muslim world. Morocco is the western-most country in North Africa, in what Arabs call the Maghreb, the lands to the west. It is said to be one of the more moderate and stable countries in the Arab world, and one of those most open to non-Muslim foreigners. But as my introduction to this world, I found it very exotic and fascinating, and a little scary.
The little city has a long and interesting history. I was amazed at how many of the major players in history, different civilizations and religious groups, were involved in the history of Essaouira and Morocco. There are very few natural harbors on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, so Essaouira has always had an importance since—however insecure we might find it—the city has one of the few good harbors on the coast. I have read that the first Berbers appeared in the area around 8000 BC. The Phoenicians visited this spot between the 12th and 7th century BC and established trading outposts, later taken over by the Carthaginians. In 146 BC, after the fall of Carthage, Roman influence increased in North Africa, and they established cities in what is now Morocco. The Romans came to Essaouira in the 1st century AD for purple dye extracted from the local shellfish, and for the fine marquetry woodwork that the locals produced—and still do. After the Vandal depredations that led to the sack of Rome, the Vandals invaded the north coast in 253, followed in 535 by the Byzantines who occupied Essaouira for a short time and introduced Christianity. Late in the 7th century the first wave of Arabs spreading Islam found converts among the local Berbers and founded the first Arab dynasty of Sultans.
By the 10th century Essaouira had grown to a town and an important port that shipped goods from all over southern Morocco. Due to its strategic importance as a port, it was fortified and was called Mogdul, after the Berber Muslim patron saint Sidi Mogdul, who is buried a few kilometers away. In the 11th and 12th centuries Berbers swept northwards from the western Sahara and took control of Morocco and went on to conquer Spain and Portugal. At its height, their empire stretched from Spain to Tripoli and produced a flowering of Moorish architecture and the founding of several Islamic universities. But by the mid 15th century their empire broke down and various local tribes took control of Morocco, and when the Muslims were driven out of Spain in 1492 many took refuge in Morocco.
I learned in Spain and Portugal of the Moorish occupation of those countries for centuries, and here I learned that the Portuguese—after they had driven the Moors out of their own country—returned the favor by occupying places in Morocco and setting up trading centers here. This port was one of them. They fortified the city to be able to defend it and the port, and corrupted the name to Mogadura, the well guarded. They were forced out in 1541.
In 1764 the Alaoite Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdulla decided to make Essaouira a military and industrial port. He had a French architect lay out the city much as it is today and the town built up and its fortifications strengthened. It was then was renamed Essaouira, Arabic for “fortified place.” It was then that the massive walls facing the sea were built and topped with a battery of heavy artillery, called La Skala, to defend from attacks form the sea, along with fortifications on the nearby islands. At the same time a wall was built on the inland side of the city to protect it from land attack by insurgent tribes.
By the mid 19th century one third of Essaouira’s population was Jewish. Most of them have emigrated since the formation of Israel, but the city still has two synagogues. Late in the A tower in the wall towards the port.
19th century, Essaouira was the only Moroccan port south of Tangier open to European trade. But at the turn of the 20th century the Sultan of Morocco incurred vast debts, leaving the country open to foreign intervention. The French took control of a large portion of the country, with the Spanish taking control of the rest under the treaty of Fes in 1912. Some local rulers collaborated with the French in return for power and privilege. Essaouira declined under the French protectorate as the ports of Agadir and Casablanca were favored.
Essaouira from the tower in the wall towards the port.
The 1930s and 40s saw the rise of Moroccan nationalism but it wasn’t until 1956 that the protectorate was dissolved and Morocco became independent. At that time Sultan Mohammed V changed his title to king. In the 1960s a number of hippies including Jimi Hendrix hung out in Morocco. In 1999 king Hassan II died and his son, Mohammed VI became king promising increased democratization and better rights for women. Today Essaouira is a market and tourist town that is home to many artisans working in wood, ceramics, and silver, and a number of fine artists.
Essaouira seemed exotic from my first view of it from the sea, with its fortified walls, old white buildings, and minaret towers. After we anchored we could see horses and camels a couple of miles away walking down the miles of beach towards some dunes. When I came ashore I was fascinated by the harbor crowded with strange looking boats. On shore roughly a third of the men selling fish on the quay and cleaning fish just inside the big arched gat through the massive city wall wore jellabas: hooded, heavy, long-sleeved robes, a proportion that was to hold everywhere I went in Morocco.
Inside the first wall is a large square where a portion of the next wall has been removed, which contains cafes, banks, and a string of small outdoor restaurants. These display fresh seafood—a selection of fish and shellfish. To eat there you select the mix and quantity of seafood you want, negotiate a price, and they grill it and serve it to you on their few outdoor tables.
Walking around, the people look different than anything I had seen before, with their dark skin and unusual dress. The vast majority of women have their heads covered, and many wear long robes and veils as well. A woman in western dress with her hair uncovered and flowing is an unusual sight, and probably a foreigner. Men may wear jellabas, locally made jackets or capes, or simple western garb.
A street scene in Essaouira.
From the square, narrow streets lead into the medina, the walled town. The only vehicles usually seen are hand- carts, small 3-wheeled vehicles with the front of a motorcycle and a small truck bed behind, and an occasional bicycle. All of the buildings are old, or at least feel old. The city has many old defensive walls, walls within walls that would provide successive lines of defense, and in the walls are arched gates, sometimes very ornate and sometimes flanked by smaller gates. Sometimes there are even Men hanging out by one of the gates.
gates without walls; they really seem to be into gates.
The city has a considerable population of dogs and cats that wander the streets freely. The cats, especially, seem to haunt the outdoor restaurants and fish market looking for a meal. To wander these streets was to drink in all kinds of different sights and sensations.
74 ESSAOUIRA, MORROCO
Part Three, Wandering the Streets of Mogadur.
Wandering the streets of Essaouira—or called by its old name, Mogadur—is a feast for the senses. At times it almost seemed like a sensory overload of new experiences. To try to record my experience, I took lots of photos, and to share this experience with you, I will present a lot of them, in fairly random order with little commentary so you can experience the place as I did.
I will say that there is a religious and/or cultural distaste among Moroccans for having their picture taken, so some of the pictures of people were taken after asking and getting permission, and some were taken surreptitiously, often literally shooting from the hip with a small camera. I have edited out most of the photos where people put up their hands or turned away. Since my email system limits size of attachments I can send, I must send you this in three parts to get all of the photos in.
There is a strong tradition of craftsmanship in Morocco, and in Essaouira, this is seen in the fine marquetry or inlaid woodwork, a local specialty for hundreds if not thousands of years. Other handmade objects from the area include leatherwork, pottery, woven rugs, and silver jewelry. There are also old things for sale, including knives, guns, and ironwork that included leg-irons that I wondered if they might have been used in the slave trade. There are also photos of street scenes, people on the street, and food and other everyday items for sale.
74 ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO
Part Four, More Street Scenes.
74 ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO
Part Five, Still More Street Scenes/
I should mention that business is done very differently in Morocco than elsewhere. Shopkeepers will often invite you into their little store and serve you a glass of an aromatic tea. They show you items they want to sell, sometimes with fairly high- pressure salesmanship, or you browse. Prices may be marked, but they are usually negotiable and bartering is expected. You barter until you come to an agreed upon price, and the deal is sealed with smiles. Some of my shipmates really got into the bartering, not only over price, but bartering items like toothbrushes, clothing, and electronics that the Moroccans have difficulty obtaining, for handcrafted items. Nadja, who is tall, lean, blond, and fearless—and therefore very exotic to the Moroccans—was particularly good at it. During a deal in which she exchanged a digital camera and some clothing for some items she wanted, she said “What will you give me for her?” indicating her companion, Susy, who is much shorter, curvier, and young looking. “I am from a very good Berber family,” the merchant said, “I’ll give you 3,000 camels for her,” playing along with the joke while Susy cringed.