Essaouira, Morocco

Have you ever fallen in love with the Alhambra in Granada, or wandered in awe through Córdoba's vast mosque? If so, you may have wondered what Europe would look like today if the vibrant Islamic civilisation of Al Andalus, multi-cultural before its time, had not been swept away by the bleak Christianity of medieval Castile.

You can find some clues, though recent history has often obscured them, much further south, in Essaouira, on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

Tour companies often portray this strange little city as a two-day stopover, an oasis of relaxing shoreline strolls and quiet romantic nights after the frenetic pace of Marrakech or Fez. More recently, its Atlantic breakers and high winds have made it a magnet for devotees of adventure sports.

It’s certainly true that Essaouira’s gentle charm makes it one of the most laid-back places in the country. But it’s worth much more than a short stay. If you linger, and dig just a little beneath the surface, you’ll be rewarded with a tantalising palimpsest of intermingling cultures in the city’s historical quarters. You can also discover extraordinary opportunities, barely mentioned in the tourist brochures, to create your own nature hikes in the delightful dune forests that surround the city. Both may draw you back, again and again.

Essaouira, which means ‘well-designed’, was formally created in the late 18th century. But its ‘purple island’, Mogador, had already been attracting cosmopolitan travellers for a very long time. Phoenicians, Cretans, Greeks and Romans all came here, partly as a safe haven for trade with Timbuktu, partly for the vivid purple dye beloved of their imperial elites, which was derived from the shells of a rare local sea snail.

The Portuguese built a fortress overlooking a natural deepwater harbour on the mainland in 1506, but abandoned it only a few years later. It took a remarkable Moroccan ruler, Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah, to assemble the recipe of diverse ingredients that would make the city a melting pot of Arab, Berber, Jewish, African and European cultures for much of the last two centuries.

The sultan had a broad worldview: he recognised the revolutionary United States of America a year before the French did. So ironically Uncle Sam’s first international ally was an Islamic country.

The sultan envisaged Essaouira as his country’s unique point of contact with other cultures, a centre for consuls and traders. He invited a distinguished French surveyor, Nicholas Théodore Cornut, to design the city from scratch.

Cornut used materials from the Portuguese fortress to create a much more extensive bastion. He was heavily influenced by Vauban’s classic design for Saint-Malo. So if you take shelter today in one of Essaouira’s several forts, known as borjs, while an Atlantic storm lashes the black rockscapes they stand on, the city can feel uncannily like the Breton island stronghold. But walk the generous rampart-esplanades (sqalas) that Cornut set between the forts, on a sunny day, and you find you are overlooking a dizzying maze of tiny streets, typical of any Moroccan medina.

Cornut married a European grid system to this model, dividing the medina into quarters that soon become conveniently familiar. If you get disorientated in the medina’s honeycomb tunnels, you will always quickly emerge onto one of these ample thoroughfares, and reset your compass.

Some quarters retain the functions they have had since the city’s foundation. This is especially true of the souks, or markets, which form the heart of the medina.

The food souks are a good place to start your exploration of the city’s history, and of its buzzing contemporary life. They are much more manageable than the dauntingly huge markets of Fez or Marrakech. But they are every bit as delightful to the eye: their cones of olives, fruits and nuts, their pyramids of orange turmeric, red paprika and golden sesame seeds, all somehow remain immaculate through a long day’s trading.

What’s really refreshing here, and typical of the whole city, is the way you can casually observe proceedings, without being aggressively hassled by every stallholder. The merchants often seem indifferent to tourists. They give priority to serving their regulars, locals who come here to shop and to chat, sometimes at leisure, sometimes in a rush. Proper order.

There is an exception to this rule. For some reason the spice sellers are often as irritatingly in-your-face as your worst stereotype of an African market. They are particularly aggressive towards single women, who can generally otherwise move through the medina free of harassment.

Your might think that here, with most people in traditional dress, and trading local products brought in by handcart, you are witnessing scenes unchanged since the city was born. But if you wander into a small and open cobbled square just opposite the spice market, and sit in one of its attractive cafes, you can see that this place has seen great shifts over the centuries.

It is still called the grain market, though cereals are only sold here now on ceremonial occasions. But it had a much grimmer past, not much publicized today. This was where black African slaves used to be auctioned for transportation to the Americas, like any other commodity.

Just as African slavery in white America produced jazz and blues, somehow maintaining cultural values and shaping celebration in the midst of misery, so the African presence here cross-fertilized with Arab, Jewish and Berber musical traditions to produce the rich fusion music known as Gnaoua. A world music festival now attracts up to 500,000 musicians and fans to Essaouira every June.

The shadow of slavery reflects the ruthlessness that underlay the founding sultan’s strategy for Essaouira. His aim was not a multicultural Morocco, but to control all international trade through this one port, blocking European and American commerce/ culture from his other cities.

But if Essaouira was an exception, it must have been a truly remarkable one. You can find half a dozen former European consulates, a defunct Catholic church, several mosques and one of the city’s once numerous synagogues, all within five minutes walk of the spacious Place Moulay Hassan. The once elegant teahouses must have witnessed extraordinary conversations when the city was home to three great cultural traditions, as Grenada and Córdoba had been several centuries earlier.

The synagogue recalls a very ancient Jewish presence in Morocco, which expanded rapidly after the expulsion of both Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492. The sultan encouraged thousands of Jewish artisans to settle in the medina’s Mellah quarter, and also invited a dozen of the country’s wealthiest Jewish merchants to establish great international trading houses. For more than a century, there were almost as many Jews as Muslims in this city, and inter-communal relations were generally cordial.

The Jewish community drained away as Essaouira's commercial status declined. The attraction of the new state of Israel, paralleling an increase in local anti-Zionism, made this exodus almost complete by the late 1960s. But you can find many echoes of the past in the bookshop owned by one of the city's last resident Jews, Josef Sebag, on the edge of the Kasbah quarter.

Here you can find information on everything from local Jewish pilgrimages to the semi-legendary adventures of international cultural icons who made Essaouira their temporary homes. Orson Welles directed his Othello on the ramparts above the shop. He is reputed to have paid his cast, which included Micheál MacLiammóir, in fish when he ran out of money.

Jimi Hendrix startled Essaouira with a brief visit, but he apparently never lived in the neighbouring village of Diabat, though it now claims him as its own. Many people, including this writer, have fallen for the story that his Castles in the Sand was inspired by the dramatic ruins of Borj Baroud, which are still slowly being torn asunder by the Atlantic waves near the village. But the facts spoil the tale; he had recorded that song well before he came here.

The greatest jewel in Sebag's treasure trove is a single modest book, Hammad Berrada's Essaouira: de Bab en Bab. It's only available in French, but it has superbly drawn maps that direct you easily to dozens of rewarding sites throughout the medina. It guides your imagination to peel back decades of neglect and discover beneath them a Portuguese church, a Jewish merchant's mansion, or Arabic inscriptions on the side of a canon.

It's a very different kind of sightseeing to Paris or the great pyramids, but it opens unique gates to historical and cultural daydreaming. And you don't have to queue to go through any of them. Paddy Woodworth is an author, lecturer, and tour guide.

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