Atlantic Ocean blue
Essaouira is a long way from the desert – not just in terms of distance, but also in terms of setting and ambience. Here our senses are assaulted by the cry of gulls, the smell of fish and the salty tang of the Atlantic Ocean. This sleepy fishing village is lovely – the people are so laid back; the ocean water clean and blue; and the town itself friendly and easy to navigate. It’s been great having a day here to relax!
We arrived in Essaouira this afternoon after driving through the N’Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains. The difference between the Southern side of the mountains, where it rains less than 100mm per year, and the Northern side was remarkable. On the Northern, ocean-facing side of the mountains we once again saw valleys of cypress, thuja and olive trees, and the land itself changed to a much richer, red soil.
The closer we got to the ocean, the warmer and more humid it got – a pleasant change after the icy cold, dry air of the desert! Here in Essaouira itself it’s a little cloudy and windy, but not unpleasant. With its French-built fortified walls, ocean-facing Portugese fortress, and Arabic labyrinth of streets, Essaouira’s medina is infinitely Moroccan and fascinating. We had a great afternoon exploring the old town and enjoying the fresh ocean air.
The bay at Essaouira is partially sheltered by 2 islands: Les Iles Purpuraires (translation = the Purple Islands), making it a peaceful harbour protected against the strong Atlantic winds. The name of the islands off the coast refers to the Tyrian purple dye factory that was established here by the Romans during the 1st century BC. The purple dye extracted from the molluscs found on those islands was extremely valuable and was used to colour the purple stripe on Imperial Roman Senatorial togas. In later years this purple dye was used to denote royalty.
Thanks to its importance as a supplier of royal purple dye, Essaouira’s fortunes were assured throughout the Middle Ages. In 1506, however, the city was captured by the Portuguese and a fortress was built here. The town’s name was changed to Mogador and the precious dye trade fell into European hands. Throughout the 16th century Spain, England, the Netherlands and France all tried in vain to conquer the locality, but the city remained firmly in Portuguese hands. It wasn’t until the 18th century that control of the port city was wrested back by the Moroccon king Mohammed III.
The “modern” city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century by Mohammed III. This Alaouite king, wishing to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic to increase trade with European powers, chose Mogador as his key port city. The king employed a French engineer to rebuild the town and create a fortified city along “modern” lines. The king also ordered the town’s name changed to Essaouira which loosely translates to “the beautifully designed” in Arabic.
From the time of its rebuilding until the end of the 19th century Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port, offering goods from the trans-Saharan caravan trade to the world. For 150 years goods from sub-Saharan Africa and Timbuktu travelled across Africa, through the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech, and then on to Essaouira for export to the world. During the 20th century Essaouira became part of the French colony of Morocco. The city’s importance faded somewhat during these years as the French chose Casablanca as their major port. It was only after Morocco regained independence that the city once again flourished, becoming a haven for artists, hippies and musicians. It is said that Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens holidayed here during the 1960s, and in 1952 Orsen Wells chose Essaouira as the setting for his filming of “Othello”.
Even today the city still has a thriving music and art scene; Essaouira is a retreat for artists, musicians, and wealthy Europeans escaping the cold during the Northern winter. The riad we’re staying in, for example, is full of older French couples here for a extended holiday in the sun. Lucky them! There are no grand, epic sights to see in Essaouira really, but we still had a great afternoon watching the fishermen at work, exploring the medina, and just relaxing to the sound of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean beating at the walls of this fortified fishing village.