Archaeological research shows that Essaouira has been occupied since prehistoric times. The bay at Essaouira is partially sheltered by the island of Mogador, making it a peaceful harbor protected against strong marine winds.
Around the end of the 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE, the Berber king 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.
A Roman villa was excavated on Mogador island. A Roman vase was found as well as coinage from the 3rd century CE. Most of the artifacts are now visible in the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum and the Rabat Archaeological Museum.
In 1506, the king of Portugal, D. Manuel I, ordered a fortress to be built there, named Castelo Real de Mogador. Altogether, the Portuguese are documented to have seized six Moroccan towns and built six stand-alone fortresses on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, between the river Loukos in the north and the river of Sous in the south. Four of them only had a short duration: Graciosa (1489), São João da Mamora (1515), Castelo Real of Mogador (1506–10) and Aguz (1520–25). Two became permanent urban settlements: Santa Cruz do Cabo de Gué (modern Agadir, founded in 1505-06), and Mazagan, founded in 1514-17. Following the 1541 Fall of Agadir, the Portuguese had to abandon most of their settlements between 1541 and 1550, although they were able to keep Ceuta, Tangier and Mazagan.
During the 16th century, powers including Spain, England, the Netherlands and France tried in vain to conquer the locality. Essaouira remained a haven for the export of sugar, molasses and the anchoring of pirates.
France was involved in an early attempt to colonize Mogador in 1629. As Richelieu and Père Joseph were attempting to establish a colonial policy, Admiral Isaac de Razilly suggested they occupy Mogador in 1626, which he had reconnoitered in 1619. The objective was to create a base against the Sultan of Marrakesh and asphyxiate the harbour of Safi.
He departed for Salé on 20 July 1629 with a fleet composed of the ships Licorne, Saint-Louis, Griffon, Catherine, Hambourg, Sainte-Anne, Saint-Jean. He bombarded the city the Salé, destroyed three corsair ships, and then sent the Griffon under Captain Treillebois to Mogador. The men of Razilly saw the fortress of Castelo Real in Mogador and landed 100 men with wood and supplies on Mogador island, with the agreement of Richelieu. After a few days, however, the Griffon reimbarked the colonists and departed to rejoin the fleet in Salé.
After these expeditions, France signed a treaty with Abd el-Malek II in 1631, giving France preferential treatment, known as "capitulations": preferential tariffs, the establishment of a Consulate, and freedom of religion for French subjects.
The present city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century. Mohammed III, wishing to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic for increased exchanges with European powers, chose Mogador as his key location. One of his objectives was to establish a harbour at the closest possible point from Marrakesh. The other was to cut off trade from Agadir in the south, which had been favouring political rival of Mohammed III, and the inhabitants of Agadir were forced to relocate to Essaouira.
For 12 years, Mohammed III directed a French engineer, Théodore Cornut, and several other European architects and technicians to build the fortress and city along modern lines. Originally called "Souira" ("the small fortress"), the name became "Es-Saouira" ("the beautifully designed").
Thédore Cornut designed and built the city itself, particularly the Kasbah area, corresponding to the royal quarters and the buildings for Christian merchants and diplomats. Other parts were built by other foreigners. The harbour entrance, with the "Porte de la Marine", was built by an English renegade by the names of Ahmed el Inglizi ("Ahmed the English") or Ahmed El Alj ("Ahmed the Renegade"). The two "scalas" with their fortifications (the Harbour scala and the Northern scala) were built by Genoese engineers.
Mohammed III took numerous steps to encourage the development of Essaouira: the harbour of Agadir to the south was closed off in 1767, so that southern trade should be redirected through Essaouira. European communities in the northern harbour of Rabat-Salé were ordered to move to Essaouira through an ordonance of January 21, 1765.
From the time of its rebuilding by Muhammad III 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.
Mohammed ben Abdallah encouraged Moroccan Jews to settle in the town and handle the trade with Europe. Jews once comprised 40% of the population, and the Jewish quarter (or mellah) contains many old synagogues. The town also has a large Jewish cemetery. The city flourished until the caravan trade died, outmoded by direct European trade with sub-Saharan Africa.
In the 19th century, Essaouira became the first seaport of Morocco, with trade volumes about double those of Rabat. The city functioned as the harbour for Marrakesh, as it was only a few days from the inland city. Diplomatic and trade representations were established by European powers in Essouira. In the 1820, European diplomats were concentrated in either Tangiers or Essaouira.
Following Morocco's alliance with Algeria's Abd-El-Kader against France, Essaouira was bombarded and briefly occupied by the French Navy under the Prince de Joinville on August 16, 1844, in the Bombardment of Mogador, an important battle of the First Franco-Moroccan War.
From 1912 to 1956, Essaouira was part of the French protectorate of Morocco. Mogador was used as a base for a military expedition against Dar Anflous, when 8,000 French troops were located outside of the city under the orders of Generals Franchet d'Esperey and Brulard. The Kasbah of Dar Anflous was taken on 25 January 1913. In 1930, brothers, Michel and Jean Vieuchange used Essaouira as a base before Michel set off into the Western Sahara to try to find Smara.
France had an important administrative, military and economic presence. Essaouira had a Franco-Moroccan school, still visible in Derb Dharb street. Linguistically, many Moroccans of Essaouira speak French fluently today.
In the early 1950s film director and actor Orson Welles stayed at the Hotel des Iles just south of the town walls during the filming of his 1952 classic version of "Othello" which contains several memorable scenes shot in the labyrinthine streets and alleyways of the medina. Legend has it that during Welles's sojourn in the town he met Winston Churchill, another guest at the Hotel des Iles. Orson Welles's bust is located in a small square just outside the medina walls close to the sea. It is in a neglected state being covered in bird droppings, graffiti and with a broken nose. In addition, the dedication plaque below it has been stolen (as of Dec 2008). Several other film directors have utilised Essaouira's photogenic and atmospheric qualities.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Essaouira became something of a hippie hangout.
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