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To spare his wife the hardships of life in the Sahara, Abu Bakr divorced brilliant Berber heiress Zeinab En Nafzawiyyat and arranged her remarriage to his cousin. The Almoravids took a while to warm up to their new capital of Marrakesh — too many mountains and rival Berbers around, and too few palm trees. To make themselves more at home, the Almoravids built a mud wall around the city, 8m high and 19km long, and set up the ingenious khettara underground irrigation system that still supports the palmeraie — a vast palm grove outside Marrakesh now dotted with luxury villas.

The Jewish and Andalusian communities in Fez thrived under Ben Tachfine, a soft-spoken diplomat and, like his wife, a brilliant military strategist. His Spanish Muslim allies urged him to intercede against Christian and Muslim princes in Spain, complaining bitterly of extortion, attacks and debauchery. At the age of almost 80, Ben Tachfine launched successful campaigns securing Almoravid control of Andalusia right up to the Barcelona city limits.

Youssef Ben Tachfine was a tough act to follow. But while the reclusive young idealist Ali was diligently working wonders with architecture and irrigation in Marrakesh, a new force beyond the city walls was gathering the strength of an Atlas thunderstorm: the Almohads. Almohad historians would later fault Ali for two supposedly dangerous acts: leaving the women in charge and allowing Christians near drink.

While Ali was in seclusion praying and fasting, court and military officials were left to carry on, and carry on they did.

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Apparently, Almoravid Christian troops were all too conveniently stationed near the wine merchants of Marrakesh. But though Ibn Tumart died soon after, there was no keeping out the Almohads. Their first projects included rebuilding the Koutoubia Mosque — which Almoravid architects, not up on their algebra, had misaligned with Mecca — and adding the soaring, sublime stone minaret that became the template for Andalusian Islamic architecture. The Tin Mal Mosque was constructed in the High Atlas to honour Ibn Tumart in , and it remains a wonder of austere graces and unshakeable foundations.

El Mansour was also a patron of great thinkers, including Aristotle scholar Ibn Rashid — whose commentary would help spark a Renaissance among Italian philosophers — and Sufi master Sidi Bel Abbes. Similar thinking or lack thereof prevailed in 12th-century Europe, where a hunt for heretics turned to officially sanctioned torture under papal bulls of the egregiously misnamed Pope Innocent IV. The Almohads were in no condition to fight back.

History of Morocco

Instead, he was obsessed with bullfighting and was soon gored to death. That title, he claimed, rightfully belonged to Jesus. To win over the devout, they promised moral leadership under their new Merenid dynasty. Making good on the promise, the Merenids undertook construction of a medersa school for studying the Quran in every major city they conquered, levying special taxes on Christian and Jewish communities for the purpose.

In exchange, they allowed these communities to practise key trades, and hired Christian mercenaries and Jewish policy advisers to help conduct the business of the Merenid state. But this time the new rulers faced a tough crowd not easily convinced by promises of piety.

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To shore up their Spanish interests, the Merenids allied with the Castilian princes against the Muslim rulers of Granada. Once again, this proved a losing strategy. By the 14th century, Muslim Spain was lost to the Christians, and the Strait of Gibraltar was forfeited. Without military might or religious right to back their imperial claims, the Merenids chose another time-tested method: marriage.

Morocco: From Empire to Independence (Short Histories)

In the 14th century, Merenid leaders cleverly co-opted their foes by marrying princesses from Granada and Tunis, and claimed Algiers, Tripoli and the strategic Mediterranean port of Ceuta. But the bonds of royal marriage were not rat-proof, and the Merenid empire was devastated by plague. Abu Inan, son of the Merenid leader Abu Hassan, glimpsed opportunity in the Black Death, and proclaimed himself the new ruler despite one minor glitch: his father was still alive.

Abu Hassan hurried back from Tripoli to wrest control from his treacherous son in Fez, but to no avail. Abu Inan buried his father in the royal Merenid necropolis outside Rabat in , but he too was laid to rest nearby after he was strangled by one of his own advisers in The Merenids had an unfortunate knack for hiring homicidal bureaucrats. He replaced Abu Salim with a Merenid patsy before thinking better of it and strangling the new sultan, too. This slippery adviser was assassinated by another Merenid, who was deposed a scant few years later by yet another Merenid — and so it continued for 40 years, with new Merenid rulers and advisers offing the incumbents every few years.

While the Merenids were preoccupied with murderous office politics in Meknes and Fez, the Portuguese seized control of coastal Morocco.

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Much of Portugal including Lisbon had been under Muslim rule during the 12th century, and now the Portuguese were ready for payback — literally. The tiny, rugged kingdom needed steady supplies of food for its people and gold to fortify its growing empire, but Morocco stood in the way. Instead, the Portuguese went with tactics where they had clear technical advantages: naval warfare and advanced firearms. By systematically capturing Moroccan ports along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, Portuguese gunships bypassed Berber middlemen inland and headed directly to West Africa for gold and slaves.

Once trade in the Sahara began to dry up, something had to be done. Entire inland communities were decimated, and formerly flush Marrakesh was wracked with famine. With successive wins against European, Berber and Ottoman rivals, the Saadians were able to reinstate inland trade. Soon the Saadians were in control of such sought-after commodities as gold, slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers and the must-have luxury for trendy European royals: sugar.

With threats of full-scale invasion, the Saadians had no problem scaring up customers and suppliers. This Marrakshi Midas used the proceeds to line his Badi Palace in Marrakesh from floor to ceiling with gold and gems. But after the sultan died, his short-lived successor stripped the palace down to its mud-brick foundations, as it remains today. The Saadian legacy is most visible in the Saadian Tombs, decked out for a decadent afterlife with painted Carrara marble and gold leaf. The Saadians died as they lived: dazzling beyond belief and a touch too rich for most tastes.

Under the Saadians, Jewish communities also took up crucial roles as dealers of the hottest Moroccan commodities of the time: salt and sugar. When European Jewish communities faced the Inquisition, forced conversions and summary executions, the comparatively tolerant Saadian dynasty provided Jewish communities with some security, setting aside a section of Marrakesh next to the royal kasbah as a Jewish quarter, or mellah — a name derived from the Arabic word for salt. This protection was repaid many times over in taxes levied on Jewish and Christian businesses, and the royally flush Saadians clearly got the sweet end of the deal.

Yet several Jewish Moroccans rose to prominence as royal advisers, and in the Saadian Tombs of Marrakesh, trusted Jewish confidantes are buried closer to kings than royal wives. By day, Jewish merchants traded alongside Christian and Muslim merchants, and were entrusted with precious salt, sugar and gold brought across the Sahara; by night they were under official guard in their quarters.

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Once the Jewish quarters of Fez and Marrakesh became overcrowded with European arrivals, other notable districts were founded in Essaouira, Safi, Rabat and Meknes, and the traditions of skilled handicrafts that flourished there continue to this day. The influence of the mellahs spread throughout Morocco, especially in tangy dishes with the signature salted, pickled ingredients of Moroccan Jewish cuisine. The Saadian empire dissolved in the 17th century like a sugar cube in Moroccan mint tea, and civil war prevailed until the Alawites came along.

With illustrious ancestors from the Prophet Muhammad's family and descendants extending to the current King Mohammed VI, the Alawites were quite a change from the free-wheeling Saadians and their anarchic legacy. But many Moroccans might have preferred anarchy to the second Alawite ruler, the dreaded Moulay Ismail — A despot whose idea of a good time included public disembowelments and amateur dentistry on courtiers who peeved him, Moulay Ismail was also a scholar, dad to hundreds of children and Mr Popularity among his royal European peers.

Rumour has it that when these decidedly non-union construction workers finished the job, some were walled in alive. Queen Elizabeth I kicked off the Atlantic pirate trade, allying against her arch-nemesis King Phillip II of Spain with the Saadians and specially licensed pirates known as privateers.

But pirate loyalties being notoriously fickle, Barbary pirates attacked Ireland, Wales, Iceland and even Newfoundland in the 17th century. Barbary pirates also took prisoners, who were usually held for ransom and freed after a period of servitude — including one-time English allies. Captives were generally better off with Barbary pirates than French profiteers, who typically forced prisoners to ply the oars of slave galleys until death.


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  • Nevertheless, after pressure from England secured their release in , a number of English captives were quite put out about the whole experience, and burned the port of Tangier behind them. The Alawite dynasty would struggle on into the 20th century, but the country often lapsed into lawlessness when rulers overstepped their bounds. Piracy and politics became key ways to get ahead in the 18th and 19th centuries — and the two were by no means mutually exclusive.

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    By controlling key Moroccan seaports and playing European powers against one another, officials and outlaws alike found they could demand a cut of whatever goods were shipped through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the Atlantic Coast. In the late 18th century, when Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah ended the officially condoned piracy of his predecessors and nixed shady side deals with foreign powers, the financial results were disastrous.

    For all their successful European politicking, the early Alawites had apparently forgotten a cardinal rule of Moroccan diplomacy: never neglect Berber alliances. Sultan Moulay Hassan tried to rally support among the Berbers of the High Atlas in the late 19th century, but by then it was too late. France began to take an active interest in Morocco around , and allied with Berbers across North Africa to fend off the Ottomans.