Casablanca to Marrakech (c) Ilan Wittenberg
Faces of Morocco
Officially known as the Kingdom of Morocco is a sovereign country located in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Geographically, Morocco is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior, large tracts of desert, and a lengthy coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
Morocco has a population of around 34 million. Its capital is Rabat, and the largest city is Casablanca. Other major cities include Marrakesh, Tangier, Tetouan, Salé, Fes, Safi, Agadir, Meknes, Oujda, Kenitra, and Nador. A historically prominent regional power, Morocco has a history of independence not shared by its neighbours. Since the foundation of the first Moroccan state by Idris I in 789, the country has been ruled by a series of independent dynasties, reaching its zenith under the Almoravid and Almohad dynasty, spanning parts of Iberia and Northwestern Africa. Marinid and Saadi dynasties continued the struggle against foreign domination, and Morocco remained the only North African country to avoid Ottoman occupation. The Alaouite dynasty, the current ruling dynasty, seized power in 1666. In 1912 Morocco was divided into French and Spanish protectorates, with an international zone in Tangier, and regained its independence in 1956. Moroccan culture is a blend of Arab, indigenous Berber, Sub-Saharan African, and European influences.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The King of Morocco holds vast executive and legislative powers, especially over the military, foreign policy and religious affairs. Executive power is exercised by the government, while legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament, the Assembly of Representatives and the Assembly of Councillors. The king can issue decrees called dahirs which have the force of law. He can also dissolve the parliament after consulting the Prime Minister and the president of the Constitutional court.
Morocco's predominant religion is Islam, and the official languages are Arabic and Berber. The Moroccan dialect, referred to as Darija, and French are also widely spoken. Morocco is a member of the Arab League, the Union for the Mediterranean, and the African Union. It has the fifth largest economy of Africa.
Most Moroccans are either of Arab, Berber or Gnawa descent. There is a significant minority of Sub-Saharan African and European people. Arabs and Berbers together make up about 99% of the Moroccan population. A sizeable portion of the population is identified as Haratin and Gnawa (or Gnaoua), black or mixed race descendants of slaves, and Moriscos, European Muslims expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 17th century.
Most of foreign residents in Morocco are French or Spanish. Some of them are descendants of colonial settlers, who primarily work for European multinational companies, while others are married to Moroccans or are retirees. Prior to independence, Morocco was home to half a million Europeans; who were mostly Christians. Also prior to independence, Morocco was home to 250,000 Spaniards.
My intent in this project was to visit a foreign destination which is best explored on foot, meandering along narrow lanes and chatting to locals. Morocco is a beautiful country and I spent about three weeks there at the start of 2017. My first destination was Fez. Fez was the capital city of modern Morocco until 1925 and is now the capital of the Fès-Meknès. The city has two old medina quarters, the larger of which is Fes el Bali. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and is believed to be one of the world's largest urban pedestrian zones (car-free areas). University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. The city has been called the "Mecca of the West" and the "Athens of Africa". The last city of my visit was Marrakech. Marrakech is home to some of the best and most authentic souk’s located in maze-like alleys. The city's markets, selling traditional textiles, pottery and jewellery have starred in myriad literature and films. It consists of a series of interconnected markets that specialise in different items. Authentic Moroccan handcrafts are for sale down one narrow street while dates and flatbreads overflow from street stalls down an adjacent alleyway. Home to mosques, palaces and gardens, the medina is a densely packed medieval city which dates back to the Berber Empire.
Berbers are the indigenous people and still make up the bulk of the population, although they have been largely Arabised. Morocco is home to more than 20,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants. Morocco's once prominent Jewish minority has decreased significantly since its peak of 265,000 in 1948, declining to around 2,500 today.