Morocco was the first country, in 1776, to recognize American
Morocco, slightly larger than California, lies across
the Strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean and looks out on
the Atlantic from the northwest shoulder of Africa. Algeria is
to the east and Mauritania to the south. On the Atlantic coast
there is a fertile plain. The Mediterranean coast is
mountainous. The Atlas Mountains, running northeastward from the
south to the Algerian frontier, average 11,000 ft (3,353 m) in
other North African nations, Morocco has been the home of the
Berbers since the second millennium B.C.
The Berbers, or Imazighen (men of the land) at one time controlled all
of the land between Morocco and Egypt. Divided into clans and
tribes, they have always jealously guarded their independence.
It's this fierce spirit that has helped preserve one of Africa's
most fascinating cultures.
The early Berbers were unmoved by the colonizing
Phoenicians. In A.D. 46,
Morocco was annexed by Rome as part of the province of
Mauritania. The Romans
ushered in a long period of peace during which many cities were
founded, and the Berbers of the coastal plains became city
dwellers. Christianity turned up in the 3rd century AD, and
again the Berbers asserted their traditional dislike of
centralized authority by following Donatus (a Christian sect
leader who claimed that the Donatists alone constituted the true
The Vandals (a Germanic tribe) overran this portion of the
declining Roman empire in the 5th century. The Arabs invaded
circa 685, bringing Islam. Quickly conquering Egypt, the Arabs
controlled all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century.
The Berbers joined the Arabs in invading Spain in 711, but then
revolted against the Arabs, resenting their secondary status.
By the next century much of North Africa had fragmented, with
the move towards a united Morocco steadily growing. A
fundamentalist Berber movement emerged from the chaos caused by
the Arab invasion, overrunning Morocco and Muslim Andalucia.
Almoravids founded Marrakesh as their capital, but they were
soon replaced by the Almohads.
Under these new rulers, a professional civil service was set
up and the cities of Fès, Marrakesh, Tlemcen and Rabat reached
the peak of their cultural development. In 1086, Berbers
took control of large areas of Moorish Spain until they were
expelled in the 13th century.
But eventually weakened
by Christian defeats in Spain, and paying the price for heavily
taxing tribes, the Muslim (or Moorish) rule began to wane. In
their place came the Merenids, from the Moroccan hinterland, and
the area again blossomed - until the fall of Spain to the
Christians, in 1492, unleashed a revolt that dissolved the new
dynasty within 100 years.
The land was rarely unified and was usually ruled by small
tribal states. Conflicts between Berbers and Arabs were chronic.
Portugal and Spain began invading Morocco, which helped to unify
the land in defense. In 1660, Morocco came under the control of
the Alawite dynasty. It is a sherif dynasty—descended from the
prophet Muhammad—and rules Morocco to this day.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Morocco was one of the
Barbary states, the headquarters of pirates who pillaged
Mediterranean traders. European powers became interested in
colonizing the country beginning in 1840, and there were
frequent clashes with the French and Spanish. Finally, in 1904,
France and Spain concluded a secret agreement that divided
Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence, with France
controlling almost all of Morocco and Spain controlling the
small southwest portion, which became known as Spanish Sahara.
Morocco became an even greater object of European rivalry leading almost to a European war in 1905
when Germany attempted to gain a foothold in the mineral-rich
country. By the terms of the Algeciras Conference (1906), the
sultan of Morocco maintained control of his lands and France's
privileges were curtailed. The conference was a telling
indication of what was to come in World War I, with Germany and
Austria-Hungary lining up on one side of the territorial
dispute, and France, Britain, and the United States on the
In 1912, the sultan of Morocco, Moulay Abd al-Hafid,
permitted the French protectorate status. By the 1930s, more than 200,000 French had
made Morocco home. WWII saw Allied forces use Morocco as a base
from which to drive the Germans out of North Africa.
With the war over, Sultan Mohammed V inspired an independence
party that finally secured Moroccan freedom in 1956, when France
and Spain recognized the independence and sovereignty of
Morocco. Tangier was
reclaimed in the process, but Spain refused to hand over the
northern towns of Ceuta and Melilla (to this day they remain
Spain's last tenuous claim on Africa).
Mohammed V promoted himself to king in 1957 and was succeeded
four years later by his son, Hassan II. This popular leader
cemented his place in Moroccan hearts and minds by staging the
Green March into the Western Sahara, an area formerly held by
Spain. With a force of 350,000 volunteers, Hassan's followers
overcame the indigenous Sahrawis to claim the mineral-rich
region as their own.
By the 1960s it had become clear that the 100,000 or so
inhabitants of the 'territory' wanted independence. Western
Sahara's Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and
Rio de Oro (Polisario) didn't take kindly to the invasion and
embarked on a long and gruesome war of independence against
Morocco. Despite attempts at international mediation the issue
remains unresolved. While the Moroccan masses applauded the
southern invasion, it left nearby Algeria about as happy as the
Western Saharans themselves. Morocco's relations with this
particular war-torn neighbor have been poor ever since.
On his death on Feb. 26, 1961, Mohammed V's son succeeded him
as King Hassan II.
Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish
Sahara) has been repeatedly criticized by the international
community. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of Moroccans crossed
the border into Spanish Sahara to back their government's
contention that the northern part of the territory was
historically part of Morocco. Spain, which had controlled the
territory since 1912, withdrew in 1976, creating a power vacuum
that was filled by Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the
south. When Mauritania withdrew in Aug. 1979, Morocco overran
the remainder of the territory. A rebel group, the Polisario
Front, has fought against Morocco since 1976 for the
independence of Western Sahara on behalf of the indigenous
Saharawis. The Polisario and Morocco agreed in Sept. 1991 to a
UN-negotiated cease-fire, which was contingent on a referendum
regarding independence. For the past decade, however, Morocco
has opposed the referendum. In 2002, King Mohammed VI reasserted
that he “will not renounce an inch of” Western Sahara.
In the 1990s, King Hassan promulgated “Hassanian
democracy,” which allowed for significant political freedom
while at the same time retaining ultimate power for the monarch.
In Aug. 1999, King Hassan II died after 38 years on the throne
and his son, Prince Sidi Muhammad, was crowned King Muhammad VI,
just prior to his 35th birthday.
The young king accelerated the more
liberal trends that began late in his father's rule. In his
first speech as king, he promised the amnesty of nearly 50,000
prisoners and apologized for past political repressions. More
significantly, he sacked the powerful and much feared long-time
head of the security forces, the infamous 'Butcher Basri'.
Still, Morocco remains a monarchy in which the limits of
political tolerance reflect the king's personal views.
Since then Muhammad VI has pledged to make the political
system more open, to allow freedom of expression, and to support
economic reform. He has also advocated giving more rights to
women, which has been opposed by Islamic fundamentalists. The new king has made economic development a priority. He has
continued his father's policies of economic liberalization and
privatization of state industries, forced into place by stagnant
growth rates going back to the 1980's. The economy is still
heavily dependent on agriculture, which has been hampered by
The entrenched political elite and the military have also
been leery of some reform proposals. With about 20% of the
population living in dire poverty, economic expansion is a prime
Mohammed VI has shown himself to be most innovative in the
field of social policy, and more specifically, in women's
rights. In 2002, the king married Salma Bennani, a computer
engineer - an event that appeared to symbolize acceptance of an
increasingly modern role for women. In 2004, the government
adopted landmark changes to the Moudawana, or Family Law, aimed
at 'lifting the inequity imposed on women, protecting children's
rights, and safeguarding men's dignity'. The new legislation
grants unprecedented rights and protections for women concerning
marriage, divorce and custody of children.
On May 16, 2003, terrorists, believed to be associated with
al-Qaeda, killed 33 people in several simultaneous attacks. Four
bombs targeted Jewish, Spanish, and Belgian buildings in
Casablanca. In the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, Spain,
numerous Moroccans were implicated.
Morocco has developed an elaborate patchwork of artistic
traditions - impressive leather ware and jewelry, and fabled
carpets. Evolved from Classical Moroccan music, a style that
developed in Muslim Spain and the storytelling musical
traditions of the indigenous Berbers, while contemporary
musicians employ fusions of African, French, pop and rock. Throw
in a mess of couscous washed down with sweet mint tea and you'll
come somewhere close to the cultural flavor of Morocco.
Although identified more with Algeria, rai (opinion)
music is a burgeoning force in Morocco. Despite its distinctly
Arab-African rhythms (it owes much to Bedouin music), it's
probably the most thoroughly Westernized style, combining a
variety of electrical instruments to create a hypnotic effect.
Morocco's Islamic streak has meant that, compared with most
African nations, dance is a fairly low key affair
(theoretically, Muslim women are not supposed to boogie). So
while the circle dance known as ahidous is ancient and
symbolic to the Berbers, there'll be no naked decapitating of
chickens here anymore thanks very much.
Spectacularly diverse, Morocco combines sand, sea and snow in
a way that Club Med developers can only dream about. The
southern coast stretches to the edge of the Western Sahara while
to the north, the bulk of Morocco's population fills the
foothills of the often snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The
mountains provide a buffer against the country's dangerously
rowdy eastern neighbor, Algeria.
Between the mountains and Morocco's Atlantic coast are
plateaus and plains that are fertile and well-watered. In the
extreme south, at the edge of the Anti Atlas, the gorges, like
the rivers that flow at their bases, gradually peter out into
the endless sand and stony wastes of the vast Sahara.
Full country name: Kingdom of Morocco
name: al-Mamlaka al-Maghrebia
Area: 446,550 sq km
Population (2004 est.): 32,209,101
Capital City: Rabat (2003 est. 1,636,600 population)
Largest cities: Casablanca, 3,397,000; Fez, 941,800;
People: 55% Arab, 44% Berber, 0.7% foreigners
Language: English, Spanish; Castilian, French, Arabic
Religion: 98% Muslim, 1% Christian, 1% Jewish
Government: constitutional monarchy
Head of State: King Mohammed VI - since 1999
Head of Government: Prime Minister Driss Jettou
GDP: US$128 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,000
Annual Growth: 6.8%
Major Industries: Mining, leather goods, textiles,
Major Trading Partners: EU, US, Japan, Saudi Arabia,