Phase 1 Comprehension 4

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Ancient roots of Morocco

  1. Morocco is a vast country of desert, rugged mountainous terrain, fertile inland and coastal plains, with the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea lapping its shores. The influences of the past can clearly be seen in modern Morocco.

  2. The first inhabitants of the Maghreb – the Arab term for the countries of North Africa – are thought to have dwelled in the Sahara as hunter-gatherers. Recorded history begins around 1100BC with the ancient Phoenicians, who set up trading colonies along the coastlands, from where they traded saffron, which was used as a dye in ancient Egypt. However, as most of their colonies were built upon defensible headlands, they probably had little contact with the indigenous population of Berbers who inhabited the inland fertile plains and harsh mountainous terrain, where they lived off honey, beans, lentils and wheat.

  3. The Carthaginians were the next to take over the African trading routes and developed some of the ports into considerable cities, exporting grains and grapes, as well as minting their own coinage. After Carthage was sacked in the Punic Wars, the Romans incorporated the region into their empire as the province of Mauritiana. Later, when the Romans withdrew, the Vandals took power in southern Spain and controlled some of the North African ports before they were defeated by the Byzantines.

  4. None of these empires were to have such an impact on the region and its history as the new force rising in the East – the Arabs and Islam. Not long after the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632AD, the Arabs arrived in the Maghreb and brought about significant changes as they converted the inhabitants to Islam and their own culture.

  5. In Algeria, the Berbers, including integrated Jews and Coptic Christians from Egypt, put up a resistance for a while but by the early part of 700AD, most of the inhabitants had embraced Islam, and North Africa was effectively under Arab rule. With their Berber recruits, the Arabs began to look for new territories to conquer and, like the Romans and Byzantines before them, their main thrust was towards Spain. So began the significant and lasting cultural influence of the Moors – the term for people of mixed Berber and Arab descent – on southern Spain, Portugal and Sicily.

  6. Around the time that Columbus was landing in Americas, the Moors were forced from al-Andaluz (Andalucia) to return to Morocco, where they spread their acquired Spanish cultural influences. Beginning in Tangier and Tetouan, they spread to the courts of Fez and south to Marrakesh.

  7. In the north of Morocco, the Spanish influence in language, architecture and food remains strong, particularly in Fez, the most complete medieval city of the Arab world. This city has dominated Moroccan trade, culture and religious life since the end of the tenth century. The diversity of its inhabitants include Berbers, Jews, Arabs, Andalusians, the French and other Europeans. Casablanca, the principal city of Morocco and the largest port in the Maghreb, is cosmopolitan in style.

  8. Further south, in Marrakesh, Safi and Essaouira, influences come from Africa and the Atlantic. Marrakesh was once a trading post for slaves from Senegal, Sudan and the ancient kingdom of Timbuktu, as well as a market place for the goods of tribes from the Atlas, Magherebis from the plains and nomads from the Sahara. It is particularly interesting for its Berber, rather than African, origins, which are reflected in the long, low red buildings as well as the food. Inland though, in the harsher terrain of the Rif, the Atlas and the southern oases, there has been little outside influence and the nomadic Berber tribes still hold on to their ancient cultural identity.