The Moroccan city formerly known as Mogador (after the Muslim saint Sidi Mogdoul who was buried there in the Middle Ages) has a rich and vibrant history dating back two and a half millennia.
History of Essaouira
Pronounced ‘essa-weera’, the Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira is full of narrow alleys and the pungent smell of spices, thuya wood and sea air tells you that you are in an ancient north African town.
Essaouira, A UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established by Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer in the 5th century BC and over the next two thousand years it was a port, a centre of the manufacture of purple dye (which coloured the purple stripe in Imperial Roman Senatorial dress) and a garrison town but the Essaouira you see today is largely thanks to Mohammed III who built the fortifications and walled the beautiful town in.
The Portuguese seized swathes of Moroccan coast in the early 16th century, building forts along them, but these did not last long. Other European powers tried and failed to establish bases in Essaouira – both because of its strategic location, but also because of the large numbers of pirates who took shelter in the port. In the 20th century, Essaouira became part of the French protectorate of Morocco.
The influences of Portuguese, French, Berber, Dutch, Jewish and Muslim cultures are evident as you make your way around the town and at one stage the population was evenly split 50/50 between Jews and Muslims. The city is also located on the crossroads between two tribes (the Haha Berbers and the Arab Chiadma), adding to the rich cultural mix of the city.
Around the harbour, the fishermen and artisan woodworkers are doing the same as their predecessors and the art scene is as vibrant as it has always been but if you’re a Game of Thrones devotee, Essaouira is and will always be Astapor, home of the Unsullied and the southernmost of the three city-states of Slaver’s Bay.
Because of the ‘vents alizés’ – the trade winds that sweep inland off the Atlantic, it’s known as the ‘Wind City of Africa’ and is a favourite spot for hardcore windsurfers rather than sun-seekers. The city has a temperate climate, and is popular with tourists all year round. The port, medina and fish markets are some of the highlights to visit – look out for fresh fish being cooked on the streets, which is Essaouira’s speciality.
Getting to Essaouira
Essaouira is on the west coast of Morocco, about 3 hours drive west of Marrakech. Flights operate seasonally from an assortment of European airports including London Stansted, Paris Orly, Brussels, Bordeaux and Toulouse directly to Essaouira.