ESSAOUIRA is by popular acclaim Morocco’s most likeable resort: an eighteenth-century town, enclosed by medieval-looking battlements. Its whitewashed and blue-shuttered houses and colonnades, wood workshops and art galleries, boat-builders and sardine fishermen and feathery Norfolk Island pines, which only thrive in a pollution-free atmosphere, all provide a colourful and very pleasant backdrop to the beach. Many of the foreign tourists making their own way to Essaouira are drawn by the wind, known locally as the alizee, which in spring and summer can be a bit remorseless for sunbathing but creates much-sought-after waves for windsurfing and, increasingly, kitesurfing. The same winds make Essaouira pretty terrible for surfing – those in the know head down the coast to Point Imsouane and Taghazout.
A series of forts were built here from the fifteenth century but it was only in the 1760s that the town was established and the present circuit of walls constructed. It was known to Europeans as Mogador, possibly from the prominent koubba of Sidi Mgdoul, used for navigating entry to the bay. Less likely is the legend that the town’s patron saint was a Scotsman named McDougal who was shipwrecked here in the fourteenth century. To Moroccans it was known as Seurah, from the Berber “little picture”.
The walls were commissioned by sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah, and carried out by a French military architect, Theodore Cornut, which explains the town’s unique blend of Moroccan Medina and French grid layout. The original intention was to provide a military port, as Agadir was in revolt at the time and Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah needed a local base. Soon, however, commercial concerns gained pre-eminence. During the nineteenth century, Mogador was the only Moroccan port south of Tangier that was open to European trade, and it prospered greatly from the privilege. Drawn by protected trade status, and a harbour free from customs duties, British merchants settled in the kasbah quarter, and a large Jewish community in the Mellah, within the northeast ramparts.
Decline set in during the French Protectorate, with Marshal Lyautey’s promotion of Casablanca. Anecdote has it that he arrived in Essaouira on a Saturday when the Jewish community was at prayer; he cast a single glance at the deserted streets and decided to shift to the port of Casablanca further up the coast. The decline was accelerated after independence, by the exodus of the Jewish community. These days, however, the town is very much back on its feet, as a fishing port, market town and ever-more-popular resort. Orson Welles’ 1952 film Othello was largely shot in Essaouira, and opens with a tremendous panning shot of the Essaouira ramparts, where Welles placed a scene-setting “punishment” of Iago, suspended above the sea and rocks in a metal cage.