Capital of the nation since 1912, elegant and spacious RABAT is the very image of an orderly administrative and diplomatic centre. Lacking the frenetic pace of Morocco’s other large cities, Rabat is sometimes harshly referred to as “provincial”. Sure enough, there are times when it’s hard to find a café open much past ten at night, but there’s other times when the city comes out from its conservatism and even makes a little noise, such as the during the Festival of Rhythms each May. Befitting its regal status, Rabat – along with neighbouring Salé – has some of the most interesting historic and architectural monuments in the country, and the fact that the local economy does not depend on tourist money makes exploring these attractions a great deal more relaxed than cities like Fez and Marrakesh.

Brief history

The Phoenicians established a settlement at Sala, around the citadel known today as Chellah. This eventually formed the basis of an independent Berber state, which reached its peak of influence in the eighth century, developing a code of government inspired by the Koran but adapted to Berber customs and needs. It represented a challenge to the Islamic orthodoxy of the Arab rulers of the interior, however, and to stamp out the heresy, a ribat – the fortified monastery from which the city takes its name – was founded on the site of the present-day kasbah. The ribat’s presence led to Chellah’s decline – a process hastened in the eleventh century by the founding of a new town, Salé, across the estuary.

The Almohads rebuilt the kasbah and, in the late twentieth century, Yacoub el Mansour (“the Victorious”) created a new imperial capital here. His reign lasted almost thirty years, allowing El Mansour to leave a legacy that includes the superb Oudaïa Gate of the kasbah, Bab er Rouah at the southwest edge of town, and the early stages of the Hassan Mosque. He also erected over 5km of fortifications, though it is only in the last sixty years that the city has expanded to fill his circuit of pisé walls.

Notoriety and pirates

After Mansour’s death, Rabat’s significance was dwarfed by the imperial cities of Fez, Meknes and Marrakesh, and the city fell into neglect. Sacked by the Portuguese, it was little more than a village when, as New Salé, it was resettled by seventeenth-century Andalusian refugees. In this revived form, however, it entered into an extraordinary period of international piracy and local autonomy. Its corsair fleets, the Sallee Rovers, specialized in the plunder of merchant ships returning to Europe from West Africa and the Spanish Americas, but on occasion raided as far afield as Plymouth and the Irish coast – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe began his captivity “carry’d prisoner into Sallee, a Moorish port”.

The Andalusians, owing no loyalty to the Moorish sultans and practically impregnable within their kasbah perched high on a rocky bluff above the river, established their own pirate state, the Republic of the Bou Regreg. They rebuilt the Medina below the kasbah in a style reminiscent of their homes in the Spanish city of Badajoz, dealt in arms with the English and French, and even accepted European consuls, before the town finally reverted to government control under Moulay Rachid, and his heavy-handed successor, Moulay Ismail.

A capital once again

Unofficial piracy continued until 1829 when Austria took revenge for the loss of a ship by shelling Rabat and other coastal towns. From then until the French made it their colonial capital, moving it from the more conservative and harder to defend Fez, Rabat-Salé was very much a backwater. Upon independence in 1956, and perhaps also concerned about the influence wielded by Fez, Mohammed V decided to keep Rabat as the country’s capital. It’s taken a few generations, but the city now seems comfortable with this weighty responsibility and, of late, has begun to promote itself as more than just a residence for the diplomatic and governmental corps. A number of large-scale developments, including a revamped riverside promenade and a new tramway system, were pushed through specifically to benefit the local people.

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