Morocco history and timeline

Morocco is a vast and varied territory that was only relatively recently united into a modern nation-state. Its long history records a struggle for ascendancy between the Berber tribes of the mountains and the Arabs of the plains, the rise and fall of powerful dynasties, the creation and collapse of mighty empires, and, from the 18th century, manipulation and exploitation by European powers seeking to expand their empires.

Early history

The Phoenicians were the first to explore this far western land, setting up a trading post at Liks (Lixus) on the Moroccan coast around 1000BC. In the succeeding centuries they and their descendants, the Carthaginians, founded outposts at Tangier and Essaouira, while also building a town on the site of present-day Rabat. Greek traders called the fierce inhabitants of the interior barbaroi, meaning ‘not of our people’, a name that has persisted through the ages as ‘Berber’ (the English word ‘barbarian’ has the same root).

Little is known of the early Berbers, until their land became part of the Roman Empire. The Romans built important centres of settlement, including Volubilis, whose remains today are Morocco’s most impressive from that time.

Entrance gate to the Kasbah of the Udayas (Kasbah des Oudaias), Rabat, Morocco © Glen Berlin/Shutterstock

Entrance gate to the Kasbah of the Udayas (Kasbah des Oudaias), Rabat, Morocco © Glen Berlin/Shutterstock

Islamic dynasties

In the 7th and 8th centuries Arabs introduced Islam to Morocco, and the great Arab dynasties began to rule over vast swathes of the Maghreb and Spain.

One of many remarkable sultans was Moulay Ismail, whose 55-year reign (1672–1727) was one of the longest and most brutal in Moroccan history. He was a cruel and profligate megalomaniac reputed to have had a harem of 500 women, and fathered over 700 children. The imperial city of Meknes was his grand project, and thousands died in the building of his palaces and triumphal arches.

Independence and modernisation

In the “last scramble for Africa” at the beginning of the 20th century, Britain, France, Germany and Spain vied with one another to dominate Morocco, one of few remaining parts of the continent outside the colonial grasp. With France and Spain’s occupation of Morocco, resentment of foreign rule simmered for 40 years until the country’s independence was regained in 1956.

The elation felt at independence soon gave way to rivalries and insurrection. Following the death of Hassan II and the crowning of a new, young king, Morocco entered into a new era – of hope and change. Today, with the effects of the Arab Spring being felt throughout the region, King Mohammed VI understands the need for reform, and a new constitution is being drafted which aims to devolve roughly half the king's powers to a prime minister elected by the Moroccan people.


Meknes, Morocco @ Shutterstock

The reign of Mohammed VI

When Muhammad Ben el Hassan was crowned Mohammed VI in July 1999, Morocco entered a new era. The new king was young, bright, modern and intent on implementing pioneering reforms. Early on in his reign, true to his word, he overhauled the mudawana (family legal code), which would fundamentally change the lives of Moroccan women and, even more extraordinarily, established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission. 

At the same time, Mohammed VI saw the need to establish closer ties with the West as well as increase foreign investment in Morocco, particularly noticeable in the tourist mecca of Marrakech, which has seen a boom in the building of tourist hotels and resorts. 

Thirteen years after his coronation, Mohammed VI remains a popular and much-loved figure. Step into any shop, hotel or restaurant across Morocco and you will see a framed photograph of the monarch, dressed either in full royal Moroccan dress or in a sharp Gucci suit in front of one of his many classic cars. In spite of the obvious wealth gap between the king (the seventh-richest royal in the world) and his people, he is still hailed as “King of the Poor”.

His reign has been tested by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, by the thorny issue of Western Sahara and by a wave of regime change during North Africa’s Arab Spring, and as Morocco moves into the second decade of his reign, the eyes not just of Morocco, but of the world are on Mohammed VI.

Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco © Migel/Shutterstock

Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco © Migel/Shutterstock

The Muslim conquest

The 7th century saw the rise of Islam in Arabia. In the early years believers were organised into a small, close-knit community headed by the Prophet Mohammed. Within a century of Mohammed’s death in AD632, Muslim armies had conquered the whole of the Middle East, including Persia, all of North Africa and parts of Spain and France.

In 670 the Arab general Oqba ibn Nafi founded the holy city of Kairouan in Tunisia. From Kairouan, in 682, Oqba led his raiding armies all the way to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. He named the land al Maghrib al Aqsa, Arabic for "the furthest west". This remains Morocco’s name in Arabic to this day.

The prospect of an invasion of the rich Spanish peninsula made many Berbers convert to Islam and join the Muslim armies to carry the banner of Islam across the Mediterranean. For the next six centuries, the Islamic civilisation of Spain and Morocco outshone anything in Christian Europe.

From the time of the Muslim Conquest to the formation of a Protectorate in the 20th century, the political history of Morocco is that of an uninterrupted succession of dynasties. 

After consolidating power, subduing enemies, and building monumental cities, mosques and palaces, each successive regime slid into decadence, leading to weak government, political chaos and bitter fighting, until a new faction stepped in to fill the power vacuum.

Bab Agnaou, city gates, Marrakech, Morocco

Bab Agnaou, City Gates, Marrakech, Morocco

Morocco history timeline

  • c.1000BC - Phoenician sailors build trading posts along the coast.
  • AD 3rd–4th century - Roman Empire withdraws from Morocco.
  • 682 - Muslim conquest under Oqba ibn Nafi.
  • 711 - The Moors launch their conquest of Spain.
  • 788–926 - Idrissid dynasty: Moulay Idriss II founds Fez.
  • 1054–1143 - Almoravid dynasty: Marrakech founded in 1062 by Yusuf ibn Tashfin.
  • Early 12th century–1248 - Almohad dynasty. Its empire includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Spain.
  • 1248–1465 - Merinid dynasty: the last Berber dynasty.
  • 15th century - Anarchy reigns. In Spain, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella complete the Reconquista from the Moors: Granada, the last Moorish bastion, falls in 1492.
  • Mid-16th–mid-17th centuries - Saadian dynasty establishes its capital in Marrakech. Portuguese defeated at Battle of Three Kings in 1578. Empire extends to Mali.
  • 1666–present - Alaouite dynasty ushers in national revival.
  • 1672 - Moulay Ismail builds his Imperial City located at Meknes.
  • 1912 - Franco-Spanish Protectorate established. Tangier becomes an International Zone.
  • 1956 - Morocco granted independence.
  • 1961 - King Hassan II ascends to the throne.
  • 1975- 'Green March’ into the Spanish Sahara.
  • 1999 - King Hassan II dies. His son, Mohammed VI, succeeds to the throne.
  • 2003 - Suicide bombings in Casablanca kill 41 people.
  • 2004 - Mohammed VI instigates a raft of reforms, notably to the mudawana (family law).
  • 2008 - The EU grants Morocco ‘advanced status’.
  • 2010 - The king’s ‘Vision 2020’ plan is announced. 
  • 2011 - Following the Arab Spring, popular demonstrations are held across the country demanding reforms to the constitution. A nail bomb detonated in the main square in Marrakech kills 17 people. 
Olga Sitnitsa

written by
Olga Sitnitsa

updated 13.12.2023

Online editor at Rough Guides, specialising in travel content. Passionate about creating compelling stories and inspiring others to explore the world.

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