250km (155 miles) S of Tangier; 91km (57 miles) N of Casablanca
Rabat is considered Morocco's most conservative city. The nation's capital displays a civilized orderliness more akin to Europe, with its citizens quietly going about their business, void of the frantic pace experienced in many other African and Arabic capitals. For some, this conservativeness lacks any attraction, and Rabat is often overlooked in many travelers' itineraries. However, upon investigation, this low-profile yet cosmopolitan city offers a well-proportioned package of sights, restaurants, and history within the walls of its easily negotiated and largely hassle-free centre ville, medina, and kasbah. Spend a day or two exploring Rabat's relatively clean but still mazelike medina, its adjoining cliff-top kasbah, and the tree-lined boulevards of the French-designed centre ville, and you'll discover the city's fascinating past.
Rabat has been the nation's capital since the beginning of the protectorate era in 1912, the French preferring its coastal, defendable location to the then-nationalistic capital of Fes. Prior to this, the city's fortunes ebbed and flowed with that of the Oued Bou Regreg ("Father of Reflection" river), which separates Rabat from its historical sister city and now southern suburb, Salé. Early history shows evidence of both Phoenician and Carthaginian settlements on the southern banks of the Bou Regreg. They were followed by the Romans, who established a trading post here around 150 B.C. as an integral access point to their westernmost colony. Known as Sala Colonia, the settlement was based in the citadel known today as the Chellah. The settlement withstood the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire, and by the 8th century had transformed into the capital of a self-governing Berber kingdom. Typical of the independent nature of Morocco's Muslim Berbers, the kingdom was governed under an amalgamation of Koran-based principles and Berber customs and needs. This didn't sit well with the orthodox Idrissid sultans of the interior, who were at the beginning of their rule as the country's first imperial dynasty.
As other coastal settlements became the Idrissids' favored ports of trade and commerce, Rabat's decline was hastened by the silting of the river's mouth. Around the 10th century, a local Berber tribe, the Beni Ifren, built a new settlement on the northern banks of the river called Salé. Continuously at war with a rival tribe to the south of the Bou Regreg, they constructed a fortress, or ribat, where Rabat's kasbah now stands. This ribat was extended in the 12th century by the Almohads, and the resulting kasbah served as a launching point for their eventually successful campaigns in returning Andalusia to Islamic rule. From 1170 until his death in 1199, the Almohad sultan, Yacoub el Mansour, transformed Rabat into a fine imperial capital. During this golden age, the city's imposing medina walls were constructed along with the kasbah's impressive entrance gate, Bab Oudaïas. El Mansour also began the construction of his empire's showpiece, the Hassan Mosque, intended at the time to be one of the largest in the Islamic world. El Mansour's death initiated the decline of the entire Almohad dynasty, which subsequently lost its control of Andalusia, as well as much of its African territory. By the 13th century, Rabat's economic power had shifted to Fes, and the city entered into a long period of obscurity, recorded in the 16th century as having no more than 100 households huddled together within the kasbah.
The city's fortunes were revived in the 17th century, when an influx of Muslim refugees fleeing the Christian reconquest of Andalusia settled here, renaming it New Salé. Along with these immigrants came all manner of unsavory types, including a band of pirates that became known as the Sallee Rovers. Safely entrenched in the Almohad-era kasbah, this community, which included Christians and Moors, owed no allegiance to the Saâdians or their successors, the Alaouites, and for a time enjoyed virtual self-rule as the Republic of Bou Regreg, trading with some European nations and entertaining their consuls. The pirates specialized in looting merchant ships returning to Europe with stores of gold from the Americas and West Africa, and roved as far as the southern English coast, capturing Christian slaves for labor. Rabat finally came under Moroccan authority with the rise to power of the ruthless Meknes-based Alaouite sultan, Moulay Ismail. However, the pirates continued their plundering until the 19th century, when in 1829 they were finally curtailed by a concerted bombardment from the Austrian navy in revenge for the loss of one of that country's ships. Again, the city's fortunes declined until the French, fearful of the potential for revolution in Fes and Marrakech, established their seat of power in Rabat, the coastal city much more accessible by their navy should the need for defense arise. The French built an extensive ville nouvelle as well as a new centre ville within the old Almohad walls, both developing within an orderly grid of wide boulevards lined with trees, palms, and impressive colonial buildings. Rabat quickly established itself as the diplomatic center of the country, so much so that upon independence in 1956, it remained the seat of government and the home of the king, as it is today.