351km (218 miles) S of Casablanca; 174km (108 miles) W of Marrakech; 173km (107 miles) N of Agadir
Essaouira is one the most enchanting spots in Morocco. Both a laid-back port town and a chic seaside resort, it has quietly become one of the must-sees for backpackers, surfers (wind, kite, and stand-up), art enthusiasts, and crafts shoppers. Essaouira's appeal is its charming blend of 18th-century medina, temperate climate, slightly alternative atmosphere, photogenic port, and wide sandy bay. Add to this the renowned warmth and easygoing nature of the local inhabitants, called Souiris, and it becomes clearer as to why Essaouira (pronounced "Essa-wee-ra") is currently riding the crest of a small tourism wave, becoming more than just a day trip from Marrakech.
Although the town we see today largely dates from the 18th century onward, the port has featured in Morocco's history since it was discovered by the Phoenicians in the 7th century B.C., who named it Migdol after their word for "watchtower." By 450 B.C., their maritime successors, the Carthaginians, established a colony of around 30,000 people. Excavations on the islands in the bay have confirmed this settlement, where locals extracted purple dye from the island's murex mollusks (hence its alternative name as the Iles Purpuraires [Purple Isles]). In the 15th century, another great maritime nation, the Portuguese, established a commercial and military base here, which they named Mogador, from the original Phoenician name. But by the mid-16th century, they had lost most of their Atlantic strongholds to the Moroccan Saâdian dynasty, and Mogador fell into decline as Agadir became the preferred trading port. However, as political power shifted to the nation's current ruling dynasty, the Alaouites, the citizens of Agadir, called Gadiris, declined to support the new power. Agadir's port was promptly closed, and all trade was diverted back again to Mogador. It was the Saâdian ruler, Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah, who is responsible for the medina of Essaouira that is standing today. The forward-thinking ruler wanted the port redesigned as both a strong military base and as a free-trade port (the only one south of Tangier). In 1765, he entrusted French architect Théodore Cornut to design a walled city different than the country's other haphazard Arabic medinas, and more along the French gridlike street system. Liking what he saw, the sultan renamed the city Essaouira, meaning "well designed," and it prospered from both its free-port status and a subsequent wave of immigrants that included wealthy Jewish traders, influential European merchants, thousands of local Arabs and Berbers, and a small community of African ex-slaves. This was Essaouira's golden age, from which much of the town's enduring architectural grace hails from.
Upon the establishment of the French protectorate in 1912, the town fell into decline due to the favored port of Casablanca. Upon independence in 1956, this decline intensified with the exodus of the Jewish community to Israel. Although the town enjoyed irregular bursts of international attention over the ensuing decades -- Orson Welles shot his 1950s Othello here, and visits by Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix led to a brief hippie fling in the late '60s and early '70s -- it has only been in the past decade that the sleepy backwater has come back into its own. The city received a boost in 2001, when the medina was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in recognition of its unique mix of European and North African architecture. Essaouira continues to welcome all manner of creative types -- artists, photographers, movie stars, musicians -- but now also hosts those more interested in wind, surf, and relaxation.