Essaouira was founded by the Phoenicians but that part of its history is mostly gone, and the city as visitors see it really only dates back to the mid-18th century, which by Moroccan standards is last week. The elaborately-named Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah set himself up here in 1764, creating a fortified city with the help of a French architect, primarily to launch attacks on other cities along the coast to the south. Here are the waterfront fortifications:
The city remained pretty much a backwater until 1952. That’s when Orson Wells strode into town and filmed Othello here, putting the place on the map and imbuing it with a cool reputation that really took off when Jimi Hendrix visited briefly about 15 years later, in turn causing it to become a hippie magnet. You still hear about Orson Wells all the time; Hendrix not so much, possibly because his most visible legacy is a proliferation of random sleazes on the beach and in the street, offering to sell you weed or hash. (The code word for the latter is “Berber chocolate”.)
With an attractive broad sandy beach and shallow clear (but cold!) water, Essaouira today is very much an Atlantic seaside resort town, attracting large numbers of both Moroccan, European, and (interestingly) Israeli visitors. And investors, too: a large number of the hotels and riads are owned by Europeans, especially French. There is as a result a lot of new building going on, in some cases by tearing down abandoned parts of the old city. The new construction has a very Mediterranean look, like this:
Why is so much of the old city abandoned? The answer, as usual around here, involves Jews. (Mommmm! The tour group people are all looking at me again!) There used to be a whole lot of them in the city — amazingly, up until the mid-1940’s the majority of the town’s population was Jewish. Rather uncharacteristically by historical standards, this did not seem to bother anyone; the Jews were as usual the local finance guys, and were also renowned as silversmiths who infused the local culture with their skill, creating a whole craft genre called “Berber Jewish silver”. Even today there is a very small local population of Jews who are officially designated “Jewish Silver Masters” and who teach the craft to their Berber counterparts. (More about them in a moment.)
So this arrangement worked surprisingly well for everyone; the King even refused to hand Morocco’s Jews over to the Nazis. But unlike in Europe or the US, they never really assimilated, and so a large fraction of them left for Israel after its birth in 1948. Most of the rest left after the 1967 war when Israel pretty much established its permanence.
This left a lot of abandoned houses and not a lot of population to move into them; you can see the top of one of the doorways here. The town has grown as it has transformed into a resort, but those houses are undesirable now, being mostly in the old, narrow back streets of the medina. So it makes economic sense (at some historical cost) to replace those musty structures with new ones that incoming residents will actually want to buy and live in.
The “original” (18th century) part of town is quite small, bounded by the ocean at one end and a large city gate at the other, with a marketplace in between:
As I mentioned yesterday, it’s basically a broader, lighter, and moderately clean(er) version of the medinas that we have seen elsewhere. As you move away from this area, perpendicular to this main street, the gestalt becomes a little more familiar: dim narrow stone streets with intriguing atmospheric doorways… though far less crowded, more orderly, and generally less nervous-making than in Marrakech or the other cities.
Our tour lead Mohammed took us on a walking tour of the town this morning, and our first stop was a silversmith where those Jewish Silver Masters both create and teach the local Berbers to create beautiful jewelry. Interestingly, the skills are being taught to both young men and women with disabilities; this approach has the dual virtues of keeping the craft alive and providing an employable skill to people who would otherwise likely languish in dire economic straits. Here is a young deaf girl creating filigree:
There is of course a shop, filled with thousands of beautiful handmade silver items at unfortunately attractive prices. Alice went crazy until I finally had to bring her down with a chokehold, and I just got an email from Visa that reads, in its entirety, “HA HA!” But the staff were all extremely friendly, served us tea and did not pressure us. I had a delightful conversation with a young hijabi woman who proudly told me in excellent English that, by dint of having a friend of a friend in show business, she was the proud recipient of a letter from Oprah Winfrey. Which is more than I can say.
I will post photos of the haul later. This is because the last time I mentioned jewelry purchases in the blog I was roundly berated by a female friend with a serious jewelry jones for not providing pictures of the items. (You know who you are.) (It’s my friend Cindi.)
Our next stop was a woodworking shop, as it became increasingly apparent that our Walking Tour was going to be a Spending Tour. (Steve put a philosophical spin on this: “When you paid for this trip you actually spent something. When you buy a physical object it’s just an exchange of assets.” I am not altogether sure why he finds this distinction comforting, but I’ll admit that it sounds good.)
The shop had that wonderful woodworking smell of a mixture of woods, primarily walnut and a hardwood tree called thuya, which I had never heard of. The tools looked basic, the shop floor seemingly disorganized, but there was no gainsaying the quality of the items that the craftsmen were producing, nor the immense amount of time and workmanship that went into them.
And you might find this difficult to believe, but there was a showroom right next door where they sold the stuff they made. And once again, the Barclaycard gods laughed, for, lo, the objects for sale were of great beauty and modest prices, and mine spouse didst answer the primal call. (Actually, I am being unfair, as this time I myself bought two small items and Alice only one.)
After we escaped, Mohammed led us along the fortifications for the rest of the morning. We wandered among the shops for perhaps an hour afterwards, finding such photogenic gems as this musical instrument shop.
By this time Steve and I were salivating at the prospect of returning to the outdoor grilled seafood place where we had so enjoyably pigged out yesterday. Alice and Thumper were less enthusiastic so we split up, wives to a café, husbands to the charcoal. Alice then waded back into the medina, credit card glinting ominously in the sunlight, while I returned to the hotel for a short walk on the beach and a period of meditation about our regrettably high credit rating and the weight capacity of our suitcase.
Tonight, drinks at sunset from a rooftop bar, followed by dinner at a highly-rated restaurant where I should probably wear actual long pants. Tomorrow, a tour of the Women’s Collective for Argan Oil Production (really), which sounds suspiciously like a Stalinist goat poop refinery.