Most of the old city and fortifications in Essaouira today date from the 18th century, but the town has a much older history that started with the Phoenicians. For centuries, foreigners had a firm grip over the town, and although Moroccans eventually reclaimed it, the foreign influence lingers on in the way the town looks and feels today.
In 1764 Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah installed himself in Essaouira (then known as Mogador) so that his corsairs could launch attacks on the people of Agadir, who were rebelling against him. He hired a French architect, Théodore Cornut, to create a city in the middle of sand and wind, where nothing had previously existed. The combination of Moroccan and European styles pleased the sultan, who renamed the town Essaouira, meaning ‘well designed’. The port soon became a vital link for trade between Timbuktu and Europe. It was a place where the trade in gold, salt, ivory and ostrich feathers was carefully monitored, taxed and controlled by a garrison of 2000 imperial soldiers.
By 1912, the French had established their protectorate, changed the town’s name back to Mogador and diverted trade to Casablanca, Tangier and Agadir. It was only with Moroccan independence in 1956 that the sleepy backwater again became Essaouira. Since Orson Welles filmed Othello here and hippies chose Essaouira as a hang-out, the town has seen a steady flow of visitors – everyone from artists, surfers and writers to European tourists escaping the crowds of Marrakesh.