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Published: June 13th 2015
Today was mostly spent in a trip to Essaouira, a coastal city that has been occupied since prehistoric times. The harbor area is protected from the sea by Mogador Island, and thus the harbor is considered one of the best anchorages along the coast. For a while, there was an industry here producing tyrian purple dye from the murex snails that can be found here in abundance. This bromine dye is exuded by the snail when molested (to my knowledge, there are no laws in Morocco against snail molestation, regardless of age) and thus the snail can be "milked" for the dye. More commonly, however, that snail was simply crushed and the dye extracted, requiring about 12,000 snails to produce 1.4 g of dye, enough for a single garment's trim. The dye in antiquity was so important and so expensive that laws restricted its use. The term Phoenician means to "people of purple" and refers to their use of the dye. The dye was particularly prized because it did not fade, and in fact became more colorful with exposure to light. In many cultures, it was valued as highly as gold or silver. Although the dye may have been produced as
long ago as the 18th century BCE, the process was somewhat lost but has been re-discovered. The dye has never been successfully synthesized. Apparently it retains both its color and a strong fishy smell, and the Talmud specifically gave women the right to divorce a husband if he became a dyer.
Essaouira was a Portuguese port for some time (from 1506), but modern Essaouira was established as a major port by Mohammed III in 1760, and he in fact closed the port at Agadir and forced the use of Essaouira instead in order to punish a city that had supported a political rival. Mohammad ben Abdullah encouraged Jews to move to the city and handle trade with Europe, and at one point 40% of the population was Jewish, but not today. Essaouira was a hangout for Orson Welles during the filming of Othello, and Winston Churchill also came here. For a while it was a hangout for hippies and musicians like Jimi Hendrix (his song "Castles Made of Sand" was composed 2 years before he came here, and thus unrelated, despite legends to he contrary) and Cat Stevens. Today, Essaouira is a beach destination and hangout for seafood enthusiasts.
Anthony Bourdain did a show form here which I saw on TV a couple of weeks before left on this trip.
The harbor was dominated by a Genoese citadel which we explored, and hundreds of blue fishing boats cram together in the small "marina". A local craft shop produces inlaid wooden items from thuya wood, a type of cypress found nearby. There is a small medina with wide lanes and the usual stalls of vendors.
On the way to Essaouira, we made a short stop at a co-op where women produce argan oil products. All the women who are employed there are either widows or divorcees, and thus have otherwise very limited employment opportunity or means of support. The crack the argan nuts by hand, then hand-grind them to produce the oil. If the nuts are roasted first, they produce an oil that is eaten and used like olive oil (I frankly did not care for the taste nearly as much as olive oil). If not roasted, they produce oil that is used for skin care. (The oils is basically the same, but roasting it gives an excessively nutty aroma for cosmetic use.) Methods of mechanical cracking of
the nuts have not been found, so they are still cracked by hand. The production of argan oil provides employment to some 2 million people, and many are women in the co-ops. The argan oil industry thus serves both economic and social ends. Goats naturally climb into the trees to eat the nuts, and this has become a tourist attraction, so now selected trees are "staged" with multiple goats in them for tourists to photograph.
Final thoughts on Morocco:
We expected to find Morocco exotic, and it certainly is. The exoticism is the product of many things. Of course, there are things that would be exotic to anyone from another region, such as snake charmers and camel riding. Then, for Americans there are many other things that produce a feeling of strangeness. First of all, with all the American hysteria over "radical Islam", it is out of the ordinary to visit a moderate Muslim country such as Morocco (and Turkey when we were there). You awake in the mornings to the muezzin reciting the adhan, the call to prayer. I frankly find it charming, although I suspect some may not. There are places you cannot visit,
principally the mosques (although that was instituted by the French protectorate government, rather than being primarily religious in nature). The food is exotic in that they freely use spices for savory dishes that we would more commonly use in desserts and confections, such as cinnamon. The dress is exotic for Americans, with men wearing robes and slippers, or in some places wearing turbans such as we saw around Erfoud. The commonly used building materials such as the adobe-like clay mud structures, are strange to American eyes. And then of course the sand dunes around Merzouga are strange to us, although we have similar sights west of Yuma AZ and at Great Sand Dunes National Monument. One thing we found interesting is that there really is a Moroccan cuisine. Although I am sure there are regional differences, we found the Moroccan food we ate throughout the country to be similar in style, unlike the great differences that exist in America between, say, Southern soul food and the New England boiled dinner. Finally, it was a little strange to be in a country where the king still controls everything, or practically everything.
Morocco seems to be making strides in infrastructure, and
the king has apparently made some concessions toward a more democratic government structure, but he still firmly controls commerce and is worth billions which could be used for the betterment of his country. We had a bit of an argument about how much difference the king's wealth would make in the country, but clearly he is tone-deaf in preserving so many royal palaces, many of which he never visits, and all of which require extensive upkeep.
I would encourage all to visit this wonderful country. I am not sure I would want to tackle it on my own, and our driver and guide added value beyond anything I can say. If you want to know who they are, I can share that with you. I would highly recommend them.
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