History of Rabat, the current capital of Morocco

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The history of Rabat, from its origins in Roman times to the corsair republic and the appointment as capital of Morocco

Sala, the Roman Rabat

To date, it is not known with absolute certainty who founded Rabat, some historians argue that it has Phoenician origins like Essaouira, as neo-Punic artifacts were found right here, but beyond these finds there is really little support for this thesis. The fact is that the first to bring this place on the maps will be the Berber/Amazigh Kingdom of Mauretania, a territory that will then be annexed to the Roman Empire starting from the 1st century BC. .


Under Rome, the city will acquire the name of Sala Colonia and will be one of the main African ports on the Atlantic Ocean, often and willingly exploited to make stops at Anfa and Mogador, now known as Casablanca and Essaouira; the latter particularly dear to the Romans as the site of an immense production of purple. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the city quickly began to decline, so much so that when the Arabs arrived here in the 7th century, Sala Colonia had already been abandoned for about 200 years.

The arrival of the Arabs and the first Moroccan dynasties

In the 10th century the Umayyads and their Amazigh allies built a fort here to defend against the Kharijite Barghawata confederacy, giving the city its de facto name. The word Rabat in fact comes from “ribat”, which indicates precisely the defensive forts located on the border of the Dar al Islam (the “Islamic world”); this fortress should have been erected more or less near the current Kasbah of the Oudaïa, but there is still a minimum of debate on this.

Hassan Tower

However, this fort was subsequently rebuilt by the Almoravids first and then by the Almohads. The latter were the first to have a real urbanization project for Rabat, so much so that they built new mosques and the first city hydraulic system. Under Ya’qub al Mansour, in particular, the inhabited center was considerably expanded and work began on the construction of an enormous mosque, which however, with the death of the sovereign, remained unfinished, so much so that today only the minaret is visible, then called “Tower of Hassan”. The subsequent dynasty of the Marinids will focus their attention on the nearby Salé, however having the Great Mosque of Rabat and the necropolis of Chellah built.

The corsair republic and the ‘Alawides

Under Wattasides and Sa’adians Salé and Rabat remained practically in the shadows, however exploiting the latter’s difficulties to give life to a short but interesting political interlude called the “Republic of Bou Regreg”, a name taken from the river which still today divides the two city. This political entity was born following the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609, who decided to take refuge here, quickly giving life to a real “pirate republic”. The most important character of this historical period was certainly the Dutch Jan Janszoon, who, following his conversion to Islam, took the name of Reis Murad, becoming one of the leading privateers in the whole Mediterranean. A curiosity: as evidence of the fact that at the time it was Salé that was the most important city, on the maps of the time Rabat was not indicated with its current name but as “New Salé” and it is from here that the corsairs left for the their shipments.

Jan Janszoon

With the ascent to the throne of the Alawides in 1666, the city returned to being part of the kingdom of Morocco, but maintained its corsair nature for several centuries. This dynasty, which still reigns over Morocco today, is certainly the one that most characterized the city’s urban planning, thanks to the construction of various royal palaces, including the Dar al-Makhzen, built by Mohammad III and the current residence of the Moroccan sovereigns, and the mellah.

Rabat capital of Morocco

Following the 1912 Treaty of Fes, most of present-day Morocco became a French protectorate and its first governor, Hubert Lyautey, decided to move the capital from Fes to Rabat, a place considered easier for French forces to control, as well as much closer to Casablanca, the new economic capital of the country. As with every Moroccan city, here too the transalpines built a new “European” district in which they erected all the main state services.

The Royal Palace of Rabat, the current residence of the Moroccan rulers

With Moroccan independence in 1956, the then King Mohammed V decided to keep the country’s capital in Rabat, permanently transforming it into the city we know today.

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