The Ancient Cities of Morocco

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With an estimated human presence of 300 000 (Homo Sapiens from Jebel Irhoud), Morocco had significant human activity very early on. Its hinterland is full of archaeological sites that are exceptional both in terms of their remains and their antiquity, marking the last trace of a civilization that was once prosperous and influential even beyond the Sahara.

So here is a (not exhaustive) list of these historic places that are unique in the world.

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Rirha, Morocco's Oldest Capital

After decades of excavations, Moroccan researchers (with the help of French and Spanish teams) were able to find the legendary Rirha (or Gilda), capital of Mauretania according to Greco-Roman writings.

Located in the plains of the Gharb, the oldest archaeological traces of the site date from at least the 6th century before the Common Era (BCE). The city was built around a Moorish center and a late Roman extension. The site appears to have been abandoned around the 3rd century CE before having a modest revival under the Almohad Empire.

Excavations are still ongoing in the hopes discovering more information on the ancient kingdom of Mauretania.

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The Saracen Tower or Borj Esserrajine, the ancient moorish fortress of Taza

Unfortunately, the history of this fort remains a bit of a mystery. However, all the inhabitants of the region attest to legends dating back to its pre-Islamic era. The few written sources mentioning this fort describe its history as follows: during antiquity, Taza was only a simple fortified city (or oppidum) before becoming a real fortress and an important political center when its kings, confident in their power, were able to face attacks from Rome.

From their confrontations with the Roman civilization, the Berbers brought back their ideas and methods. In fact, some of its walls date from around the 2nd century BCE, which gave this tower a particular shape and a notable resemblance to certain Roman towers.

The Berbers also imported pottery techniques from Rome. Thus, several pieces of pottery were discovered, in addition to oil lamps, soup pots, vases with handles etc…

With the arrival of the Almohads on the scene, the ramparts were extended to protect the upper town of Taza from incursions from the east.

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The Lost City of Nul Lamta and Agwdid Fortress

During antiquity, cities could develop in two main ways. The first being sedentarization around a fertile area, which can be seen in Morocco especially in the fertile plains of the North-West.

The second way was trade, with some places of exchange allowing traders to settle down in order to respond to the demand of growing customers, often nomads, crossing the region.

The oldest known commercial city in Morocco was born this way. Nul Lamta was located south-east of Guelmim in what is now called the Tighmert Oasis Rosary. Existing before the arrival of the Idrisids, it had its heyday during the advent of the Almoravid era. Indeed, Abdallah Ibn Yassine, founder of the Almoravid movement, was a native of this city and he'll eventually pass away after conquering Sijilmassa, Aghmat, the Souss region and Nul Lamta.

The city became a place of commercial exchange between West African populations and the rest of Morocco, thus developing a trans-Saharan route from the Senegal River to Marrakech via Oualata and then Nul Lamta.

The Almoravids added the fortress of Agwdid and exported the architecture of the commercial city to Oualata, Timbuktu, and Gao.

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The ancient city of Volubilis, a jewel of Moorish and Roman culture

Arguably the most popular archaeological site in Morocco, Volubilis was a major city from antiquity until the arrival of Islam. Founded by the Berbers and attached to the Kingdom of Mauretania, the city experienced exceptional development when it entered the Roman fold in the 3rd century BCE.

The city's enclosure was composed of 9 walls, places of worship and also towers around the city. Located on a fertile plain, the region will experience significant commercial and agricultural development thanks to its various roads, an intricate terracotta pipe system and an aqueduct.

Volubilis remains a witness to the coexistence between the Moorish and Roman civilizations, a coexistence that is particularly visible by the addition of a Mauretanian altar to Roman basilicas. The city was inhabited for more than 7 centuries before Idris the Second founded the city of Fes. The site has been the subject of numerous archaeological excavations since the beginning of the 20th century and only half of it has been excavated to date. The quality of the finds and the site led to its classification on the World Heritage List by the UNESCO.

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The Cromlech of M'zora, tomb of a moorish king

Located south of Asilah, the Cromlech surprised many researchers and archaeologists because of its resemblance to Stonehenge and its history. M'zora (or Msoura) is composed of a central tumulus surrounded by 167 monoliths of various sizes. Known as early as Roman times, this site had the reputation of being the tomb of the giant Libyan king Antaeus, killed by Hercules according to legend. The Roman general Sartorius even went to the site to verify the veracity of this reputation before finding, according to Plutarch, a corpse measuring sixty cubits (~26 meters).

Cromlech remained a place of worship and the exercise of Moorish power (King Ascalis even took refuge there) for several years before being abandoned following the Roman conquests. In particular, this type of tumulus can be found almost everywhere in north-western Morocco, which presumes a common civilization around the Moorish dynasty.

The site will remain peacefully preserved by the locals who will nickname the place “el outed” (the picket) in reference to its pointed shape. Several European geographers and travelers will mention this place until the excavations of the Spanish archaeologist Cesar Luis de Montalban which will permanently damage the place in the 1930s. According to testimonies of locals who participated in this excavation, there would be a tomb under this site containing a giant sword and human bones similar to the description of Sartorius…

Secrets that are still buried…

Because of its high population density and its seniority on these lands, human settlements in Morocco number in the hundreds. Even before the Punic or Roman influence, several traces of the sedentary existence of Berbers / Moors are scattered all over the place. One of the traces of this existence is found in the various names of Moroccan regions and rivers (Mulucha/Moulouya, Draa, Sus…).

Unfortunately, many archaeological sites have yet to be excavated properly, being great of a task with ridiculously low resources allocated to it. These ancient and mysterious cities are just waiting to be studied to reveal all their secrets, those of a population with a significant degree of civilization, with its own common culture, language and writing, and whose influence has been felt from the Mediterranean to the Sahel.

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