Rabat came into the world as sweet and innocent as a newborn babe. Over the centuries it slowly grew in size, it developed its own unique character, it had its share of ups and downs; it even hit the big time for a few years. But the high was followed by a calamitous low.
And it was at that point that Rabat turned to a life of crime.
The founding of Rabat
Sometime between 3,200 and 2,800 years ago a Phoenician craft sailed five kilometres or so up the broad Bou Regreg River, and there established a basic trading post.
And thus Rabat was born – although it was given the name Sala at the time.
When the Romans took control of the region, following the death of the last Ptolemaic king of Mauretania in 40 CE, they built a port city directly on top of the Phoenician trading post.
The Roman port city was given the name Sala Colonia. It was one of just two Roman naval ports on the Atlantic Coast (the other being Lixus, also in Morocco).
Sala Colonia was an important city, and was connected by a Decumanus Maximus (principal roadway) to several other important Roman cities in North Africa.
The remains of Sala Colonia can still be seen today, though much of the archaeological fabric was destroyed by the Almohads in the 12th – 13th Century CE.
In the 11th Century CE, the Almoravid dynasty (whose capital was Marrakesh) rose to power across northwestern Africa. The Almoravids built an enormous empire, stretching from Morocco to Senegal, with a foothold on the Iberian Peninsula.
But their empire was just a hundred years old when they were blind-sided by the Almohads – the names of these two dynasties are confusingly similar – who executed the Almoravid king, destroyed the Almoravid dynasty, and created a caliphate of their own across North Africa.
The Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat
The Almohads constructed a mighty kasbah (fortress) at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River.
Rabat became their capital – the word Rabat comes from the Arabic word ribat, a term used to describe a small fortification built on a frontier.
Hassan Tower, Rabat
Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb al-Manṣūr, the third Almohad caliph, had grand plans for Rabat. He wanted his capital to contain the biggest mosque the world had ever seen.
Construction of al-Manṣūr’s mosque began in 1195, but stopped in 1199 when the caliph suddenly died. The minaret – now known as Hassan Tower – reached a height of 44 metres before the project stalled.
Al-Manṣūr wanted the minaret to reach a height of 86 metres, which would have made it the tallest minaret in the world if it had been completed – the current tallest is the minaret attached to Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco, at 210 metres.
The Almohads didn’t stop there. While looking around for other ways in which to improve their capital their eyes landed upon the old Roman city of Sala Colonia.
Now that, one Almohad said to himself, would make a splendid royal necropolis.
And so, Sala Colonia was converted into an illustrious burial ground. It was given the named Chellah.
Chellah was heavily fortified, and enhanced with a mosque (now ruined), a minaret (still standing), a madrasah (ruined), and royal tombs (mostly ruined).
The royal necropolis is currently a breeding ground for White Storks.
The Almohads met their demise in 1244. They were overthrown by their arch-enemies, the Marinids, who made Fez their new capital.
Rabat was abandoned. By 1515 there were as few as 100 people living in the city.
And it was at this low point that Rabat turned bad.
Rise of the Barbary Pirates
In the early 17th Century thousands of Mariscos (Spanish Muslims) fled Spain – where practising Islam had just been outlawed – and sailed to Rabat to start a new life.
The Mariscos needed to establish themselves somehow. They needed a trade. But what? Rabat at the time was ruled by none, and essentially lawless. Surely they could use that to their advantage?
The answer was obvious. Join the legions of Barbary pirates, and make money raiding ships and selling slaves.
Piracy was a lucrative business, and it had great long-term prospects. Rabat ended up being used as a headquarters of the Barbary Pirates for the next 200 years.
Things finally turned around for Rabat when the the French invaded in 1912. Morocco was made a French protectorate, and Rabat was reinstated as capital.
And from then on Rabat has kept its nose out of the dirt. Its days as a wild lawless pirate den were over. The city had grown into a mature, stable capital.
Practical information and how to reach Rabat:
Rabat is connected by train to Casablanca (a major transport hub with a busy international airport). Trip time is 1 – 2 hours depending on connections. More transport info here.
Read more on Rabat in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.