Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 38. Essaouira

The first half of the day was devoted to a guided tour of the medina by Monsieur Hassan. He started by taking us to the port, where he summarized for us key snapshots of the history of the city: Some scholars believe that the large island in front of it was the famous Cerné Island, which according to some old texts was the farthest western port reached by the Phoenicians and Carthagenians in the 6th to 1st centuries BC. The Romans took particular interest on the islands, as the source of the Tyrian purple dye extracted from murex shells found around the offshore islands (the name of Iles Purpuraires dates from this time), and because it was the port through which goods from the fabled Timbuktu reached the coast. The Portuguese occupied the town for brief five years (1505-1510), just long enough to build the battlements that since then have protected the city; even though it was a brief stay they gave the city the name through which it would be known for the next 300 years: Mogadur.

In the 17th and 18th centuries many Jewish-Arab merchants moved into the city, which thrived as one of the most significant African ports (the Jewish population of the city was very significant until large modern vessels became the instrument of trade, after World War II, at which point the shallow bay of Essaouira was bypassed in favor of the deeper port of Agadir, trade declined, and the Moroccan Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel). When the brief French protectorate came to an end, after World War I, Mogadur was renamed Essaouira (a variant of its original Berber name of Souira).

Our guided tour included a visit to the old Jewish quarter, the courtyards where the camel caravans from Timbuktu traded grain, salt and spices, and a visit to the shops where skilled artisans create incredible mosaics of inlaid wood and delicate silver jewelry. Overall an excellent introduction to this great city.

The afternoon was free, for us to explore the city on our own. Some of my fellow travelers planned to go to a Hammam (what we might call a Turkish bath, where you go to sweat and clear your pores), but to me that is insanity after the temperatures we experienced in the desert. Others plan to go for a Moroccan massage, which as far as I have been able to ascertain is just like any old massage so I will pass. Instead I found a bookstore, where the pleasant owner chatted with me at length about Moroccan authors. I then went back to the port to visit the fish market, and to walk through the ramparts taking photographs. I also visited the museum of the city (small but informative), and took a very lazy stroll through the shops of the medina. I saw some magnificent specimens of ammonites, a good foot in diameter, and even a rare fossil of a partially uncoiled ammonite (Baculites sp.) about 18 inches high. I didn’t even dare ask for the price!

Ramadan is about to end, but nobody knows if tomorrow Friday they will still fast. According to my informants, the official end of Ramadan is the first sighting of the crescent moon (or new moon). This was a convenient rule for a rural population, where every small camp could make the determination, but in an urban population the sighting needs to be confirmed by an Imam, so we can be sure that Ramadan will be over by Saturday, but are still unsure about Friday. Will the crescent moon be seen tonight?

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