with its dramatic sea bastions and fortifications, Essaouira seems a lot older than it is. Although a series of forts had been built here from the fifteenth century on, it was only in the 1760s that the town was established and the present circuit of walls constructed. It was known to European sailors and then trades - as Mogador, said to be a reference to the prominent Koubba of Sidi Mgdoul, used for navigating entry to the bay. Less likely is the legend that the town's patron saint was a Scotsman named McDougal who was shipwrecked here in the fourteenth century. To the Moroccans it was known as Seurah, from the Berber 'little picture'.
The work on the town's walls, which was completed in 1770, was ordered by the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdalah, and carried out by a French captive architect, Theodore Cornut, which explains the town's unique blend of Moroccan Medina and French gird layout. The sultan's original intention was to provide a military port, as Agadir was in revolt at the time and Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah needed a local base. It lent itself superbly to the purpose, as its series of forts ensured complete protection for the bay. Soon, however, commercial concerns gained pre-eminence. During the nineteenth century, Mogador was the only Moroccan port south of Tangier that was open to European trade, and it prospered greatly on the privelege. Drawn by protected trade status, and a harbour free from customs duties, British merchants settled in the Kasbah quarter, and a large Jewish community in the Mellah, within the northeast ramparts.
Decline set in during the French Protectorate, with Marshal Lyautey's promotion of Casablanca. Anecdote has it that he arrived in Essaouira on a Saturday when the Jewish community was at prayer; he cast a single glance at the deserted streets and decided to shift the port of Casablanca further up the coast! The decline was accelerated after independence, by the exodus of the Jewish community. These days, however, the town is very much back on its feet, as a fishing port and market town, and especially with the recent impetus of tourism.