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Updated on January 16, 2012

After the decay or destruction of the Carthaginian, Roman and Byzantine cities, urban life did not revive in North Africa until the 8th century, when it was reintroduced by the Arabs. Morocco's northern cities were founded in the Middle Ages by pious rulers who had come from the back-country in the south.

Within their walls they had three invariable elements: a large mosque, a kasbah (the fortress-palace of the sultan), and a souk or marketplace.

The narrow, winding streets around the souk would be lined with the stalls and shops of the artisans and traders, whose background was usually very different from that of the country folk. The craftsmen and merchants came from the Middle East, the eastern Maghreb, and later from Andaluda. Beyond the city walls were markets for foodstuffs and produce brought in by the peasants, and a wide empty area reserved for the great religious festivals and as a camping ground for nomads and the Sultan's rural followers.

That these cities are better preserved in Morocco than almost anywhere else in the Arab world is due to the medieval way of life that continued virtually until 1912, and to the foresight of the first French Resident-General, General Louis Lyautey, who appreciated the architectural beauty of the cities and ensured their preservation by building separate European suburbs or new European towns as at Casablanca.

These new suburbs and towns retain much of their French or Spanish character. The cities have attracted more and more people from the countryside, most of whom live in shanty towns in the shadow of the skyscrapers, and who outnumber the more prosperous townsfolk. The drift to the towns is a major problem; unemployment in most towns reaches 20%.

Culture and Beliefs

In the past this northeastern part of Africa was the end of the road for several expansions of peoples and cultures, and present-day Moroccan culture is thus a blend of influences from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The ancient indigenous Berber culture still survives in modified form, mainly in isolated communities in the remoter mountain and desert areas. But most Berbers merged with the Arabs who swept into Morocco between the 8th and 14th centuries, profoundly affecting the way of life.

Andaludan Muslims (the Moors) and Jews who took refuge in Morocco after the Christian reconquest of Spain have also left their mark on city life. For nearly 50 years of the present century the country was occupied by France and Spain, French influence being by far the greater. While most Moroccans today are Arabic-speaking, both French and Arabic are used in the schools. About one-third of the population is Berber-speaking.

Education is compulsory from 7 to 13 and is provided mainly by government schools. About 20% of the national budget is spent on education, but many problems remain, including adult illiteracy and shortage of teachers. There are two universities at Rabat, and the ancient Al-Qarawiyin University also has faculties in Fes, Marrakech and Tetouan. A "university city" is planned for Marrakech. Islam is the established state religion and most Moroccans are Malekites of the Sunni sect.


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