Rabat – Although it lies on the northernmost part of Africa, Morocco is a country pulled in three cultural directions: African, European and Middle Eastern. Like many nations in this vast continent, the heritage of its colonial past persists, with French being the second-most spoken language, although Arabic-Berber is the largest ethnic group. As well as being Africa’s fifth-largest economy, this diverse country has many other claims to fame. Here are some fascinating facts about Morocco you might not have known:
Morocco ‘the cradle of mankind’
The longstanding location of the ‘cradle of mankind’ shifted recently when a human fossil was discovered in Jebel Irhoud, 50 km south-east of Safi, Morocco. Archeologists unearthed the remains of three adults, an adolescent, and a younger child. Over 300,000 years old, these remains were originally thought to be Neanderthals, until they were later reclassified as Homo sapiens due to their larger brains. The Moroccan findings predate previous Homo sapiens discoveries by 100,000 years.
Treaty with America
One date etched in the mindset of most Americans is 4th July 1776 – Independence Day. But what is less widely appreciated is that the following December, Sultan Muhammed III of Morocco listed the fledgling republic on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean among a list of countries whose vessels would be made welcome in Moroccan ports. This gesture of friendship meant Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the new United States of America. Nine years later, this agreement was formalized when the Sultan signed the Moroccan-American Treat of Friendship. His co-signatories were Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of America’s Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson’s assistant, John Adams. This 1786 treaty also underlined the fact that Morocco was the first Arabic state and first Muslim nation to officially recognize the USA.
The American legation in Tangier
A building located in Tangier on Morocco’s northernmost tip looks fairly unremarkable from the outside: a combination of stuccoed masonry and Moorish décor. Yet in 1821 this was the first property to be purchased abroad by the US government. It housed the US Legislation and Consulate for 140 years, making it America’s longest-serving diplomatic post, symbolizing the Treaty of Friendship of 1786. Now used as a museum and conference center, it is still owned by the Washington government.
Winemaking in Morocco can be traced back some 2,000 years, when the Romans who had settled in northern Africa began fermenting wine from the extensive local grape harvest. With the advent of Islam as the predominant faith by the 7th century, alcohol lost its prevalence within Moroccan society and the ancient vineyards went into decline. The 19th century saw Morocco fall under the influence of France, seeking to protect its neighboring colony of Algeria, and also Spain. Imperial rivalries between these European nations led to war breaking out in 1860; a victorious Spain claimed large swathes of Moroccan territory while the French took control of other areas. Thousands of European colonists made the short Mediterranean crossing to this fertile North African landscape. Gradually the vineyards began flourishing again, eventually passing into state control a century later. In the 1990s, French producer Casel took charge of the grape crop. Gris de Boulaouane is one of the most popular of wines from Morocco, a fruity rosé with a hint of oranges. This was exported to France where it was the second-best selling foreign wine in 2005.
The world’s oldest university – Al Karawiyyin of Fez – established in 859 A.D.
Founded by Al-Fihri, daughter of a merchant, this institution is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest university in the world, situated in the Moroccan city of Fez. It predates England’s more widely known Oxford University by two centuries. Al Karawiyyin was initially set up as a mosque, before becoming a key center for learning in diverse fields: Islamic law, chemistry, music, Arabic grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and politics. As well as offering education, the university was a cultural hub surrounded by steam rooms, businesses, and places for students to lodge. The mosque functionality remained, offering places for up to 22,000 worshipers. As the centuries passed, only the Sultan could appoint teachers, although the university passed into Morocco’s modern state further education system in 1963. Currently some 8,100 students are studying in this venerable institution.
Dashboards for luxury cars
Native to Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, thuya is an evergreen coniferous tree that has been coveted for its wood since Ancient Roman times. Providing a beautiful finish for decorative woodwork, it became synonymous with luxury. Thuya became the first wood to be used for dashboards in Rolls Royce models. Thuya trees can also be cultivated and trimmed down into ornamental form, or even pruned to create hedges. The resin of these trees is also prized. Known as sandarac, it is a component of varnish and is particularly useful for the preservation of paintings.
Unfortunately, the sustainability of the thuya market has been threatened by excessive deforestation. The part of the trees popular for dashboards, known as the burl, comes from the base, so a lot of the wood is wasted. Livestock grazing has also impacted Tuya.
Over the years, filmmakers have utilized the country’s diverse landscape. The local movie industry is based at the Atlas studios near Ouarzazate, the mainly Berber-speaking city known as ‘the door of the desert.’ Situated on a plateau 1,160 meters above sea level, these studios have been used for hundreds of films, including ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Gladiator’.
Morocco is a hugely popular holiday resort for everyone, from families to couples who met when a search to find local singles led to hooking up with African travelling companions.
NASA’s latest finds observed from Morocco
Perched above Morocco’s High Atlas mountain range, the Jura Observatory has been tracking the night skies since 1993. Astronomers here have made many startling discoveries, including a periodic comet, the somewhat unglamorously named P/2008 Q2. But a far more significant observation was made by 25-year-old Moroccan student, Khalid Barkaoui, who distilled data that indicated the presence of seven ‘exoplanets.’ The discovery of potentially life-sustaining planets within our own solar system has long been one of science’s ultimate goals.
Fez Medina – the largest medieval old city in the world
The capital city of Morocco until 1925, Fez is particularly memorable for its two old medina quarters. Founded in the 9th century, the ancient city is home to the world’s oldest university and its largest medieval old city. An area of immense architectural importance, it houses a royal palace, military headquarters, impressive fortifications, numerous monuments, and residential districts. This urban space is unpaved, conserving most of its original functions, offering visitors and locals alike a rare glimpse into history.