Most people associate Morocco with the olive-skinned Berbers, and for good reason. This ethnic group was the first to settle Morocco, and constitutes the majority of the population even today. The Berbers were merchants by profession who traded with the Phoenicians and succeeded in extending their rule all over coastal North Africa by the 8th century. Of course, the Berbers were not the only foreigners to be drawn to this beautiful part of the world—Morocco has acted like a magnetic gem located on the North African coast for all kinds of armies from the European continent. The Romans arrived here following the demise of Carthage, only to be driven out soon after by the Berbers who were not exactly pleased at this intrusion! Christianity arrived here by the 3rd century AD but was rapidly replaced by the 8th century with Islam under the dynamic Arabs.
The Idrissid kingdom that sprang up as early as the 9th century with Fes as its capital, managed to unite Morocco to something akin to its present boundaries. But like all kingdoms before it, the Idrissids too fell prey to fragmentation and chaos. The Idrissids were replaced by a fundamentalist Berber dynasty called the Almoravids (yes, the same ones who overran Muslim Andalusia in Spain too).
By the 12th century AD, it was the turn of the Almohads to rule, and rule they did, bringing the cities of Fes, Marrakesh and Rabat to the heights of their cultural glory. By this time, Christian armies were sweeping Spain, reversing the humiliation inflicted by the Islamic armies of the Arabs earlier. Granada fell to the Christians in 1492. This meant the downfall of the Almohads in Morocco too. The Merenid dynasty ruled Morocco for the next phase, but despite achieving a great deal in trade and commerce, they eventually succumbed to the meddling of the Portuguese in Morocco.
Larger forces were changing the face of the world at this time—the industrialization of Europe meant that the importance of trans-Saharan trade (which Morocco profited enormously from) gradually faded. The sultan Moulay Ismail constructed the imperial city of Meknes to revive the old glory of Morocco, but the country was already bowing out to the new economic system that Europe was building. Of course, economic systems were not the only things that the Europeans were building at this time. The European powers’ empires now covered most of Africa and Asia. The French made Morocco a protectorate in 1912, with a provision for Spain to control the north. Rabat was made the capital under the rule of the French Resident-General, Marshal Lyautey. Lyautey’s successor was less enlightened than him, and provoked an uprising by Berbers from the area of Rif. For a while, it seemed like the patriotic Berbers had outwitted the French and Spanish put together, and defended Morocco yet again. Alas, the Riffian uprising was finally crushed by a combined French-Spanish force in 1926.
A more organised nationalist movement under the sultan Mohammed V demanded independence from the French from 1943 onwards. Morocco finally achieved independence in 1946, with the Sultan Mohammed V as monarch. His son Hassan II, who has ruled till this day, succeeded him in 1961. Despite being a constitutional monarchy, Morocco is quite firmly under the thumb of its monarch, who decides all economic policy, much to the unhappiness of some sections of Moroccan society, like unemployed graduate students who staged sit-ins against the government in 1996. These tensions on the whole, have not succeeded in dislocating the popularity of the King. The main challenges for his regime today are the high of unemployment, the threat of fundamentalism, a rapidly growing population and the extra economic hardship induced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity programme.
The unarmed takeover of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara by Moroccans under the command of the king in 1975 has created a continuing problem for contemporary relations in the area. Intervention by the United Nations in 1991, the then US Secretary of State James Baker and some initiatives by Hassan II himself have succeeded in improving the situation.