Why the Name: Casablanca?

'Casablanca', 1942 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman
‘Casablanca’, the 1942 movie

What comes to mind when I say Casablanca? If your thoughts went to the 1942 Hollywood romantic movie ‘Casablanca‘ which starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, you are not the only one; even Google makes the same mistake. However, I will be talking about the city that inspired the movie, the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

Casablanca in 1572, still called Anfa on this painting
Casablanca in 1572, still called Anfa on this painting

Have you ever wondered where the name Casablanca came from? Why would a Moroccan city not have an Arabic name, but a Spanish name? Why is there the color white in its name? Were all the houses painted in white when its name was chosen? After all, a literal translation of Casablanca is ‘Casa‘ and ‘Blanca‘ or ‘white house’ in Spanish. Was Casablanca a Spanish conquest? In reality, the modern name of the city comes from the Portuguese ‘Casabranca‘ or ‘white house’ which turned into Casablanca when the Portuguese kingdom was integrated into the Spanish kingdom.

Streets of Casablanca in 1930
Streets of Casablanca in 1930

The real name of the city was Anfa, founded as part of the Berber Kingdom of Barghawata in 744 AD. It is believed to have been one of the most prosperous cities on the Atlantic coast because of its fertile land. After the Portuguese wiped out the entire city in 1468, they used the ruins of Anfa to build a military fortress in 1515, and later renamed the city Casabranca. I wonder how many African cities were wiped out that way by Europeans; this is so reminiscent of the majestic Benin City which was burnt to the grounds by British soldiers in 1897.

The port of Casablanca in 1915
The port of Casablanca in 1915

Between 1580 and 1640, the Crown of Portugal was integrated into the Crown of Spain, and the area was renamed Casablanca, even though it was still under an autonomous Portuguese administration. As Portugal broke ties with Spain in 1640, Casablanca came under full Portuguese control again. The Europeans abandoned the area completely in 1755 following an earthquake which destroyed most of the town, probably leaving the locals to fend for themselves.

Casablanca in 2012
Casablanca in 2012

The town was finally reconstructed by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah (1756–1790), the grandson of Moulay Ismail, with the help of Spaniards from the nearby emporium. The town was called الدار البيضاء ad-Dār al-Bayḍāʼ, the Arabic translation of the Spanish Casa Blanca, meaning “white house”. The city came under French occupation at the beginning of the 20th century, as Morocco became a French protectorate.

Since Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, the city has become the economic and business center of the country. Located in the Chawiya plain, its very fertile lands have made it the breadbasket of Morocco. One of its most important exports is phosphate. Among other industries, there is also a big fishing and fish canning industry: who has not heard of the delicious Moroccan Sardines?

Hassan II Mosque with its world tallest Minaret
Hassan II Mosque with its world tallest Minaret

Apart from being the biggest city in the Maghreb, and being so modern with a twist of Hispano-Mauresque, and French architectures, Casablanca is also home to the Hassan II Mosque, with the world’s tallest Minaret. Locals affectionately call it ‘Casa‘, and it is a beautiful city to visit, with a very modern architecture. Enjoy the video below.

Why the name: Marrakesh?

Marrakesh
Marrakesh

What comes to mind when I say Marrakesh?  Well, for starters, when I hear the name Marrakesh, my mind is immediately submerged by thoughts of Arabian nights, Mediterranean scents, spices and flavors, camels, oasis, couscous, men in gabar, beautiful mosques, beautiful women, sandy dunes, etc…  So how far am I from the truth and what is the origin of the name Marrakesh?

Located near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas mountains in Morocco, Marrakesh was the most important of the four former imperial cities in Moroccan history.  Spelled Merrakec in Berber or Marrakech in French, the name has its origin from the Amazigh (Berber) words mur (n) akush which means “Land of God.”  Another interpretation will call it the land of journey.’  From Neolithic times, the city had been inhabited by the Amazighs people, and was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, sovereign and cousin of Yusuf ibn Tashfin.  Led by the Almoravids, and later the Almohads, many mosques including the world-renowned Koutoubia mosque were built during the 12th century with Andalusian influence.  Several palaces were built whose main characteristics were the carved domes, and lobed arches.  The Andalusian influence merged with Saharan elements as well as West African, and all that was synthetized to give a very original architecture specially adapted for the weather of Marrakesh.  The city became the capital of the Almoravid emirate which went from the shoreline of the Senegal river to the center of Spain, and from the atlantic littoral up to Algiers.  The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122-1123, were built  from red sandstone gave Marrakesh’s nickname as the ‘Red City‘ or the ‘Ochre city‘, as well as the ‘pearl of the south‘ or the ‘door to the south.’

A souk in Marrakesh
A souk in Marrakesh

Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa or Djemaa el-Fnaa is one of the most famous squares in all of Africa and is the center of the city activity and trade, and has been declared UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.  After a period of decline, the city was surpassed by Fez, in the early 16th century, Marrakesh again became the capital of the kingdom and reestablished its former glory especially during the reigns of the wealthy Saadian sultans Mohammed El Mahdi,  Abu Abdallah al-Qaim and Ahmad al-Mansur who embellished the city with sumptuous palaces such as the El Badi Palace (1578), and restored many ruined monuments.  Under the Saadian reign, Marrakesh regained its position as a central point linking the Maghreb, the Mediterranean basin, and Sub-Saharan Africa via its caravan routes.

Today, Marrakesh is one of the busiest cities in Africa; it is a big tourist destination, and a major economic center.  It has the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco, with over 18 souks selling anything from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics.  It is also home to the Cadi Ayyad University, which is one of the major universities of Morocco.