29 June 2009

Places You’ve Never Heard Of: Salé

By Lisa Yarde

The city of Salé, located on the left bank of the Bou Regreg River, has had a rich and varied history. Southwest of Tangiers and northeast of Casablanca, Salé is the sister city of Rabat, which early on eclipsed it in importance as the capital of Morocco.

The Carthaginians, a Phoenician people, founded the colony of Salé in the seventh century BC, at a site where the Bou Regreg emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. When the Romans subdued the Carthaginians six centuries later, the area on the right bank of the river became known as the Sala Colonia. The Romans neglected the site of Salé for two centuries, while they developed a thriving Roman trade post and a defensive settlement. Excavations of the Roman period have revealed triumphal arches, bath complexes and a forum. After the Romans abandoned Sala Colonia in 250 AD, the Berbers took over. The Roman name Sala Colonia was transliterated as Sla in Amazigh, a Berber language, which means 'rock,' and this name eventually became Salé.

The Roman Ruins of Sala Colonia

With the Islamic expansion into North Africa, the Berbers intermixed with their conquerors and the Salé area came under the control of Muslim rulers, beginning with Idris I. Successive dynasties preferred to live in Rabat which began to overshadow its sister city. In the twelfth century, the Almohad sultan 'Abd al-Mu'min made Salé his capital, from where he planned the conquest of Morocco and his incursion into Muslim Spain.

A century later, the Marinid Dynasty controlled Morocco and soon had to defend Salé from an incursion by the Spanish under Alfonso X of Castile, who enslaved of killed many of its inhabitants. After fourteen days, the Marinids drove the Spanish out and built new defenses to protect the city. The city developed into a crafts center, perfecting the Moroccan tile making technique, known in Arabic as zellige. It was also the site of the Abu-l-Hassan Medersa, a medieval medical college, and mausoleums, and mosques, including the Great Mosque constructed in the twelfth century.

Abu'l-Hassan Medersa

With the collapse of the Marinid Dynasty in the 16th century, Salé grew infamous for its pirates known as the "Salée Rovers," who were a band of Barbary pirates. When the Inquisition began in Spain, many of its Muslims and Morisco converts crossed over into Morocco to avoid religious persecution; an influx of European converts to Islam also increased the number of pirates. By 1627, the pirates on both banks of the Bou Regreg formed the Republic of Bou Regreg. The twin cities of Salé and Rabat became formidable bases from which the pirates launched attacks on ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and throughout the Mediterranean. Murad Reis, a famous pirate who made his home in Salé, was a Dutchman who converted to Islam. He sailed as far as Iceland and Ireland, stealing away coastal villagers for the slave markets of Morocco. In response to the threat of piracy, the French and Dutch routinely blockaded Salé.

In 1911, Morocco became a French protectorate. Salé played an important role in helping to form Morocco into the independent nation that it is today. In the 1950s, the first demonstrations against the French rule of the country were launched in the city.