Origins

The first people who lived in Morocco have no name that is known to us. Throughout history, it has usually been outsiders who have given names to this country and its people.

Morocco in its various European forms is derived from the city of Marrakesh, which was built in the early eleventh century. The oldest surviving mention of it comes in an Italian document dated 1138.

Marrakesh is still used occasionally today, in informal Arabic, for the country as a whole, and Fez (Fas), the other great city, is the name modern Turks give to the state. In Arabic, the modern official language and that of most of its inhabitants, the country is called Maghrib. This is a confusing term since it is also used to describe the whole group of countries in north-western Africa (Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and sometimes Libya). It means the land of the setting sun, the furthest westward point of the great Islamic empire founded by the Prophet Muhammad in the middle of the seventh century AD.

Moors, a rather outdated word now, and one with a distinct pejorative tinge, was popular in European languages in the late medieval and early modern periods. To eighteenth-century writers the Moors were the urban inhabitants of all north-western Africa, and sometimes all Muslims.

These were the traditional enemies of Christian Europe and, like Shakespeares Othello, most Moors were believed to be black. Finally, many inhabitants of Morocco are called Berbers. The term is largely a linguistic one, describing people who speak one of several dialects, spread over the whole of northern Africa, notably Morocco (forty per cent of the modern population) and Algeria (twenty per cent), with smaller groups in Tunisia, Libya and western Egypt. The Tuareg nomads of the Sahara also speak a Berber dialect, the one that is least contaminated by Arabic. The name itself is not, of course, a Berber word. It is a Graeco- Roman expression, referring to all those who did not speak Greek or Latin: they were barbari or barbarians. Applied to the people of northern Africa, it was popularised by the great fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun. He used it as the title of his History of the Berbers and again in his great Introduction to History (the Muqadimma), which was one of the first attempts to explain the rise and fall of dynasties in theoretical terms.

The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, or something similar, depending on the dialect. It means noble men or free men, in the sense that they were free of external control, unlike the inhabitants of the towns, who belonged to no tribe. Those who could find no protection from kin were at the mercy of the powerful and were truly servile.