Essaouira's glory years ended with the coming of the French, who, under the guise of making Morocco a protectorate, occupied and essentially colonized the country in 1912. They also built new ports—to the south at Agadir and to the north at Kenitra. No longer an important business center, Essaouira turned bohemian. Orson Welles shot much of his Othello here in the early 1950's, and director Julian Beck based his avant-garde Living Theater troupe here in the 1960's. Jimi Hendrix hung out at the same time: "Castles Made of Sand" is said to have been inspired by a ruined sultan's palace just south of the city. Indeed, the sixties saw Essaouira reign as an insider alternative to the hippie scene in Tangier, the much more famous Moroccan beach town to the north.
But when the hippie era waned, so did Essaouira's brief comeback. "In the 1970's and 80's, it was a city that was dying," says André Azoulay, an Essaouira native who is currently special adviser to King Mohamed VI. Azoulay, who is Jewish, was particularly concerned about his hometown's deteriorating infrastructure, including the houses of the old Jewish quarter, the Mellah, which were not only crumbling but literally falling into the sea.
"It was at that point that my wife and two of her friends wrote a book about the city of their childhood," says Azoulay, "in which they examined Essaouira's many dimensions. The book created a bit of a stir and we were able to form an association of people who loved the city and wanted to keep alive its very modern and lovely spirit of the co-existence of religions, cultures, and peoples from all over the world."
Thanks in part to these efforts, Essaouira began to enjoy a renaissance in the early 1990's. A master plan for the town's restoration, which came out of the Rio Conference on sustainable development, was implemented in 1992. In 2001, the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today, while much still needs to be done, Essaouira looks better than it has in years. Most of its imposing ramparts have been restored, as have some of its abandoned consulates and old mansions. In all this, local people have been involved in decision-making as well as in the actual work, through programs that are training unemployed young people as artisans and restorers. (Essaouira's redevelopment plan has become a model for other cities in Morocco.) At the same time, the city has started to attract a new generation of aficionados, people beguiled by its vibrant life and art scene.
"I love it—it's the best place in the world," says Guy Bellinkx, who with his partner Ivo Grammet, a well-known collector of North African art, runs the five-apartment Riad Gyvo in a former customs warehouse in Essaouira's medina. The two expatriate Belgians discovered the town in the late 1970's, when they frequently traveled through southern Morocco and Mauritania in a camper van, in search of Berber and Judaic art. Finding Essaouira an ideal base for their wanderings—not to mention Bellinkx's windsurfing passion—they rented an apartment here in the 1980's in a building they wound up buying.
"We didn't think of turning it into a guesthouse at the time," Bellinkx says. "But right after we bought it, a series of storms damaged the property so badly that we had to restore everything. So we made apartments for our friends and family."
Since its official opening in 1998, Riad Gyvo, which is now one of a growing number of small medina houses turned hotels, has hosted everyone from windsurfers and backpackers to VIP's in the Moroccan government and the international art world. But for Bellinkx and Grammet, the joy of living in Essaouira has to do with the Souris (as the locals are known) themselves. "People here treat you like family," Bellinkx says. As much as he loves it, though, he adds, the place isn't for everyone. "Some people come here and say it's cold—it's windy. Clearly Essaouira is not part of their world." But for those who do fall under its spell, the town exerts a powerful pull. For André Azoulay, something as simple as sitting on the seawall to "watch the sunset and forget everything" can be a unique moment. For others, it's a quiet walk on the vast beach, passing the impromptu soccer matches, out to the dunes where hooded horseback riders offer bonjours and a shimmering lagoon is filled with birds. Or it's the plaintive calls of the gulls, which provide a constant sound track to visits here. Or poking among the monolithic slab graves, with their strange inscriptions, said to be Phoenician symbols of eternal life, in the ancient seaside Jewish cemetery.