The capital of Morocco is Rabat. While Rabat may not be Morocco’s most famous or largest city, it is where the Royal Family resides and where most government operations are based. There are numerous monuments, embassies, parks, and boulevards in Morocco’s capital city, and it is one of the four Imperial Cities of the country.
Where is Rabat?
The city of Rabat is located on the banks of the Bou Regreg River, which spills into the Atlantic Ocean along the northwest coast of Morocco. It is situated across the river from Salé, which is the primary commuter town of Rabat. The city is located in the Rabat-Salé-Kénitra region of Morocco, of which it is also the capital.
History of Rabat
The history of Rabat dates back to the first millennium BCE. Phoenicians had set up trading colonies along the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco, and the area of Rabat was controlled by the Berber Mauretanian Kingdom. Romans annexed the area and took control in the first century BCE.
Several ribats were constructed in the proximity of what would become Rabat, and the area became a military staging ground for Almohad armies that were preparing to launch campaigns into Al-Andalus in modern-day Spain. The Almohad caliph Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur intended to construct a new imperial capital where the medina (old town) of Rabat is now located. The project included the construction of a mosque and the Hassan Tower, both of which remain unfinished to this day.
King Philip III of Spain issued a decree demanding the expulsion of people of Muslim or Moorish descent from the country, and many of them relocated to Morocco. Around 2,000 refugees from the city of Bajadoz in Spain settled in and around Salé, just across the river from modern-day Rabat.
This resettling attracted thousands of additional Muslims and Moores to settle in the area, and Rabat (at this point called New Salé) and Salé joined to form the autonomous Republic of Bou Regreg in 1627. The Republic was a base for pirates who patrolled the seas, attacking merchant ships around Western Europe.
The founder of the ‘Alawi dynasty, al-Rashid, conquered the area around the mouth of the Bou Regreg and consolidated control over most of Morocco. During ‘Alawi rule, the city developed: they performed repairs and construction to the kasbah on the south bank of the river, and a royal residence was constructed which remains as a museum to this day.
Still serving as the official residence of the king of Morocco today, the Dar al-Makhzen was constructed under the rule of Sidi Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah toward the end of the 18th century. The next two hundred years saw the expansion of the city walls and the construction of more mosques and palaces. The Dar al-Makhzen was developed even further in the 1850s, and by the start of the 20th century, the city had a population of around 20,000 – 25,000.
France’s conquest of Morocco began in 1907 and led to the signing of the Treaty of Fes in 1912, establishing the French protectorate. Bloody riots ensued in Fes after the signing of the treaty, and this prompted the relocation of Morocco’s capital to Rabat the same year. Rabat has remained the capital of Morocco since gaining independence from France in 1956.
Why is Rabat famous?
Rabat is famous for its status as the capital city of Morocco. It’s where the Royal Palace is located, and the country’s most famous museum is also found here. As one of Morocco’s Imperial Cities, Rabat is full of historical significance.
What does Rabat mean in Arabic?
The name of the city comes from an Arabic word that means “fort” or “base” in English. When the city was founded by the Almohads in 1170, it was given the name Ribâtu l-Feth, which roughly translates to “Stronghold of Victory.”
Can you drink alcohol in Rabat?
Drinking alcohol outside of the proper establishments in Rabat is illegal and can lead to arrest. However, it is legal to drink alcohol in licensed premises such as some hotels, bars, and tourist areas.
Is Rabat worth visiting?
While it isn’t among the most visited cities in Morocco by tourists, Rabat is worth visiting for anyone interested in the country’s culture, history, and architecture. The coastal location also gives Rabat pleasant weather, and parks and gardens add to the city’s charm.
Features of Rabat
Geography and Climate
Rabat occupies 117 square kilometers (45.2 square miles) along the Morrocan coastline where the Bou Regreg River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Once a viable port, the silting of the mouth of the river has made it unusable for port activities.
The location of Rabat along the Atlantic coast lends the city a Mediterranean climate. The city experiences a mild, temperate climate with summers that are dry and range from warm to hot and winters that are mild and damp. Nighttime temperatures are relatively cool throughout the year and can sometimes reach sub-freezing levels in the winter months between December and February.
Average high temperatures during Rabat’s summer months are around 25 °C (77 °F), and winter highs average closer to 17 °C (63 °F).
Population and Culture
The population of Rabat is estimated to be just under 600,000. The last official census in 2014 recorded a population of 577,827, which makes Rabat the seventh-largest city proper in the country. The large metropolitan area includes the inhabitants of Salé, which boosts the population to nearly 2 million, the second-largest metro area in the country.
As is the case with the rest of Morocco, an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Rabat are Muslim, and there are many important mosques located throughout the city. The Great Mosque in the medina of Rabat is one of the most noteworthy.
The Mohammed V Theater, built in 1962, is one of the most important theaters in Morocco and is located in Rabat. This theater is soon to be dwarfed, however, by the construction of the Grand Theater of Rabat, which is slated to be the largest theater in Africa and in the Arab world. Construction began in 2014, and it was designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
Once an important port city, the silting of the Bou Regreg has required the city to pivot to other economic activities. Rabat is now an important center for the textile industry, which is a key sector across Morocco. Carpets, blankets, and leather goods are some of the most popular items in the industry.
Other industries that support the economy of Rabat are fruit and fish processing and construction. Bricks and asbestos in particular are manufactured in Rabat. The city’s status as the national capital also means that the service sector and the government provide many jobs.
Things to Do and Places to See in Rabat
Chellah is an ancient archeological site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Rabat. Buildings were first constructed here by Phoenicians in the third century BCE, and the Almohad Berbers used the grounds a millennium later as royal burial grounds.
One of the reasons the site is so popular is because there are ruins from three empires that can be found here: the Phoenicians, Romans, and Berbers. Marble statues, columns, a necropolis, and a hammam are just some of the ruins that are still here.
A major 1775 earthquake off the coast of Lisbon impacted Chellah and caused lasting damage to the site. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.
2. Hassan Tower
The Hassan Tower is a testament to the ambition of Almohad Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur. Although it remains incomplete, the tower was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, and the mosque it was supposed to be a part of would have been the largest in the western Muslim world.
After Yaqub al-Mansur’s death in 1199, the construction of the mosque and minaret came to a stop because his successors had neither the resources nor the desire to complete the project. Today, the minaret stands 44 meters (144 feet) tall and is surrounded by 348 columns.
3. Kasbah of the Udayas
The Kasbah of the Udayas is located on a hill next to the mouth of the Bou Regreg, next to the old medina of Rabat. A kasbah is a citadel or fort, and this one was built in the 12th century to ward off invaders and pirates.
Today, the kasbah is used as a mostly residential neighborhood, and it is a free tourist destination. Wandering around the kasbah affords visitors views of the distinct white and blue buildings, beautiful architecture, the Rabat seafront, and neighboring Salé. The Kasbah of the Udayas has been part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.
4. The Rabat Medina
The medina of Rabat is connected to the Kasbah of the Udayas, but it is worth visiting on its own. The medina is the old walled section of Rabat. There are also medinas in Fes and Marrakech, but they differ in size and architecture from the one in Rabat. This medina features Andalusian architecture from the 17th century and is free to walk around.
For visitors looking to experience “old Rabat” and get away from the more modern areas of the city, this is a great place to start. It’s also the location of the Great Mosque of Rabat and great handicraft shopping opportunities
5. Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
While Morocco may be more famous for its traditional artwork and history, there is also a thriving modern art scene in the country. The Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art showcases works by many popular modern Moroccan artists dating back to the mid-20th century.
The museum is housed in a beautiful building, and there is also an attached cafe. It’s worth noting for visitors that the placards for the artworks are in French and Arabic.
6. Mausoleum of Mohammed V
The Mausoleum of Mohammed V is another very popular tourist location, and it’s located adjacent to the Tower of Hassan, making it easy to visit both sites in an outing. The mausoleum houses the remains of King Mohammed V and is located where he gathered thousands of Moroccans to celebrate the independence of Morocco after returning from exile in Madagascar. King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah are also buried at the site.
Although non-Muslims are not permitted to enter most holy sites in Morocco, the mausoleum is open to everyone, though it is important to remember to dress respectfully and to remember that it is a solemn space.
7. Rabat Archeological Museum
This is one of the top archeology museums in Morocco. The many excavated artifacts from the Roman era and early inspired the creation of this museum in 1932, and it currently houses the largest collection of artifacts in the country. There are artifacts from pre-Roman civilizations and human remains that have provided insights into the sizes of past civilizations in the area.
The Roman-era exhibits in the museum display findings from the sites of Lixus, Volubilis, and Chellah, and these are perhaps the most popular exhibits. Statues, ceramics, and bronzes are among the artifacts on display.
8. Beaches of Rabat
Since Rabat is the capital of Morocco and home to some fascinating historical sites, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the city lies on the Atlantic coast and provides access to some great beaches. Going to the beach can offer a nice change of pace if you’ve been spending the rest of your time wandering around historic streets and visiting museums.
Two of the most popular beaches in Rabat are Temara and Skhirat, though surfers looking for waves may be more interested in Plage des Nations. It’s important to be aware that swimming conditions at some of the beaches around Rabat can be dangerous and caution is advised.