In 1998, the American Film Institute unveiled its definitive list for the one hundred greatest American movies ever made, and sitting at Number 2 is a classic film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Even today, it’s still beloved by many for its perfect blend of theatrical elements, as well as its endless repository of recognizable quotes that permeate modern pop culture.
That movie is Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Casablanca is a film that’s set in the titular town in Morocco, during World War 2. In the United States, it’s become synonymous with an elite class of older cinema, before bombastic budgets replaced simple storytelling. But Casablanca is far more than a great old movie – it’s a modern destination city, both then and now, that maintains major economic influence in its region.
While everybody in Hollywood might be itching to visit Rick’s Cafe, the real Casablanca really is a popular vacation hub for residents from all over three different continents. The city’s ownership may have changed hands over the centuries, but even today, it remains one of the most important locations in Africa.
So sit and relax, because I know exactly what song you want to hear. This is the winding, weaving tale of Casablanca. Modern Morocco Modern-day Morocco is a heavy blend of cultures and influences, even by African standards. The aftershocks of colonialism have left a number of African nations with European cultural or linguistic elements, but Morocco goes well beyond the norms.
It’s a true melting pot of native, European, and Arab influences; appropriately, it’s a member of the African Union, the Union for the Mediterranean, and the Arab League. The capital of Morocco is Rabat; however, the seat of cultural and economic power is Casablanca. The metro population is 4.27 million people, which makes it not only the largest city in Morocco, but one of the largest and most important cities in both the North African community and the Arab world.
Casablanca has a number of features that make it an attractive destination. For one thing, it’s the economic engine that powers the entire Moroccan economy – more than half of Morocco’s industrial labor is centered in Casablanca, alongside nearly a third of its banking network. Morocco’s economic staples include textiles and a number of traditional trades, like woodworking, leatherworking, and glassblowing; all of these can be found throughout the city.
Casablanca is also a port town. The Moroccan coast stretches from northwestern corner of Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean, all the way past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. Casablanca is almost due south of Portugal’s western coast and features the second-largest artificial port in the world, which can accommodate as many as 3.
5 million shipping containers, and up to 35 ships, at a time. The port is responsible for the generation of about 900 million Moroccan Dirhams a year, which exchanges to about 84 million Euros, or $90 million US Dollars. Now, If you’ve seen the movie, all of this is probably nice context, but you know the real economic draw of a place like Casablanca is tourism.
Even without a mass of European refugees, fleeing the continent from Nazi persecution, Casablanca is still a multicultural port city with a sub-Mediterranean climate. That alone is bound to attract quite a lot of travelers. Morocco attracted about 11.4 million tourists in 2017, with many of them visiting or staying in Casablanca.
A predictably large number of those visitors were European, with the highest percentage coming from France, but Moroccan tourism has become quite a bit more international than just its Mediterranean neighbors. Tourism from China grew by 151 percent, according to the Ministry of Tourism, and travelers from Japan and Brazil saw significant increases, too.
Travelers might fly in to Casablanca via Mohammed the Fifth International Airport; they might take a boat straight down from Spain or Portugal; they might even drive in, likely from somewhere else in North Africa. Religious tourism is mildly popular, as Casablanca features the Mosque of Hassan the Second.
It’s the seventh largest mosque in the world and can hold 105,000 people inside and on its grounds for prayer. The building features the second largest minaret in the world, which was built with a fantastic view, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There’s also the Church of the Sacred Heart, a beautiful Art Deco Catholic cathedral that was built in 1930.
The church ceased its function as a religious building in the 1950s, and is now open to visitors as more of a cultural and architectural attraction. Sometimes, it even hosts events, like art exhibits or small concerts. For vacationers who are focused less on prayer lines and more on tan lines, there are dozens of luxury hotels, beach villas, and inland bungalows that cater to different desires.
If you want to lay out on the coast, you can do that! If you want a quiet hideaway to serve as base camp while you explore Roman ruins, you can do that. And if you just want to stay in the city and drink too many cocktails at an upscale replica of Rick’s Café, you can do that, too. Ultimately, Casablanca is powered by tourism, and the Moroccan government is trying to lean as far as it can into its reputation as a first-class destination for travelers.
Between the coastal beaches, the southern desert, the Atlas Mountains, the ruins from antiquity, and the urban features of Casablanca, Morocco has a fairly unique profile as a tourist destination. Berber Beginnings In the beginning, long before north Africa was conquered and colonized by Europeans and West Asians, there were the Berbers.
The Berbers were not necessarily one tribe – it was a catchall label for a group of indigenous Africans that stretched from Western Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. They were all ethnically related, and they mostly spoke Berber languages, which were linguistic cousins of Ancient Egyptian. Over the centuries, different Berber tribes suffered very different fates.
Some were fortunate – the , for example, were annexed and incorporated into the Roman Republic, following the defeat of Carthage. Others were completely wiped out by Mediterranean conflicts, sharing the same fate as many of the European tribes that existed during the same time period. Everything changed for the Berbers when Arab forces invaded North Africa.
At first, the early Caliphates that followed Muhammad’s death were primarily interested in conquering North Africa and its indigenous people; eventually, though, the Umayyad Caliphate realized the value of Berber Warriors and enlisted their help in the conquest of Spain. The Arabs gave them a clever name: the Barbars.
It was a play on the word Barbarian, which was a label applied to anyone who didn’t speak Latin or Greek, but it was also the name of a race descended from Noah in Africa. The name survived 1300 years, and is the term we still use today. Over time, the Berbers and the Arabs produced dozens of generations of Arab Berbers, which leads all the way up until modern times.
There are millions of modern-day Africans who are ethnically Arab Berbers, primarily centered in Morocco and Algeria. Today, 99 percent of the Moroccan population is Arab-Berber, and the two official languages of Morocco are Arab and Berber. 99 percent of the population is Muslim. As for Casablanca, it gained prominence around the same time as the initial Arab invasion as a successful port city called Anfa.
The site had once been used by the Phoenicians and the Romans, but Anfa was the first known use of the land by a genuine African civilization. Anfa, which meant “The Hill” in a local Berber dialect, had a lot of natural advantages, even 1,000 years ago. 16th century diplomat and historian Leo Africanus described Anfa as being a “prosperous city on the Atlantic Coast because of its fertile land.
” Unfortunately, that value eventually made it a target; the city changed hands several times between its 8th century foundation and the arrival of Europeans. It started as part of an independent confederacy called the Barghawatas, who held out for quite some time, but were eventually conquered by a Berber Muslim dynasty called the Almoravids in 1068.
For centuries, the land around Anfa continued to change hands between warring tribes and Arab Dynasties. At a certain point, you have to wonder if the residents looked at yet another incoming army and thought to themselves, “Why did you have to come to Anfa? There are other places.” Three Little Destructions By the 1400s, the citizens of Anfa had overthrown their Imperial masters and become an independent kingdom again.
Anfa began developing a reputation as a friendly port hideaway for early forerunners of the Barbary Pirates. Pirates would run up and down the Mediterranean Coast, stealing from villages and robbing wealthy European ships. At that time, the most powerful maritime force was the Portuguese, and they weren’t having any of this piratical nonsense right across the water.
So in 1468, a small Portuguese naval force showed up and completely destroyed the city of Anfa, dispersing the pirate community that had begun to take hold, as well as the native community that had lived there for hundreds of years. The Portuguese weren’t sorry for destroying the town, but they did realize the strategic value of the land, so they built a small watchtower and military fortress in the ruins of Anfa.
As an Afro-European village began to reform around the small military enclave, the Portuguese rechristened it Casa Branca, or The White House. 100 years later, during the Iberian Union, Casa Branca’s Portuguese name was changed to an appropriately Spanish analogue: Casablanca. Casablanca remained under European rule for another 150 years, until a second event once again destroyed the city.
This time, it wasn’t a manmade assault, but one of the most devastating natural disasters on human record: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The epicenter of the quake was due west of the Strait of Gibraltar, about 200 kilometers from Cape St. Vincent, which is the southwestern most point in Europe. The 1755 quake is estimated to be around a 9.
0 on the Moment Magnitude scale, and without modern architectural sensibilities, it ruined entire sections of the nearby coastline. Shocks were allegedly felt as far away as Scandinavia and the Caribbean. This earthquake was so powerful that it basically ended Portuguese colonial aspirations. Lisbon was completely wrecked by the event – the initial damage was bad, with five-meter wide cracks reportedly running through the center of the city – but it was followed up by a monstrous 40-foot tsunami and a hellish firestorm that engulfed the entire town.
It took many years, and many escudos, for Portugal to fully recover. Lost in the footnotes of the 1755 earthquake is that it also completely decimated the small port town of Casablanca. After all, the epicenter was essentially as close to Casablanca as it was to Lisbon. For the second time in 300 years, Casablanca was left in ruin, and this time, the Portuguese army was in no position to start a rebuilding campaign.
Fortunately, someone else was: Mohammed ben Abdallah, the erstwhile Sultan of Morocco. Like others before him, he recognized the value of a port at the Casablanca site, so he joined forces with a group of Spanish merchants to rebuild the town. By 1770, most of the town was reconstructed, and the Sultan could turn his focus to another matter: supporting the American colonies in their rebellion against the British.
The Port of Casablanca reopened for commercial business in 1830, and this time around, it grew very quickly. The First Industrial Revolution was underway, and the hunt for raw materials was on. British sailors and merchants were shipping goods all over the world, and friendly ports were always in need.
Casablanca could offer both of those things. The local population became a great source of wool for the exploding British textile industry, and its location near the mouth of the Mediterranean qualified it as a convenient stopping point for some European sailors. By the late 19th century, the population had ticked back up above 10,000, with prominent agricultural exports zooming out all over the Mediterranean.
You could practically hear industry barons looking across the Sea, referring to Casablanca as a fast-growing hill of beans. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was France that turned its colonial gaze toward Morocco. The French wanted to establish a Moroccan protectorate, which was cemented at the Algeciras Conference in Spain in 1906.
France would assert some influence over the happenings of Morocco, but it would also provide military and police protection, as well as assist with the development of a modern infrastructure. In 1907, the French were attempting to expand and modernize the port of Casablanca, so they built a small railroad that connected the city to an inland quarry.
Unfortunately, that railroad passed through a prominent graveyard that some local tribes considered to be sacred. One night, locals attacked the train on its way back to Casablanca, killing nine Europeans, three of whom were French. In response to the increasing local hostility and the train attack, France felt it needed to escalate hostilities with its Morocco in order to truly gain control of the region.
It began a 27-year African conquest that bridged World War 1 and lasted until 1934. The first major action of the conflict was, of course, a massive naval bombardment of Casablanca, where the inciting incident had occurred. On August 6, 1907, a cadre of French gunboats began to bombard the city, destroying it for the third time in 500 years.
The French followed it up with a ground invasion and set part of the city remains on fire. 15,000 people were killed or wounded; at the time, approximately half the population was European. We’ll Always Have Paris The outbreak of World War 2 led to one of the most interesting periods for Casablanca, and, obviously, the backdrop of the famous movie.
By 1940, France had seized control of Morocco, but Germany had seized control of France. Vichy France had instructed its colonial holdings to fight against any invaders, regardless of nationality, but residents of Casablanca were torn. Many French colonists felt it best to cooperate with the Germans and fight against an allied invasion, while native Moroccans more consistently identified the Germans as antagonists.
All of this political upheaval led to an interesting mix of personalities – especially when you consider how many French Europeans had left the continent for the colonies in search of safer lands. It’s exactly at this moment when Casablanca takes place – Rick, an American expatriate, is running a popular nightclub in Casablanca that attracts all sorts of different factions of people.
The movie sees native Moroccans, French refugees, Germany military officers, Resistant Fighters, vacationers, and even a few leftover pirate types. Everyone is welcome at Rick’s place – he’s a cynical entrepreneur who doesn’t want to get involved in an international conflict. Of course, the truth is that Rick isn’t neutral at all.
Privately, his sympathies lay with the Allied cause; earlier in his life, he was a gun runner for the Ethiopians in the Italo-Abyssinian Conflicts, and he fought with the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. The entire reason for his cynical, self-preservationist nature is that he had been abandoned in Paris by his love, Ilsa, without any kind of explanation.
Naturally, it’s Ilsa and her husband that walk into Rick’s nightclub one night in December of 1941, engineering both the central conflict of the movie and a whole lot of renewed heartache for Rick. Of all the gin joints in all the world, she just had to walk into his… Casablanca is a near-perfect movie that expertly blends action, romance, and drama.
It holds up, even today; even some of the jokes are still funny. However, Casablanca the place is merely a setting for Casablanca the movie. The film doesn’t have Moroccan DNA – it’s a completely American enterprise. The movie starred arguably the biggest American movie star at the time, Humphrey Bogart, and was shot completely in California.
There are zero actual Moroccans used in the film. Even the themes and motifs had elements of US war propaganda – after all, the plot centers around an American, in December of 1941, who ultimately finds a way to take a stand against the Axis Powers. The filmmakers themselves rushed the movie through production to get it in front of an American audience as soon as possible.
Across the Atlantic, inside the real Casablanca, there was no peaceful stroll into the fog, as the camera pans to black. Allied forces launched Operation Torch in November of 1942 – the same month that Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan. The nine-day offensive conceived by General Eisenhower was a three-headed invasion of French North Africa, with the western front focused around Casablanca.
The city, as it had been for centuries, was considered strategically important, but it also held the primary French Atlantic naval base, and the Vichy were nominally allied with the Germans. Led by General Patton, the US invaded quickly and forcefully, destroying both French ships and German submarines that were defending the area.
After similar invasions in Oran and Algiers, American forces moved east toward Tunisia, where they intended to finish their African campaign and move on up through Sicily. Realizing the rising tide of the Allies, French freedom fighters assassinated Vichy Admiral Francois Darlan, positioning the French for an eventual return to the Allied forces.
In January of 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Casablanca to plan the next phase of World War 2. Generals Henri Giraud and Charles De Gaulle were in attendance as well, but were barred from attending much of the military planning sessions. And those sessions were quite impactful on the remainder of the war – the 1945 Yalta Conference gets a lot of attention as a prominent war meeting of Allied Leaders, but it was actually in Casablanca that Churchill and FDR announced the policy of unconditional surrender.
Regardless of body count, the war would be continued until the Germans accepted complete, comprehensive surrender terms. As Time Goes By The war in Europe ended in 1945, but Casablanca’s battles were far from over. As the 20th century wore on, Morocco was one of a number of territories that wished to throw off the yoke of colonial rule and govern itself.
No more Caliphates, no more warring tribes, no more Portuguese Ports or French bombardment. Finally, in the 1960s, the time had come for Moroccans to be the only ones governing Morocco. The Moroccan independence movement was founded before the end of the war, and it slowly escalated conflict with the French throughout the 1940s and 50s.
The Sultan of Morocco was Mohammed the Fifth, and the French were increasingly threatened by his growing status within the liberation movement. As a result, he was preemptively exiled – first to Corsica, in August 1953, and later to Madagascar, in January of 1954. He was replaced with his first cousin, Mohammed Ben Aarafa, who was a French puppet.
The banishment of Mohammed the Fifth did not go over well in Casablanca and the surrounding areas, prompting two years of rebellion and violent unrest. By 1955, French Colonialism was completely falling apart. The French had been massacred in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu, and the Algerian War was spinning out of control.
Other French territories, like Madagascar, were similarly rebellious. The French were completely overextended and had no chance to control all of their territory; the country allowed Mohammed the Fifth to return in 1955, and removed its protectorate claim in March of 1956. Mohammed the Fifth was crowned the King of Morocco in 1957.
Moroccan independence hasn’t exactly been a beautiful fairy tale ever since. For one thing, Algeria and Morocco have had a rocky relationship ever since they received their independence from France, with a level of conflict that has bounced between tense and outright hostile. The two sides fought each other over disputed land claims in the Sand War of 1963; years later, Algeria was involved as a proxy in Morocco’s Western Sahara War, which lasted from 1975 through 1991.
To this day, the Western Sahara is disputed territory, occupied by Morocco, but claimed by an autonomous group called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In the 1960s, King Hassan the Second was coronated after the death of Mohammed the Fifth. Morocco attempted to hold its first Parliamentary election, but Hassan nullified the results and suspended Parliament completely in 1965.
That same year, there were student protests and riots all over Casablanca, which were eventually repressed by security forces, armored cars, and tanks. Days later, in a Casablanca speech, Hassan remarked that “There is no greater danger to the State than a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.
” The internal strife continued for decades; as late as 1981, there were hunger riots that rocked Casablanca. But Morocco became a much more western state as the millennium approached. Political reforms began to take hold in the 90s, after the end of the formal Western Sahara conflict, and a bicameral legislature was established in 1997.
Two years later, Hassan the Second died, and was replaced by his son, Mohammed the Sixth. While not an outright reformer, he is a moderate with an eye on economic modernization and social liberalization, which has been key in re-establishing Casablanca as an international destination. In 2010, King Mohammed the Sixth created a Tourism Plan with benchmark goals for 2020 – the state wanted to maximize its visibility and potential as a destination by further improving its roads, infrastructure, and tourism capacity.
Beyond the harbor, the entire waterfront in Casablanca is being developed as a shopping and entertainment complex. A large, attractive commercial element should complement the beaches, cabanas, and historical safari opportunities quite nicely. As of 2017, tourism had hit an all-time high in Casablanca for three consecutive years, as more and more vacationers in the Mediterranean ecosystem escape down to Morocco for sun and sand.
So, modern-day Casablanca may never escape the shadow of the movie that shares its name, but it is doing enough to live up to the movie script’s former name, before it was changed – Everybody Comes to Rick’s. These days, it does seem like everybody is coming to Casablanca.