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August 17, 2014, 11:21 am

Morocco is the crossroads of East and West, a bridge between Africa and Europe that possesses the best of all possible worlds.

Capital City: Rabat, Population: 33.5 Million (Including the region of Western Sahara), Area: 712,550 Sqkm, Official Language: Arabic

Morocco's fusion of rock, sand and sea gives it some of North Africa's most diverse topography. In the north, the limestone-and-sandstone Rif Atlas Mountains shoot up from the Mediterranean coast to a decidedly steep 2200 meters. Further inland, forming the backbone of Morocco, tiered mountains rise first to the 3340-meter summit of the Middle Atlas Mountains, before yielding to the greater might of the High Atlas and the dizzying heights of Jebel Toubkal at 4167 meters, the highest peak in North Africa. And then it all drops away, down, down, down into the vast Sahara.

History in a Nutshell
The Berbers, Morocco's original inhabitants, thought that they had seen off all comers - Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines - until the Arab armies of Islam arrived in the 7th century and never got around to leaving. Later, home-grown Berber dynasties such as the Almoravids and Almohads put Morocco firmly on the Islamic map. Morocco's strategic importance drew the attention and armies of France and Spain, who each ruled parts of Morocco. After they withdrew and Morocco regained
Independence in the 1950s, it claimed sovereignty over the Western Sahara, much to the chagrin of the indigenous Sahrawis. Since it achieved independence, Morocco has had a remarkably stable history: on a continent where revolving-door governments are standard, it has had just two leaders (King Hassan II and his more liberal-minded son, Mohammed VI) in the last 45 years.

Random Facts
In 1975 King Hassan II led 300,000 unarmed Moroccans in the 'Green March' to claim the Western Sahara.
One third of all Moroccans are under 15.
The last Barbary lion in captivity died in the 1960s.
Morocco's birth rate has fallen from 6.9 births per fertile woman in 1970 to just 2.8 in 2006.
The adult literacy rate is 50.7 percent.

Morocco could lay claim to the title of Africa's most homogeneous country: 99.1 per cent of the population are Arabs or Berbers of whom 98.7 percent are Muslim. The population of Morocco is also overwhelmingly young - the average age is only 23.9 years, compared to 39.9 in Spain - and many of the country's brightest young stars, frustrated by a lack of opportunities in their home country, seek their fortunes abroad.

Market Place
Despite a crippling debt of US$15.6 billion (72.3 percent of GDP) hanging over it, there are high hopes for the future of Morocco's economy. In a move of which most African countries can only dream, all trade barriers between Morocco and Europe was removed by 2012, and a similar trade agreement has also been signed with the United States. Morocco's GDP per capita is US$4200, which is not much compared to that of former colonial rulers Spain with US$25,500 and France with GDP per capita of US$29,900.

Mint tea and couscous
Carpets and carpet-sellers
Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca
Last stop before Europe
Magical medinas

Wild Things
Most Moroccan animal species are endangered, from the shy addax antelope that defies the desert’s dictates and can survive its whole life without water, to the equally reticent leopards which are thought to cling to remote mountain redoubts. However, there are some success stories among the active preservation programs, including pulling the Dorcas gazelle, Barbary sheep and bald ibis back from the brink of extinction. Sadly, the iconic Barabary lion with its abundant mane was last seen, and shot, in the Atlas Mountains in 1922.

Gnawa music
Marijuana from the Rif Valley
Moroccan Jews

Urban Scene
Marrakesh marches to a different beat. It i's a vibrant, beautiful city of exquisite mosques, peaceful gardens and stately palaces, and the energy of the city's souqs — each of which is a city in itself — never seem to subside.

This is a medieval bazaar par excellence, with every conceivable handicraft —Moroccan lamps, carpets and traditional clothes —on display and on sale. By night the Djemaa el-Fna is transformed into one of the most intoxicating in the world, as storytellers, musicians, street performers and wonderful outdoor restaurants illuminate the night.

Top Festival
Whirling dervishes and sacred orchestras take the stage in June every year for the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. Not only does the festival draw world-class performers, but it has also found a perfect home in a medieval city replete with venues that include acoustically rich palaces and gracious old homes. Staged for the first time in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the festival has one very simple aim: to make peace through music by bringing together the musicians of the world regardless of cultural or religious background.

Eating in Morocco is taken very seriously, so much so that hours each day are set aside for the purpose. From the Middle East, Moroccans developed a taste for meze, that Arab equivalent of tapas or antipasto. From North Africa's deserts, Moroccans adopted mechoui, an entire lamb or calf stuffed with all sorts of delicious goodies and slow-roasted to perfection. But Moroccans have also exported their own dishes around the world, most notably tagines (stews cooked in a clay pot), which all North African countries have adopted as their own. Other Moroccan staples incorporate any kind of meat, dates and chickpeas and no Moroccan dinner table would be complete without couscous.

In Film
Morocco has long been a star of the silver screen, which has lodged country in the western imagination as at once exotic and familiar. The Tragedy of Othello (1952), starring Orson Welles, was filmed in Essaouira, while Alfred Hitchcock found the perfect backdrop in Marrakesh for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Since then, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Alexander (2004), The Gladiator (2000), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Asterix & Obelix: Mission; Cleopatra (2002) and Hideous Kinky (1998) were all filmed, at least in part, in Morocco.

Morocco and Spain nearly went to war in 2002 over an uninhabited island.
Not one second of Casablanca (1942) was filmed in Morocco.
Moroccan women were granted the right to vote in 1963.

Future Directions
All eyes are on Mohammed VI, Morocco's youthful king. Alienation among the country's youth is the single most pressing issue facing the king and his country — if young Moroccans are responsible for more terrorist attacks in the future, such as those perpetrated in Casablanca in 2003 and Madrid in 2004, the world can expect the king's tentative liberal reforms (which include more democracy and women's rights) to stall.

Essential Experiences
Winding your way down through the magical medina of Fes to the leather-dyeing pits awash with bright colors
Getting swept up in the vibrant night market in Marrakesh's Djemaa eI-Fna
Catching a breeze on a groovy Essaouira rooftop by an expansive sweep of beach
Scrubbing all your troubles away in an authentic Moroccan hammam (bathhouse)
Trekking deep into the spectacular Berber heartland of the High Atlas Mountains to discover fairytale kasbahs
Soaking up the solitude of a desert sunset amid the sand dunes of Merzouga

Best Times to Visit: October - April

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