Essaouira: The Portuguese



April 29, 2013 

Dear Friends and Explorers,

King Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) might not be as well known as Ferdinand and Isabel and Christopher Columbus. But surely the Portuguese King and Captain are significant figures in navigation, exploration and conquest during the Age of Discovery. 

Like his Spanish counterparts, King Henry of Portugal (1394 – 1460) never set sail anywhere.  Instead he sponsored and encouraged his Captains to “discover” new lands and return with boatloads of treasure. 

After centuries of successful navigation of the North Atlantic in search of codfish, the Portuguese made their way south to the Atlantic Coast of North Africa.  Eventually they sailed to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa and then north into the Indian Ocean up to Goa in West India.  

I assume that one of the first Portuguese occupation locations along the route was in present day Morocco.  At Essaouira they built a large fort that at present is an attractive tourist attraction.  The big guns still face the noisy Atlantic. 

North of Essaouira my tour group explored the so-called Portuguese Cistern in the town of El Jadida. Apparently, in this underground vault, the Portuguese colonialists stored their grain and guns.  

I was a bit suspicious.  The architecture of this grand underground structure reminded me of the skills of another nation of conquerors.  My guess is that this cistern was built by the Romans who used the cistern for its original purpose: to capture and store water. 

As I commented to the Tour Leader, “You know why I think that this cistern was built by the Romans? It’s still here!”  

I may be wrong about the provenance of the cistern.  Maybe the vault was built by the Carthaginians!  Or putting my romantic notions aside, perhaps the cistern is Portuguese after all.  Then why call it a cistern? * 

I’ve been in the sun too long, 



  • Built in 1514, this former warehouse (possibly an armory) was converted into a cistern in the 16th century. The underground chamber, measuring 34 meters by 34 meters, was constructed with five rows of five stone pillars. 

The cistern is famous for the dim light and the thin layer of water that covers the floor.  The visual effect creates fine and exciting reflections of the spartan shapes of the columns and the roof.  Its visual qualities are such that several movies have been filmed within the cavernous space, of which Orson WellesOthello is the best known internationally.

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