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Spelt either « sqala » or « skala », the former spelling is the most commonly used.
The fortified town was only a piece of rock lashed by waves, surrounded by sand and ocean, until the Alaouite Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah, as soon as he acceded to the throne, decided to erect a town there and to make the port a naval base, giving it the name of Al Suwaira.
Built according to the military viewpoint of protection, with ramparts and forts being erected to withstand invasions, the town of Essaouira has four sqalas – or defensive batteries –: two coastal ones and two inland ones.
The coastal ones are the sqala of the Port and the sqala of the Kasbah. The inland ones are the sqala of Bab Marrakech and the sqala of Bab Doukkala.
The sqala of the Port
It is made up of two sets of batteries equipped with superb bronze cannons. Two fortified wings cross each other at right angles; one is situated behind the Sea Gate pediment and the other faces the archipelago above the harbour shops. This sqala is supposed to have been built on the remains of the Portuguese castle or “Castello Real”. It was even thought that the square tower situated to the right of the harbour entrance was the castle itself, supposedly restored after its destruction in 1510 by neighbouring tribes.
The second tower to the left was built on the same Portuguese pattern. The Sea Gate was erected in the year 1184 of the Hegira (1806) to link the town to the harbour. Two columns and a classical triangular pediment adorn it and form a very impressive whole. Stairs lead you to the top of the harbour-wall sqala whose fortifications, topped with a watch tower, once defended the port. It is in this astonishing scenery that Orson Welles shot some scenes of his Othello, a film which won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Festival. From the top of the harbour- wall sqala, the views on the town and on the Purple Islands are absolutely breathtaking.
The sqala of the Kasbah or sqala of the Medina
This impregnable crenellated wall is made of blocks of rock which were sawed and laid on a rectangular platform of some 25Om in length. It was meant to protect the town from the ocean and to defend its north west sea front. From the top, one can still see some sawing marks and the hole, sole reminder of the technique used to move these rocks. A slope gives access to the battlements where some cannons, cast in Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries, still rest on their carriages and point out to sea.
This large fortification, built upon a long piece of rock, sits on top of about thirty stores and two round shaped houses; another circular platform, the bastion, a cistern and some thirty shops make up the whole of it. The ground floor casemates now accommodate the workshops of the few inlaid-wood workers who have made the town famous.
From the top wall, while enjoying a bracing walk in sea spray and wind, one can admire the magnificent views on the fortifications, on the ocean and on the Purple Islands: they are constantly changing and offer a new show every hour of every day.
The Bab Marrakech sqala (see Guido n°13, winter 2006)
Situated on your left from the Bab Marrakech when you enter the town, this sqala was intended to protect the town from inland attacks coming from the East.
It first accommodated the Cherif’s army and was then used as barracks when the French occupied the town.
This circular sqala holds fourteen ammunition dumps. The rampart wall built around the tower top as well as the two houses date from the time of the Protectorate.
The Bab Marrakech bastion has now become a learning centre and its vaulted rooms are presently used for exhibitions.
The Bab Doukkala sqala
Situated north of the Medina, this sqala, like the one above, was intended to protect the town from inland attacks.
It was originally equipped with four cannons which have today nearly all disintegrated due to weather corrosion. Restoration work is now underway for the buildings and the nearby walls.
There was another small sqala defending the town, whose origin may go back to the beginning of the 19th century (13th of the Hegira). Set down on the rock of the little island that one can see from the harbour and which is very close to the shore, it was once possible to walk to it at low tide. You can now only reach it with the help of the small blue boats. This sqala is now devoid of all its canons as they were nailed in and thrown into the sea by French soldiers during the August 1844 bombardment. It has now become a paradise for sea gulls.
Borj El Baroud
Another defensive building had been erected on the outskirts of the town. It was located between the east ramparts (Bab Marrakech) and Sidi Mogdoul’s tomb (behind the lighthouse at Essaouira southern exit). This fort, called “Borj El Baroud” or “Powder fort” was designed to store explosives. It looked like a big square house topped with crenels. This fort was destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century, under the Protectorate, and nothing remains of it.
The widespread idea that the vestiges on the sand, at the mouth of the wadi Ksob and at the foot of Diabat, are those of this borj is totally false.
They are in fact the remnants of “Borj el Ouad” or “Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah’s fort”. Like the former, it was built in the 19th century to protect the town from the forays of pirates. Destroyed by a huge rise of the wadi Ksob, there only remains a huge heap of enormous stones which sometimes takes on the shape of a phantasmagorical ship grounded on the strand at the end of the bay.
The row of cannons pointing out to sea now stands impressively still and serves only one purpose: it has become a shelter for solitary souls contemplating the view, for young lovers admiring the sunset or for seagulls roosting peacefully.
These shiny and well polished bronze cannons, made of copper coming from Mexico and Peru, testify of a long history and of long journeys. Most of them were cast in Seville and Barcelona in the second half of the 18th century. They are decorated with Spanish, Flemish and Portuguese coats of arms and were given to the Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah by the Dutch government. Frequently adorned with rich carvings of acanthus leaves and fish – animals seen as protectors and saviours- and both items being symbols of luck, prosperity and abundance, these pieces of artillery proudly boast their coats of arms and bear the engraved name of their origins on the front part of the tube. The cannons are an invitation to dreams of the foreign lands that they still resolutely face: Antipara, Alicante, Yradato….
Vouching for the past, a faded postcard, showing an old corroded cannon resting on its carriage, bears the following words: “Cannon firing at midday”.