The long history of Morocco is filled with characters that seem to leap off the page. Perhaps none more so than the Sultan Moulay Ismail. At once feared and respected, villainized and lionized, this Moroccan sultan literally stood head and shoulders above other world leaders. His tall, lithe figure cut bright through his palaces—particularly on beheading days when his flowing saffron-yellow robes reflected the high noon sun of the Middle Atlas, framing his dark features. The sultan’s wrath, his justice, inevitable, like the fire-rimmed eclipse of the moon gliding over the sun.
Heads flew, detached from their necks, and with them, word of his stern justice rippled throughout the world.
The Rise and Long Rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail
Born in 1645 in the ancient city of Sijilmassa near modern-day Merzouga, to Moulay Cherif ben Ali, an Arab prince and ruler of the region and his black slave (her name lost to history), Moulay Ismail was a favored son of his father. As was the Islamic custom to recognize the offspring of slaves, so Moulay Ismail was recognized by his father. However, as he was the seventh son, the path to the sultanate was not very obvious. It wasn’t until his half-brother, Moulay Rachid, died in 1672 that Moulay Ismail ascended to the throne in Fez.
The first years of his reign were filled with bloody battles with other members of his family that claimed the throne and had the loyalty of different factions and tribes of Morocco. In particular, his nephew, Moulay Ahmed ben Mehrez. Over the course of the first years of Moulay Ismail’s reign, his nephew would declare himself sultan in Marrakesh, commanding the support of southern Morocco. Though he was defeated in battle multiple times over 13 years, it wasn’t until his death in Taroudant in 1685 that Morocco was truly united.
Until this moment, the Sultan Moulay Ismail had been a fairly lenient ruler. Though his punishments had been fierce, they had been limited to the fighting soldiers. No matter if the inhabitants of a city or region supported someone who challenged his throne, when the fighting was over, the common citizens were spared, asked to support him, which they often did so willingly… for a time, until their next betrayal.
The Sultan knew he needed to send a message or the fighting among his own people would never cease. He did the unthinkable. He massacred the entire city of Taroudant for supporting his nephew. Loyal families from the Rif in the north of Morocco were paid to move into the ghost town to repopulate it and keep its trade alive.
After solidifying the whole of Morocco, Moulay Ismail expanded the Moroccan empire as far as Timbuktu, ensuring the continuation of valuable trade routes that carried salt, gold, and slaves across the Sahara. As sultan, Moulay Ismail commanded the feared Sale Rover pirates, named after their homeport of Sale, to harass all Christian ships and to bring white slaves to his empire from Europe.
Over the following years, Moulay Ismail sought to rid Morocco of European settlements. At the time, the English possessed Tangier and the Spanish were still entrenched in a few towns, such as La Mamora, near Rabat, Larache, and Ceuta. With his army of 50,000 he dispatched the foreigners from Moroccan soil, though Ceuta would prove too difficult to take over the course of his 55 year reign, the longest to date of any Moroccan ruler.
The Formation of Sultan Moulay Ismail’s Black Guard
In 1699, Moulay Ismail took the extraordinary step of reorganizing and greatly expanding the Black Guard, more formerly known as “The Slaves of al-Bukhari” (more on this below). Originally formed in 1088 under the Almoravid sultan, Youssef Ibn Tachfine to ensure his protection, Morocco’s Black Guard was originally soldiers composed of free Moroccan Haratins and black Muslim slaves.
The historic step of expanding the guard was taken because Moulay Ismail understood that his other troops were loyal… but only to a point. Morocco is a country of tribes and the sultan understood that their first loyalty wasn’t to him, but to their families and tribes. What he needed was an army loyal to him and him alone. He gave the order to enslave all black Africans living in Morocco, no matter their religion or status, free person or slave, Muslim, Christian, or Jew. This guard was to be his own personal army, loyal only to him, like the Egyptian Mamluks or the Janissaries of the Ottoman empire.
The enslaving of these people was against the tenets of Islam and Moulay Ismail himself was the son of a black slave. The irony could not have best lost on the sultan when he gave the leaders of each of his slave armies a copy of the writings of Muhammed al-Bukhari, a well-respected Islamic scholar and author of one of the most authentic collections of hadiths. Thus… this gave rise to their Arabic name: Abid al-Bukhari or “Slaves of Al-Bukhari.”
Over 221,000 black Moroccans were enslaved over the rule of Moulay Ismail. The women were trained in household affairs and so-called “entertainments” while the men trained for battle. They were well paid and given favored treatment. Largely, they patrolled the untruly Moroccan countryside and were charged with putting down rebellions that bubbled up from time to time, usually from one of Moulay Ismail’s 525 sons.
At the height of his empire, Moulay Ismail’s Black Guard numbered over 100,000.
Even the allegiance of the Black Guard did not stop the sultan from expressing his displeasure from time-to-time. Stories of him beheading the guard charged with holding a parasol over his head because a ray of sun caressed the sultan’s skin and taking it upon himself to behead the guard who held the stirrup of his horse as he mounted are legend.
In another twist of irony, the enslaved Black Guard were also in charge of overseeing the white Christian slaves as they constructed the sultan’s palace in Meknes.
The Sultan Moulay Ismail’s Meknes Palace
Moulay Ismail chose the town of Meknes as his capital for its cooler climate and easy supply of fresh mountain water.
The palace itself was built partly in response to Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. He had forty kilometers of walls built. Precious materials, like marble, were pilfered from the palaces of Marrakesh and nearby Volubilis. Christian slaves were regularly worked to death. It is rumored that many were buried in the walls of the palace.
Architecturally, the palace was a blend of Moroccan and Portuguese. Grand archways folded around lush gardens. Hewed stone quarried from the local mountains and imported marble were favored materials, coupled with elaborate traditional zellij tile work and intricately carved cedar wood ceilings.
Today, not much is left of the palace. The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, just a few decades after the sultan’s death, demolished the palace and the capital was reestablished in Marrakesh by Moulay Ismail’s grandson, Mohammed III.
It’s possible today to visit the Heri es-Souani granaries, an architectural feat in their own right, as well as the dilapidated royal stables where Moulay Ismail once kept 12,000 horses, the true strength of his military.
Other sites of interest include the haunting Keri Prison, where the sultan once kept his Christian slaves, as well as Moulay Ismail’s final resting place, the elaborate Moulay Ismail Mausoleum. The famous Bab Mansour gate that leads into the former grounds of the palace.
The Aftermath of Sultan Moulay Ismail
In the years immediately following his death, Morocco did fall into a series of leadership disputes. However, as a point of fact, it is his bloody, violent reign that largely consolidated the power of the Alaouite dynasty. The Alaouite family is a dynasty that continues on today. The current ruler of Morocco, his royal majesty Mohammed VI, continues the lineage of the world’s second longest running family dynasty — behind only the currently ruling first family of the Empire of Japan.
Moulay Ismail’s Black Guard remained politically potent well after his death. They shifted allegiance and with them swayed the power of the country. Over the course of the 19th century their numbers dwindled and their pay was halved. Many soldiers of the once-feared army either quit or fled Morocco. In the late 19th century, the largest part of the army was disbanded. A small contingent of the guard was kept for the sultan’s personal guard. The children born of this guard were kept as property of the sultanate, passed from heir to heir. In the early 20th century, Morocco officially abolished slavery and the guard were freed, though most chose to stay with the palace.
After Moroccan independence in 1956, the Black Guard were renamed officially as The Royal Guard. No longer slaves, this elite group is now picked from the finest of Morocco’s soldiers. Descendants of the original Black Guard continue to serve at the king’s court to this day. Amazingly, the Black Guard is one of the world’s oldest active military units in the world!
Around Morocco, stories of the tyranny and horror of the reign of Moulay Ismail are tempered with heavy doses of national pride to have had such a powerful, feared ruler. Some of Moulay Ismail’s exploits are dismissed as legend while others continue to be told as fact, adding to the lore of one of Morocco’s indisputably mythic characters.
Hero? Or Villain? You decide.
About the Author
Text by award-winning writer, photographer, and Morocco expert, Lucas Peters. After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco and writing about his adventures, he penned the best-selling guidebook Moon Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond. He lives in Tangier with his family.
Photo Creds: “Bounania Quranic School of Meknes” by Lucas; “Contemporary Royal Guard” photo by Amina Lahbabi, public domain photo of Sultan Moulay Ismail used for the title