Around the year 1770, Sultan Muhammad ibn Abdullah commissioned the French architect Théodore Cornut to design the city according to European models. Pirates had captured Cornut during a naval raid and handed him over to the Sultan as a prisoner. With Cornut’s help, the Sultan developed Essaouira into the most important commercial center of his kingdom, linking the caravans from Timbuktu with the maritime trading routes to Europe and the New World.
From Africa came not only ivory, gold dust, and ostrich feathers but slaves as well. In its heyday, Essaouira was home to commercial establishments from all over Europe, seventeen consulates, and thousands of Jews, who could guarantee the best trading contacts throughout the world.
Within this melting pot the black slaves organized themselves as the brotherhood of the Gnawa and combined their cults with Berber influences and the Arab tradition of Sufism.