Tangier and Tétouan

City entries from: Rogozinski, J., ed. The City and Urban Life. 2007. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.


Tangier was founded in the IVth century BCE as Tingis. An ideal trade center located on the borderline between Europe and Africa, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the city is situated at extreme northwest of the Moroccan kingdom, facing across the Straits of Gibraltar toward the Iberian Peninsula. Tangier has long been at the crossroads of civilizations, a point of intersection for various encounters, coveted by different powers notably Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Spaniards, Portuguese, English. A few kilometers farther west of Tangier is Cape Spartel and precisely in the Hercules Caves where the legendary hero named Hercules struggled with Anteaus, history and legend are remarkably blended to give the city its mythical proportions. Its geographical location in proximity to Europe has largely affected its fascinating history, making it open to the outside world and traditionally liberal.

In 1471, Portugal invaded the city and made it a defensive fortress against piracy as well as occasional assaults from Western rivals. In 1661, right after the Restoration of the monarchy in England, Tangier was given away to King Charles the Second of Britain and Ireland on the occasion of his marriage to the Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. In 1684, the British were forced by the troops of Sultan Moulay Ismail to evacuate the city after destroying the mole and blowing up Yorke Castle in the Kasbah along with other forts. The old medina is still a rich archeological site that has been permanently occupied and even overpopulated. After the departure of the British, Dar el-Makhzen palace was built upon the ruins of Yorke Castle, and now houses the museum of Moroccan Art and Antiquities. Even the big Mosque of the medina is built upon the ruins of one of the oldest temples in the continent.

In 1912, the French Protectorate was established in Morocco while ceding the north and the southern Sahara to Spanish power. In 1923 Tangier became an international zone that was politically neutral and economically open. The new statute formalized international control over the 140 square miles that represented the city and its surroundings. For almost 23 years, Tangier became a notorious dream city and a congregation site for a number of important Western artists, writers, and politicians who fell captive to its magical spell including Henri Matisse, Eugene Delacroix, Walter Harris, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles along with his wife Jane Bowles. During the late fifties and sixties, the Beat Generation made a well-worn path to the underground life that marked the international city. Writers such as Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote, Gregory Corso, Ira Cohen, Irving Rosenthal, Gore Vidal, and Alfred Chester all passed through in transit and marked the city’s collective memory.

Tangier’s urban tissue is characterized by a strong dualism that includes an old medina with narrow meandering streets around the big mosque and with quarters for bazaars and artisans organized according to activity and craft, and the modern city that has been constructed according to modern architectural norms since the internationalization of the city.


The city lies on the sheer descent of Mount Darsa, stretching over the Oued Martil valley, with almost 5 km of historical walls surrounding the medina and with seven gates most of which are still intact. In 710, Tétouan emerged as a small town and transit point linking Morocco and the Iberian peninsula. By the 14th century, the city had acquired an important status as a defensive fortress, especially after the conquest of Ceuta and Tangier and other neighboring ports by Spanish and Portuguese, yet Spanish forces destroyed it. After the fall of Granada in 1492, Tétouan was gradually rebuilt by Andalousian refugees (Muslims and Jews) during the reign of Sultan Mohammed Cheikh al-Wattassi. From 1609 onwards, the medina was further expended toward the northwest with the overflow of Moriscus refugees. Between 1913 and 1956, the city served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate where the Spanish General Commissioner lived. The unique Andalousian aspect of Tétouan is well illustrated in the hybrid architecture of both the old medina and the new city, as well as in the art and culture of its population. In 1997, the medina was placed on the list of World Heritage sites. Tétouan is a home of Andalousian heritage that has been handed down by strong intellectual and commercial families, and as such represents a real cultural symbiosis. The urban distribution of districts in the city is related to social prestige. Al-Ayoun is a popular district compared to the Jama’ al-Kabir or even the Mtamar district that was constructed on an enormous underground labyrinth that served to shelter slaves and the Christian captives during the heydays of piracy.

-Dr Khalid Amine