Tangier is a city in Morocco strategically located on the Strait of Gibraltar. Mohamed El Mansour argues that the Roman name for the city, Tingis, has Amazigh (Berber) origins, and that it is likely that the area was settled well before the Phoenicians and Carthaginian settlements, though many histories of the city start there, likely because we have archeological evidence for these settlements, such as the Phoenecian tombs on the Marshan, though there is debate about the dating of the tombs. The Umayyad conquest in 707/88 AH brought Islam and 700 years of Arab rule to the region. Tangier was at best a small settlement until the Portuguese arrived in 1471/871 AH. The walled city as it exists today dates to this period, though with significant modifications over time. The city didn't expand substantially outside the walls until well into the modern era. 

For roughly the next 213 years sovereignty over Tangier would be determined by European affairs. When Portugal itself came under the sovereignty of the Hapsburgs of Spain in 1580/988 AH, so too did Tangier, at least nominally. Spanish sovereignty lasted roughly 60 years before the city was once again under Portuguese rule. Portugal ceded Tangier to the English in 1661/1071 AH as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. They undertook major construction projects, most notably the mole in the Bay of Tangier. Yet the destroyed most of the town when constant friction with local populations led to their departure in 1684. Though English control of the city was brief, a great deal is known about the period due to extensive visual and textual documentation, including the etchings of Wenceslaus Hollar and the Diary of Samuel Pepys.     

After the British departure, Pasha Ali Ben Abdallah a-Riffi (1684-1713/1095-1125 AH) occupied the city and saw to its restoration, under the authority of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl. The walled city resembles most other cities in Morocco and beyond. The Qasba, the administrative center, occupies the highest point of the city, and the Medina descends downward to the Port on the Bay of Tangier to the east of the city. In the 18th c. the city had only about 5,000 inhabitants until it was designated the primary diplomatic and foreign trade center between Morocco and foreign powers in 1784. Foreign powers had their diplomatic representations in the Beni Idir quarter until they moved outside the city walls when the city came under Spanish control through the Treaty of Algeciras, and eventually an International Zone at the start of the 20th century. Though Tangier never had a Mellah, or Jewish quarter like that of other Moroccan cities, Beni Idir was also where most of the synagogues were located. Yet the Great Mosque sits just at the edge of this quarter, and Tangier is also the only Moroccan city to have a church inside the walls of the medina. The terms of the Treaty of Algeciras placed Northern Morocco under the Spanish authority and the rest of the country under the French, but competition for influence in Tangier and the rest of northern Morocco continued  The Treaty of Fez in 1911 formalized the division of Morocco, formally establishing the French and Spanish protectorates. Tangier maintained de factor international status.

After the First World War, to settle disputes over control over this strategically located city on the Straits of Gibraltar, an international convention signed in Paris on December 18, 1923 formally established Tangier as a neutral, demilitarized zone under the joint administration of France, Spain and Britain. Subsequent agreements between 1923 and 1929 brought Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands into the convention. Immigration from Spain increased considerably during the Spanish Civil War and the city became a center for intrigue and espionage during World War II. Spanish troops occupied Tangier when Paris fell to the Germans and remained until the end of the war. In 1956, when Morocco achieved independence, the city was reincorporated into the nation. 

After independence, Tangier retained elements of its international character. Embassies, consulates, and other institutions catering toward Western residents scaled down operations, and the majority of the city's Jewish citizens left in the 1950s, but others remained. The city also proved popular with international literati and cultural figures, including the Beat Generation writers and, most famously, the American writer and composer Paul Bowles, who resided in Tangier from the 1950s until his death in 1999. Gradually, however, the city became increasingly known for smuggling, drug use, and other illegal activities, including clandestine emigration. In the later decades of the 20th century, Tangier's economy, like that of most of northern Morocco, stagnated. Government spending on economic and social initiatives in the north was significantly less than in the area that had been part of the French Protectorate. 

This policy was reversed by the current monarch, Mohammed VI.  Monuments have been restored, public cemeteries cleaned up, high walls around open spaces removed, parks developed, and the transportation infrastructure is being upgraded. The city has been expanding rapidly, moving many industrial and commercial activities away from the center of town, with the goal of establishing an industrial zone between Tangier and Tetouan. Tangier is constantly buffeted by the winds and the unpredictable weather of the Strait of Gibraltar, and the soil under the city is not entirely stable. This has taken its toll on some of the most prominent structures, most notably the north wall of the Qasba, including the Donjon of Ali al-Riffi and Bab al-Bahar. Both collapsed and were subsequently rebuilt in recent years.  

There has been a significant increase in investments from the central government and the private sector, leading to substantial improvements in infrastructure, particularly in transportation and tourism. As Martin Elbi puts it, "Tangier had been reinventing itself since the late 1990s as the northern gateway to Morocco and even to West Africa, and as a vigorously promoted venue for the tourist and conference industries."1 The main train station has also been relocated so that the tracks no longer run along the beachfront. In 2007 construction began on Tanger Med, a major new commercial port, roughly 30 km east of the new City Center, that will route commercial shipping away from the port on the bay at the base of the Medina.The old port at the base of the medina is being upgraded and transformed so that fishing boats, ferries and cruise ships from Europe, and yachts or leisure boats are in separate areas. 

There are also discussions about the construction of a 27.7 km tunnel from Punta Paloma in Spain to Cape Malabata on the east side of the Bay.

Related Archnet Resources

Tangier Then and Now: An Exhibition

International Tangier: Morocco & the Mediterranean in the early 20th c.

Music of Morocco.  Recording Location: Tanger


1. Elbi, p. 23.

--Michael A. Toler, Archnet Content Manager, AKDC@MIT, January 2015


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Stuart, Graham H. The International City of Tangier. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1955.

Tanger et Sa Zone. Vol. 7. Villes Et Tribus Du Maroc. Documents Et Renseignements De La Mission Scientifique Du Maroc. Paris: E. Leroux, 1921.

"Tanger Légendes Et Séductions." Qantara. Magazine Des Cultures Arabes Et Méditerranéenne 67 (April 2008): 25-55.

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