Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tangier: rich history & modern intrigue

To be honest, before this month, I don't know what I would have said if you had asked me what country Tangier was in, but now as I learn more about Moroccan history, Tangier has proven to be a fascinating and cosmopolitan city for centuries.

Located at the Western entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar, which accounts for it's rich history which spawned from its Berber and Phoenician origins in the early 5th century. Tangier was part of the Carthaginian Republic (remember my blog post last month about the famous Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, and his trek across the Alps?).  Tangier's ancient history references numerous rulers throughout time, including the Roman Empire, various North African dynasties and Arab Caliphates.  The Portuguese occupied Tangiers for about 200 years (with a brief interlude of Spanish rule), before it was given to the English as part of a dowry in 1661.  Less than 25 years later, and after the unsuccessful attempt of Sultan Moulay Ismail to seize power in the area, the English destroyed the town and its port before returning home. Moulay Ismail attempted to reconstruct the town, but the population declined as many left for nearby cities.

By the late 19th century, Tangier increasingly became an important as a commercial and diplomatic center.  European intellectuals and artists began spending time in Morocco, including the notable French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix.

Delacroix. Sultan of Morocco. 1845
Eugene Delacroix, the beloved French Romantic painter, visited Spain and North Africa in for six months in 1832, shortly after the French conquered Algeria.   Delacroix was fascinated by the character and attire of the Moroccans, which inspired him as found them visually reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman civilizations.   In the painting above, check out the wrapped garments of the Moroccans - very similar to the draping mantles and togas we are used to from Neoclassical paintings, huh? Even the recognizable Fezzes worn by many of the men in the crowd at a quick glance can remind us of Roman helmets, which we often see with plumage of a similar reddish color. The city's protective walls also harken back to the fortifications of antiquity. Delacroix found scenes of daily life in Tangier particularly inspirational, especially as he was unable to find many Moroccan women willing to be models due to the pervasive moral code rooted in Islamic belief.   Morocco's wildlife also inspired Delacroix, as he found animals a fitting Romantic symbol of passion.

Delacroix. Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable.   1860

Spain and France vied for control of Morocco, and in 1923 Tangier was made an international zone under the joint control of both countries as well and Great Britain.  A few years later,  several other countries also adhered to the international convention: Italy, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands.  Upon restoration of Moroccan sovereignty in 1956,  Tangier came under national rule.

During the last two decades of the international zone, Tangier became a notable meeting point for secret agents,  an exotic playground for millionaires, and was known for its international community of writers, including Tennessee Williams, Alan Ginsburg, and Jack Kerouac.

Tangier became a frequent setting for spy novels and movies of the 1950s and 60s.


  1. How would Tangiers be described today? Has any part of it conformed to a modern cosmopolitan profile (European or Arabic)?

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