Tangier is a large port city on the Moroccan coast of the Strait of Gibraltar. Currently around 700,000 people reside in the city proper; the total metropolitan population is around 1 million. Due to its proximity to Spain and, by extension, Europe, the city has a healthy shipping industry and a robust manufacturing industry; the situation is very similar to the maquiladora-laden cities along the US-Mexico border.

Another industry is selling tourists useless crap. But more on this later.


Mythologically, Tangier was founded by Berber warrior-prince Sfax, who named it Tingis after his mother, the wife of giant Antaeus. Antaeus ended up mixing it up with, and getting killed by, Hercules, who was in the neighborhood setting up the nearby pillars at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Shortly after this, Hercules bedded Tingis, which may or may not have resulted in Sfax; according to the Berbers, Antaeus is his father, the Greeks preferred to take the credit with Hercules.

Historically, Tangier was founded by Phoenician traders, who had liberally sprinkled the North African coast with their colonies. The city lay within the domain of the Carthaginians until the Punic Wars, after which the surrounding area fell under Roman control. In the early days of the Roman Empire, Tingis was designated the capital of the province of Mauritania Tingitana. The city remained under Roman control until the fall of the western empire; after this and on through the Dark Ages, it was held by various groups, including the Vandals, Berbers, and Byzantines.

In the 8th century, Tangier fell was taken by the Arabs as part of the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad caliphate. Things remained pretty much the same until the Reconquista was completed in nearby Spain; between the 15th and 17th centuries the emboldened Portuguese and Spanish seized control and ended up trading ruling rights back and forth. Finally, the city was granted to the English as a gift to Charles II at his marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. The English held the city until 1689, when the Sultan of Morocco Moulay Ismail besieged and blockaded Tangier, forcing the starved Brits to withdraw. The city was reunited with the rest of Morocco, but the siege had damaged the city such that the population dwindled to a fraction of its original population by the early 19th century. During this time Sultan Moulay Suliman granted the American government a property in Tangier that would become the Legation Building, the first overseas property owned by the United States. Go team.

Eventually, as global trade increased (and with it imperialism) throughout the 19th century, the population grew and the city's economy improved. In 1912, Morocco was partitioned between the French in the north and the Spanish in the south; Tangier itself came to be declared an international zone and was ruled jointly by France, Spain, and the UK. Pretty soon everyone wanted a piece of Tangier; Italy joined the consortium in 1928 along with the US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Portugal. With Moroccan independence in 1956, the city was once again reunited with the rest of the country.

So, to sum it up:

  • Phoenicians: ~500 BC to ~200 BC
  • Romans: ~200 BC to 489 AD
  • Vandals:~489 to ~534
  • Byzantimes: ~534 to 702
  • Umayyad caliphate (Arab): 702 to 1471
  • Portuguese: 1471 to 1580
  • Spanish: 1580 to 1640
  • Portuguese: 1640 to 1661
  • English: 1661 to ~1689
  • Moroccans: ~1689 to 1912
  • French, Spanish, British: 1912 to 1928
  • French, Spanish, British, Italians, Americans, Swedish, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese: 1928 to 1956
  • Moroccans: 1956 to present

During the 1950s, Tangier was home to a number of American writers, including Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, who used the city as the basis for Interzone in Naked Lunch. Currently the region is experiencing a commercial boom, helped by its closeness to Europe and its position at the gates of the Mediterranean. Plans are in place to build a rail link between Spain and Morocco nearby, which should help the city further prosper.


Well, that's all well and good, but what is the city like?

Like many North African cities, the bulk of the city can be divided into two geographic (and conceptual) parts: the old medina, also known as the kasbah, and the nouvelle ville, the new city, which takes up the biggest area.

The medina occupies a promontory overlooking the main port to the north, and is surrounded by an old Portuguese wall that prevents most motor vehicles from entering. The streets are labrynthine and crowded, typically full of hawkers, vendors, and normal citizens going about their daily business. Most of the houses in the medina are nondescript; showiness historically invited theft and thus any true opulence is hidden inside.

The new city is totally modern and contains many high-rises, billboards for McDonalds in Arabic, and the like, as well as many hotels along the waterfront. Interestingly, different parts of the new city are named "the Spanish Quarter", or the "French Quarter", etc., after the old governing areas in the days of international control. Elements of the different countries still permeate the city: the Spanish quarter has a Spanish school, the French consulate is in the French quarter, and so on. The American quarter is coloquially called "California" and occupies several hills in the northwest part of the city, near the British quarter. On a totally subjective niceness factor, it breaks down this way: Spanish quarter > American quarter > French quarter > British quarter.

The port area is extensive and handles a massive amount of cargo traffic. It functions as one of the main gateways into and out of Africa. The King of Morocco has a summer residence in the northwest part of the city, near the coast.


Several main roads crisscross the city, and it serves a major connection point to Europe. Transportation to Europe is provided by ferries out of Algeciras and Tarifa; the Tarifa fast ferry gets people between Europe in Africa in ~30 minutes--quicker than the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry across Long Island Sound (and with cheaper drinks too). As mentioned previously, a rail tunnel is in the works, and a road bridge may also be planned for the future. Currently many Europeans load their cars in the ferry and then drive through Tangier on the way to Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat, or Fes.

Additional Fun Facts about Tangier

  • Tangier generally smells like roasting meat and car exhaust
  • Tangier will be a location in The Bourne Ultimatum
  • People in Tangier typically speak Arabic and French, in that order. English is, of course, pervasive as well.
  • Tangier is the source of the word tangerine
  • Heiress Barbara Hutton lived for Tangier for many years, as did Malcom Forbes
  • Many men in Tangier wear the jelaba (who knows about the spelling of that), a traditional North African robe and hood number that eerily resembles Jedi-wear. One suspects George Lucas of getting the idea for that when filming in Tunisia.

Tips for Visiting Tangier

  • If you are part of tour group from an Andalusian hotel for a day trip, you will be given a sticker to wear so you don't get separated. REMOVE THIS STICKER. This sticker says "I'm a dumb Western tourist, please sell me junk." You will be mobbed. Though you can't hide that you're a Westerner (unless you look Arabic), you can at least not look totally clueless.
  • Moroccans are notorious for their bargaining prowress. You may think you've got a deal, but at the end of the day, many people find they still have no money left in their wallets.
  • If you take pictures of people (or their camels), be prepared to offer a tip.
  • To ward off vendors and others, "No, thank you" a la Marcus Brody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will not work. "Laa" ("No") works, as does "Laa shukran" ("No thanks"). Though I'm not sure which one is actually polite, one Moroccan told me the former was fine, another the latter.
  • Typical bargaining exchange:
    • You: "How much is this worth?"
    • Merchant: "100 times X" (where X = the actual price)
    • You: "I will offer 4 times X"
    • Merchant: "UGH!" (walks away in disgust, then turns around hopefully, almost coquettishly)
    • You: "How about 6 times X?" (slightly more)
    • Merchant: "My friend, how can you possibly offer that? I do not make any money this way!"
    • Repeat until you reach ~10 to 20 times X, conclude with each of you parting ways, snickering at what a sucker the other one is.