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Notes on the Geography of Morocco: Tangier

How far back do you want to go? Roman Tingi or even more distant Berber Tanja? Maybe not that far. Settle on the Portuguese. Always first among Europeans scouting Africa, they arrived in 1471 and had a good run, yielding to the English by a royal marriage in 1661. The English barely stayed a generation, leaving in 1684, and a cosmopolitan community began evolving, especially after 1787 and at the invitation of a sultan who wisely preferred keeping foreigners on the coast rather than having them inland with him at Fez or Marrakesh.

A few years later, in 1821, the sultan of the day gave a house to James Monroe, and until 1956 it served, with many modifications, as an American consulate. By then, and under the terms of an Algeciras Conference of 1906, Tangier had become an international protectorate, nominally under a sultan but in fact ruled by a French governor and a legislature stacked with three Europeans for every Moroccan. The city remained a den of uninhibited and frolicking foreigners until 1956. With the end of the protectorate in that year, the disappointed Europeans began leaving. Decades passed before a stream of thin-gruel tourists grew to profitable dimensions.

More history than you can stand? But wait, there's more!

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Fortunately, this is a geographical website, so we can skip to this handsome Army Map Service sheet from 1943. <

Squint at the medina, or old city, and you'll make out two main streets, one running approximately east-west and the other, more tortured, snaking north-south. Welcome to Roman town planning, messed up by two thousand years. The east-west street, now called the Rue des Siaghins (the street of silversmiths, of whom there are none left),is the Roman decumanus. The north-south street, now called the Rue des Almohades, is the Roman cardo maximus. They cross at what once was a Roman forum and is still a wide patch in the road. You can see the Monty Python skit: a Roman engineer returns to the city today and throws an absolute fit.

We'll begin with a look at the walls, then venture into the medina. Nothing if not systematic: that's my motto.

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If you imagine the old city as a clockface, we're at about 4 o'clock. The harbor and the waterside road (the Avenue Mohamed VI, formerly the Avenida de Espana) are behind us; in front is the Rue du Portugal. Why Portugal, you ask? Have you forgotten already? Remember: when it comes to the coasts of Africa, the Portuguese were always here first. Good 'ol Vasco, the savage.

The steep staircase is a reminder that the walls have been mostly ornamental for a long time.

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Maintaining them isn't cheap. It's like the proverbial bridge painters, forever at work.

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How do you suppose they climbed up there? Think they have worker's comp?

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Some of the walls are overdue on maintenance.

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Others are in good shape, including this one near the east end of the old decumanus.

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Boom! The Armstrong gun is a reminder that security in the past was a real issue. The view here, from the Borj Dar al_Baroud, is just east of the last picture. No, that's not Gibraltar in the distance, it's just a point on the coast a bit east of Tangier. You'll have to wait to catch a view of Spain.

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Here's a bit of the wall in fine shape, though no longer one accustomed to putting up much of a fight.

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No gates survive, just openings like this one, leading to the Hotel Continental.

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It opened in 1865 and has a fine but completely unprotected view of the harbor.

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We'll come up to 11 o'clock and the Bab Casbah, the gate for the sultan's palace.

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Inside there's a parking area glamorized as the Place du Tabor Espagnol or "Spanish drum." On the far side is the Borj Naam, with more Armstrong guns just over the wall and a view of the western approach to Gibraltar. The tower on the left, grim but now a Tangerine icon, is an abandoned World War II weather station.

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The perfect paint job is a tipoff. We're in the car park that used to be the parade ground of the sultan's palace. It's called the Place du Mechouar, the place for petitioning the government.

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If we headed downhill from the Place du Mechouar, we'd pass this now-dry Seqaya or Fountain at the Bab el Assa. How much more appealing it would be with water! Is the world really so much drier now?

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Instead, we'll go into the palace, which isn't very inviting but which was never much lived in anyway. Rebuilt in 1889, it was occupied by Sultan Moulay Hassan I for five years. His successor, Abdelaziz, moved in but was deposed 10 years later by a half-brother, Abdelhafid, who himself moved in only to abdicate four years later and move to France. Game over.

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It's an almost-new building, in other words, and not much softened by occupation. Still, the courtyard is pleasant, with white marble columns.

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The paving is made of locally famous tiles from Tetuan, about 40 miles to the southeast.

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It's a place for school excursions.

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The immediate neighborhood is perhaps more interesting.

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Freshly renovated door of the casbah mosque--locked.

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Could the inside be any more impressive?

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The tomb of Sidi Berraisoul, made famous by Matisse. (Domes here are characteristic of tombs, not mosques.)

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There's a boutique hotel up here, right on the city wall.

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The view from the hotel is over the Borj Na'am with its Armstrong gun. That's the Atlantic out there.

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Great view.

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View in the other direction, over the medina sloping downhill from here, with the modern city beyond. See the yellow building on the right and in the distance?

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Here it is again, zoomed. It's about 600 meters from the camera, with the intervening, red minaret of the Sidi bou-Abid mosque. The building is the Villa de France Hotel, of which more momentarily. The intervening mini-forest is the garden of the Mendoubia; who, during the period of the international protectorate, was the personal representative of the sultan. Over on the left margin and below the Cinema Rif, some palms stand in the Place du 9 April 1947, of which, again, more momentarily.

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Here they are, standing in the much-tidied-up square, colloquially called the Grand Socco, alias the Nouveau Marchais (as per Baedeker's 1901 guide to Spain). The awkward formal name, Place 9 Avril 1947, recalls the speech in 1947 when Mohamed V dared to call for an end to the Protectorate. The French, suffering no nonsense, promptly banished him to Madagascar. He returned in 1955, a year before the return of Tangier to full Moroccan sovereignty. The city at that time had 150,000 people, including 42,000 foreigners, who, the air escaping their balloon, gradually left.

There's an archway into the medina. We'll head down there in just a moment. But first turn around.

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Here's the Villa de France, closed for about 20 years before reopening in 2014. The corner room up top, Room 35, was where Matisse stayed in 1912.

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View from that room, with the Mendoubia garden on the left and the medina rising behind it. Most of this scene appears in "Paysage vu d'une FenĂȘtre," the left panel of Matisse's Moroccan Triptych.

For more, see Jack Cowart, et al., "Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings, 1912-1913, 1990.

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The arch leads to the Rue de Saghins. The motorcycle is parked in front of the Seqaya or Fountain Siaghin, another dried-up fountain. According to Baedeker in 1901, this street was then called the Rue des Chretiens. We'll just call it the decumanus and be done with it.

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But here's why it might have been called the Street of the Christians. The church of the Immaculate Conception or la Purisima is the only church in this or any other Moroccan medina. It's from the late 19th century, and drat if it's not locked, too.

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So is this, the Dar Niaba, next door. In the 19th century this was the French consulate, and pictures show that inside there's a gracefully proportioned courtyard with double-stacked arcades. There should be a little sign, too: "Delacroix slept here." That would have been 1832. Sounds a long time ago, but the entrance dates from the Portuguese period, and the Portuguese had already been gone for almost two centuries before M. Delacroix arrived. The French left for new accommodation in 1860, and the building has been used since by the Moroccan government.

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The striking thing is that, like the medina of Casablanca, the buildings in Tangier's medina are often obviously European. Nothing Islamic or Maghrebian about them. The only thing more striking is that you can walk around half a day or more without noticing this fact. Call it testimony either to the power of fatigue or the power of street layouts, more dominating even that the buildings along them.

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Now here's something that looks Islamic, but from the windows above, it's obviously of European vintage. No matter: tourists aren't particular.

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See the blue door?

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It leads into a courtyard.

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Lined with shops, it's the Fondaq or Inn Siaghins, now shops. Call it a deeper fusion of European and Islamic styles.

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This is the Petit Socco or Souk Dakhli or, in Roman times, the forum. It's a little grim, and not just from the wretched exposure.

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Shall we walk up the cardo?

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No better way to get a bit more floor space than to cantilever the upper floors.

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Bit of a puzzle here: why carry water when there are obviously water mains?

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Blind alleys, or adarves, lead only to private houses. Judging from the potted plants, water can't be terrifically expensive.

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Wow! The tomb of the supreme traveler, the 14th century Ibn Battuta, he of Ar-Rihla, or The Travels. It's locked, but this being the 21st century there's a phone number to call. Now we just need a cell phone. Or more to the point, just need to know how to use one. Life's too short.

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At about 8 o'clock on our little imaginary clockface, this is the roof of the meat market. The photo was taken from a window in the Musee Lorin synagogue.

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Just a reminder that this is a functioning city, not just a foreigner's hangout.

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I told them to stop bleating

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Culture you want, culture we have. This is the American Legation, functioning from to 1821 to 1956. The reception room over the street was one of many later additions, in this case added before 1850. Legation no more, it's now run by a private organization renting the space from Uncle Sam and using it as a center for Moroccan studies.

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Look up.

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It's all very civilized, but later additions became capital "A" Authentic, like this building from the 1920s. The great seal makes American breasts swell.

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We're peeping under the Bab Merican. No translation needed, but what's that across the street?

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There's the American Gate once again, and these are tombs in a Jewish cemetery. We're at about five o'clock and at a point where the city wall is nominal.

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The cemetery space is much coveted by developers, but so far it's been left alone. It might disappear one day, just as did the Portuguese fort whose site the cemetery occupies.

Discourse time: Tangier was unusual in having many Jews but no Jewish quarter or mellah. How many? In 1860, there were 10,000 people in Tangier, including 2,500 Jews. By 1919, Tangier had 70,000 people, including 15,000 Jews and a dozen synagogues. The first had been built in the later 17th century, when the city was run by the English. After 1956, the Jewish population made a beeline for Israel.

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Let's walk around the old perimeter of the old city, beginning with a blacksmith who has a plastic pail of sheep horns. Go figure.

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A minute's walk from the Grand Socco, this is the Casa Barata souq, hard up against the wall of St. Andrew's Anglican church.

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Over on the right is the German cemetery formerly part of the Mendoubia garden.

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The market women include Berbers in Berber dress.

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Here's St. Andrew's, from 1885.

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Mosques sometimes look like churches (try the Grand Mosque in Saint-Louis, Senegal), but here's a church that, though shaped like a church, is trimmed with Andalusian details by craftsmen from Fez.

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Ceiling over the altar.

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Panel behind the altar.

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It wouldn't be an Anglican church without memorials.

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Brothers? No: father and son. The son was born in Nyasaland, where his father worked, and at age 26 was part of the Stalag Luft III escape, for which the Gestapo shot him. His father had retired to Tangier years earlier; the CMG had been awarded in 1929.

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Outside the church, a handsome Celtic cross.

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Commonwealth war graves.

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A minute's walk to the graves in the former Mendoubia garden.

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Dr. Severo Cenarro was a Spanish army doctor instrumental in the creation of the Tangier Hygiene Commission, responsible for the city's water mains and sewers.

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A German resident minister; it was a later visit of the kaiser to Tangier that prompted the European powers to make Tangier an international protectorate. They feared that otherwise the Germans would seize it and join it to the other bits of their African empire.

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We've come uphill to the Plaza de Franzia, where the Gran Cafe de Paris opened in 1920 to become a literary hangout for Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, and Tennessee Williams.

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We're in the domain of European mansions.

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Another example.

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Hard to see, but on the map up top this is labelled "British Consulate General." (The nearby hotel on the map is the Villa de France.)

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View from the other side.

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Across the street there's another dry fountain.

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Reginald Lister (1865-1912) was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary in 1908, having previously been posted to Berlin, Paris, Athens, Copenhagen and Istanbul.

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Let's drop all the way down to the waterfront Rue de Espana and, in the foreground, the Terrace Renschhausen.

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Here are the steps up to it.

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And its expanse, with the medina rising behind.

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Here's the Renschhausen Building full-on. It dates from the 1930s and may have been funded by A. Renschhausen, German consul in nearby Larache.

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Notice the black signboards, a bit like blackboards? I see at least three.

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Talk about an extensive network: from Europe to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Packet boats were small vessels used for passengers, freight, and mail.

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Back when steamships had boilers.

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Just as the Messageries Maritime survives in a later incarnation as the unpronounceable CGM CMA, this Dutch company, created in 1883, was merged into Nedlloyd.

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A few blocks bring us to the Grand Cervantes Theater, built by Manuel Pena for his wife Esperanza Orellana. That's the story anyway, though the money was hers. The architect was Diego Jimenez Armstrong (1884-1918), whose father had married an Englishwoman named Armstrong. This was the city's premier venue, with Caruso popping in.

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Quasi-Greek reliefs.

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Seating 1,400, the theater has been abandoned for over 30 years. It remains the property of the Spanish government but seems likely to deteriorate beyond repair. No matter: we have Netflix.

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Armstrong had lots of other commissions, including many apartment buildings--even sets of them--in the latest style.

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Whatever Deco's shortcomings, you have to prefer it to the still newer blocks coming up in the expanding city.

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If I didn't tell you this was Tangier, you wouldn't have a clue. But I shouldn't complain: I wear jeans and T-shirts.

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The latest and greatest.

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The usual suspects.

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There's modern infrastructure, too.

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It includes ferries to Tarifa, Spain, but you knew that from Jason Bourne.

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Here's the breakwater protecting the ferry terminals, but what are those curious holes?

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They're Punic-Roman tombs, buried in debris until discovered in 1965.

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There are lots of them.

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And here, zoomed from the spot, is Spain, some 20 miles away.

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There are lots of ships passing by, and until modern navigation aids came along they relied on lighthouses like this one, five miles west of Tangier and at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. It's the Cape Spartel light, first lit in 1864, three years before a light was lit at Cap Manuel, Dakar.

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