Claims for North AfricaOriginally, North Africa was settled by the indigenous peoples of the region, the Amazigh or Berbers as they have come to be known. Because of its strategic location on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic, this area has been sought after as a center of trade and commerce for centuries by many conquering civilizations. The first to arrive were the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, then the Romans, numerous Muslim dynasties of both Berber and Arab origin, and finally Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Morocco was viewed as a strategic trade location because of its position at the Strait of Gibraltar. Although it was not included in the original plans to divide up Africa at the Berlin Conference, France and Spain continued to vie for influence in the region. Algeria, Morocco's neighbor to the east, had been a part of France since 1830.
In 1906, the Algeciras Conference recognized France and Spain's claims for power in the region. Spain was granted lands in the southwest region of the country as well as along the Mediterranean Coast in the North. France was granted the rest and in 1912, the Treaty of Fez officially made Morocco a protectorate of France.
Post World War Two IndependenceIn the aftermath of World War II, many African countries began seeking independence from the rule of Colonial powers. Morocco was among the first nations to be granted independence when France relinquished control in the spring of 1956. This independence also included the lands claimed by Spain in the southwest and in the north along the Mediterranean coast.
Spain continued its influence in the north, however, with control of two port cities, Melilla and Ceuta. These two cities had been trading posts since the era of the Phoenicians. The Spanish gained control over them in the 15th and 17th centuries after a series of struggles with other competing countries, namely Portugal. These cities, enclaves of European heritage in the land the Arabs call "Al Maghrib al Aqsa," (the farthest land of the setting sun), remain in Spanish control today.
The Spanish Cities of MoroccoGeography
Melilla is the smaller of the two cities in land area. It claims approximately twelve square kilometers (4.6 square miles) on a peninsula (Cape of the Three Forks) in the eastern part of Morocco. Its population is slightly less than 80,000 and it is situated along the Mediterranean coast, surrounded by Morocco on three sides.
Ceuta is a little larger in terms of land area (roughly eighteen square kilometers or about seven square miles) and it has a slightly larger population at approximately 82,000. It is located north and west of Melilla on the Almina Peninsula, near the Moroccan city of Tangier, across the Strait of Gibraltar from mainland Spain. It too is located on the coast. Ceuta's Mount Hacho is rumored to be the southern Pillar of Heracles (also vying for that claim is Morocco's Jebel Moussa).
Historically, these cities were centers of trade and commerce, connecting North Africa and West Africa (via the Saharan trade routes) with Europe. Ceuta was especially important as a trade center because of its location near the Strait of Gibraltar. Both served as entry and exit ports for people and goods going into, and coming out of, Morocco.
Today, both cities are part of the Spanish Eurozone and are primarily port cities with much business in fishing and tourism. Both are also part of a special low tax zone, meaning that the prices of goods are relatively cheap when compared to the rest of mainland Europe. They service many tourists and other travelers with daily ferry and air service to mainland Spain and are still points-of-entry for many people visiting North Africa.
Both Ceuta and Melilla carry with them the marks of western culture. Their official language is Spanish, although a large portion of their populations are native Moroccans who speak Arabic and Berber. Melilla proudly claims the second largest concentration of modernist architecture outside of Barcelona thanks to Enrique Nieto, a student of the architect, Antoni Gaudi, famous for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Nieto lived and worked in Melilla as an architect in the early 20th century.
Because of their close proximity to Morocco and connection to the African continent, many African migrants use Melilla and Ceuta (both legally and illegally) as starting points to get to mainland Europe. Many Moroccans also live in the cities or cross the border daily to work and shop.