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The International City of Tangier

The flag of the International City of Tangier
At first glance, Tangier (طنجة) seems like an unremarkable seaside town, a stone throw away from the strategic strait of Gibraltar, connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic ocean. But this odd town has a disproportionately rich history. Founded by the Carthaginians in the early 5th century BC, ruled by Romans, Vandals, (Eastern) Roman again, Arab and the Portuguese. In fact, it was part of the dowry of Princess Catherine of Portugal to the recently crowned Charles II of England, transferring the settlement to English control in 1662. The English had planned to convert the town to their main naval base in the region (akin to Gibraltar but of course, the English only controlled Gibraltar in 1713) but abandoned & destroyed the town when it was besieged by the Moroccan Sultan in 1685. In the 19th century, Tangier became a hub of international diplomacy and politics. Amongst the curious notabilities in the town's history include it being the site of the USA's first consulate, being the focus on an international confrontation between the French and the Germans, and infamous for espionage during the Cold War.

A map of the International Zone
The year is 1912; Morocco has been divided between the Spanish and the French. France wants to incorporate Tangier into its Moroccan possessions, the Spanish likewise. The British, on the other hand, wanted nothing of the sort and advocated that the city and its hinterlands be declared an international zone with no prevailing foreign power. Disagreements continued and were interrupted by the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.

The European dispute was resolved with the signing of the Tangier Protocol in 1923, which declared the city a 373-square-kilometre demilitarised international zone, to be co-administered by an international multi-tiered legislative body representing the UK, France and Spain. The treaty was mediated by the League of Nations and the city's native population was under the 'nominal sovereignty' of the Moroccan Sultan. Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States later joined to co-administrate the zone.

The full text of the Tangier protocol can be viewed here

For an intimate portrayal of life in the Tangier International Zone, I redirect you to this wonderful essay.
A scene in Tangier

Suffice to say that the native Moroccan population were not favourable to the foreign presence nor to the International Zone itself which they called "a plague zone infested and infected by infidels".

On 14 June 1940, the day Paris fell to the invading Germans during World War 2, the Spanish army occupied Tangier, incorporating it into its Moroccan possessions and assumed policing powers of the zone, calling it a 'wartime measure'. This drew international condemnation, particularly from the British government, worried about the Spanish entering the war on the side of the Nazis. The Spanish guaranteed rights of British subjects in the city and to not fortify the zone. In May 1944, German diplomats from the city were expelled. 
Following the end of World War 2, the Spanish withdrew from the city and the international zone was reinstated. 

The nine Western powers met in 1956 and agreed to abolish the zone and to secede it to the newly-independent Moroccan state (treaty text here). Pre-1956 Tangier had a population of 40,000 Muslims and 31,000 Europeans.

Further reading:

  • Susan Gilson Miller (2013). A History of Modern Morocco. ISBN 9781139619110, pages 88-104
  • Finlayson, Iain (1992). Tangier: City of the Dream. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00217857-5.


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