Inside the tiny corner of Spain that lies in the middle of North Africa

In ancient Greek and Roman legend, the Pillars of Hercules –marking the edge of the known world – were mighty columns that once stood either side of the strait where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic.

One was on the Rock of Gibraltar, a pocket of British territory next to mainland Spain, and the other was Ceuta, a prominent outcrop on the North African coastline.

Today, Ceuta is a Spanish exclave, a piece of a country entirely surrounded by another, in this case Morocco. And while it may only be 18 miles from the Spanish mainland, this tiny pocket of Europe in Africa is one of the most unusual places on either continent.

Surrounded on three sides by water, Ceuta is protected by high medieval walls, stone citadels and barbed wire that all hint at its tumultuous history.

With an area of just seven square miles and a population of around 85,000 people, this peninsula jutting abruptly into the Mediterranean Sea has been in the possession of Spain since 1580.

But the exclave is more than just a colonial hangover; with architecture, culture and cuisine blending influences from both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, this could be Spain’s most multicultural city.

“Ceuta was given the title of the most loyal city in Spain,” Mila Bernal, a local tourism office representative, told CNN Travel. “Because the citizens decided they wanted to be Spanish, not Portuguese.”

Gateway to Africa

Ceuta's medieval walls are a legacy of its strategic importance. - Chris Hellier/Corbis Documentary RF/Getty ImagesCeuta's medieval walls are a legacy of its strategic importance. - Chris Hellier/Corbis Documentary RF/Getty Images

Ceuta’s medieval walls are a legacy of its strategic importance. – Chris Hellier/Corbis Documentary RF/Getty Images

Ceuta’s history is complicated. Standing on the 16th-century Royal Walls still surrounding the exclave’s old town, Bernal explained how the Portuguese conquered Ceuta in 1415 when the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula swept across the Mediterranean Sea and into the Moorish heartlands.

Portugal and Spain were united under a single monarch in 1580, and so Ceuta fell under the rule of the Iberian Union until 1640 when Portugal broke away.

The people of Ceuta though – who’d largely emigrated from Spanish, rather than Portuguese, territories on the European mainland – decided they’d rather side with Spain.

Prized for its strategic location, the city’s history stretches back to antiquity, and given its prominent position guarding the Strait of Gibraltar, every major Mediterranean power has either claimed or conquered Ceuta.

Phoenician ruins dating to the 7th century BCE can be found next to Ceuta’s cathedral. The Mediterranean seafarers founded a small settlement here as part of their growing maritime empire. Later came the Carthaginians and Romans, who needed to secure the gateway to Africa.

“The Romans believed that Mount Hacho was the pillar of Hercules. This was the end of the world for the Romans,” said Bernal, pointing at the tall peak overlooking the exclave. “They named the city Septum, after its seven hills, which evolved into the modern name ‘Ceuta.’”

Fierce battles

A monumental bronze statue depicting Hercules pushing aside the great pillars today greets disembarking passengers on Ceuta’s Mediterranean seafront.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines took over Ceuta, and fierce battles were fought with Vandals and Visigoths for control of the territory.

In the 8th century, the Islamic Umayyad dynasty swept across North Africa, conquering all in its path, including Ceuta. Arab, Moorish and Berber kingdoms came to control the city until the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the 15th century, staking a European claim that’s endured for the last 400 years.

The easiest way to get to Ceuta from Europe is by ferry from Algeciras, a port city on the Spanish mainland across the dolphin-filled waters of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Many Spanish people make the trip for a vacation, and it’s certainly not without its tourist attractions.

Rival claims

Today, about 85,000 people live in Ceuta. - Chris Hellier/Alamy Stock PhotoToday, about 85,000 people live in Ceuta. - Chris Hellier/Alamy Stock Photo

Today, about 85,000 people live in Ceuta. – Chris Hellier/Alamy Stock Photo

Exploring the territory’s tapas bars and Catholic cathedrals, visitors will find lingering reminders of past rulers in the shape of the Roman Basilica Museum – which contains some of the oldest Christian relics ever discovered in North Africa – and the Arab Baths and Moorish architecture, which wouldn’t be out of place in the southern Spanish cities of Granada, Cordoba or Morocco’s port of Tangier.

There are hikes to epic viewpoints like Mirador de San Antonio, which offer panoramas of Ceuta, Morocco, and the Strait of Gibraltar. And there are beaches for relaxing and soaking up the sun.

Then, in Benzú, on the territory’s northern coast, there are opportunities to enjoy Moroccan-style tea in the shadow of a mosque, hike to old forts and modern watchtowers on the border, and continue onwards to visit the hectic Moroccan city of Tétouan.

Fought over for millennia, Ceuta is officially classed as an autonomous Spanish city. It’s also part of the European Union and is one of two Spanish exclaves on North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline. The other is Melilla, a city also of some 85,000 people, around 250 miles east of Ceuta, that also borders Morocco.

As might be expected, Morocco disputes Spain’s sovereignty over both of these exclaves, citing geographical and historical ties with the territories stretching back to the Islamic conquests.

In the 18th century, the Sultan of Morocco failed to take Ceuta after a 30-year siege. Another siege in the early 19th century also failed.

In the following centuries, border disputes led to intermittent wars and fighting, until much of Morocco was colonized by Spain and France in the 19th and 20th centuries.

While Morocco gained independence in 1956, Spain held onto Ceuta and Melilla.

It’s a dispute that still runs deep, and in 2023, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez complained to Moroccan authorities when Moroccan maps included both Ceuta and Melilla within the country’s borders. The year before, Spanish media reported Sanchez as stating that “Ceuta and Melilla are Spain, full stop” after Morocco had complained to the United Nations that “Melilla is a prison occupied by Spain.”

The tit for tat is endless, but all too often the dialogue comes to a head on the ground in Ceuta.

Cultural mix

Ceuta's beaches make it a popular vacation spot. - Mulero/Alamy Stock PhotoCeuta's beaches make it a popular vacation spot. - Mulero/Alamy Stock Photo

Ceuta’s beaches make it a popular vacation spot. – Mulero/Alamy Stock Photo

While the city no longer marks the edge of the known world, as it did for the Romans, as an EU outpost in Africa, Ceuta has come to be seen as a gateway to Europe for many migrants in search of a better life. As a consequence, the territory’s land border with Morocco is surrounded by watchtowers and barbed wire, which can be seen from the beach if you hop on a bus from the city to the town of Benzú.

Morocco often uses Ceuta as a political bargaining tool, threatening to open its side of the border and allowing large numbers of African migrants to attempt entry into the EU. Morocco steadfastly holds onto the claim over Ceuta, but for Spanish people living in the exclave, it is an integral part of Spain.

“Morocco always wants Ceuta,” said Bernal, before citing one of Spain’s long-held arguments for Spanish sovereignty. “But it was never Moroccan, Morocco never existed until the 19th century so how can they reclaim what was never theirs.”

Despite being part of modern Spain, Ceuta’s curious identity reflects its North African location. On Playa de la Ribera, where Spanish holidaymakers soak up the sun, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard and minarets seen on the skyline.

Every day, thousands of Moroccans cross the border to work in Ceuta, and Arabic and Spanish are both spoken on the streets. Churches sit alongside mosques, as well as Sephardic synagogues and even Hindu temples. From 2022, Ceuta declared that Muslim holidays like Eid al Fitr would be public holidays, on par with Christian celebrations in the exclave.

Geographically, Ceuta is in North Africa, politically it’s Spanish, but culturally, elements of both continents and worlds – Muslim and Christian – coexist side by side.

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