Ceuta: Spain's City in Africa

Ceuta (2005 population 76,100) is located on North Africa’s Yebala Peninsula that juts out along the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Just 11 square miles (18.5² km) in total land area, the city spreads out from the central plaza de África on a thin isthmus with both north and south facing waterfronts. It is bracketed to the west by rugged inland terrain rising to 1000 feet (290m) where a substantial razor wire fence marks the border between Spain and Morocco. To the east is the spectacular Monte Hacho which rises steeply from the water’s edge to a height of 600 feet (181m). It is believed by some to be the southern “Pillar of Hercules” of ancient legend. Across the Straits to the north, a distance of 15 miles (25km), is the U.K.’s “Rock of Gibraltar” and Spain’s Costa del Sol – the sun coast.

Archeological evidence suggests that the Phoenicians established a trading post here as early as the 5th century BC. Taking advantage of its strategic location and topography, the Carthaginians later established a permanent settlement. Rome extended its authority over the city, then called Septem, by 42 AD. It served them as primarily a military outpost. As Roman power waned in the forth century, control of the city passed between the Vandals, the Byzantines, and the Visigoths. When Arab-Muslim armies arrived after 700 AD, the city’s Visigoth Governor Julian cooperated with them and the city was used by Berber General Tariq ibn Ziyad as a staging ground for the conquest of Visigoth ruled Iberia. After Julian's death the Arabs took direct control of the city; in Arabic its called Sebtah. Led by Maysara al-Haqir, Berber tribes staged the Kharijite rebellion in 740 AD and the city was destroyed. It was refounded in the 9th century by the Majkasa Berber tribe who founded the Banu Isam dynasty. Control of the city, however, remained contested and it passed between a succession of caliphates and emirates for the next four hundred years. It was taken by the Portuguese in 1415 owing to its crossroads location and in an effort to gain access to the lucrative trans-Saharan gold trade route. When Abu Said Uthman failed to retake the city in 1419, the struggle nonetheless left the city isolated and economically weak. The 1668 Treaty of Lisbon officially ceded the city to Spain and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it primarily served as a penal colony. During the 19th century trade gradually supplanted the penal colonies in importance and the last one was closed in 1906.

Though it is geographically situated on the African continent, politically it remains part of Spain. Today, it is officially known as the Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta – the Autonomous City of Ceuta. The city continues to function as a port and as a military garrison. It has also become popular as a duty free shopping destination with frequent high speed ferry connections across the Straits. The city’s citizenry has two main constituent groups. Those of European origin are in the majority and are called españoles – Spanish or cristianos – Christians. Those of Arab-Berber-Muslim origin, comprising 25% of the population, are often referred to as marroquíes – Moroccans, though they call themselves musulmanes – Muslims. There is also a tiny Jewish minority whose presence in the city dates back many hundreds of years. In recent years, as one of two land borders connecting Africa and Europe, Ceuta has become the goal of numerous African immigrants making their way north and hoping to enter Europe, often illegally.

George F. Roberson, PhD
Denver, Colorado, September 2006

Geography Human Dimensions Research Group
University of Massachusetts – Amherst

word count: 590

Article citation: (in slightly different form)

Roberson, G. (in press) “Ceuta,” in The City and Urban Life, Jan Rogoziński, ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Publishers.

Further reading:

Gold, Peter. 2000. Europe or Africa? A Contemporary Study of the Spanish North African Enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Rézette, Robert. 1976. The Spanish Enclaves in Morocco. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines.

Map recommendation:

Grayscale map on pages 6 and 7 of the cartography section which is inserted between pages 40 and 41 of the text, in Rézette, Robert. 1976. The Spanish Enclaves in Morocco. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines.

To return to the Space and Place welcome page, click here