Tangier is one of the oldest cities in North Africa and has also been one of the most highly sought after. Founded by Phoenician traders sometime around 1500 B.C., it's since seen Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and a succession of European powers come and go. Even when the Arabs arrived in A.D. 706 on a wave of Islamic fervor across North Africa toward the Iberian Peninsula, Tangier was subsequently fought over by a succession of Muslim factions. The Umayyads of Andalusia; the Idrissids, the Almohads, and Almoravids of Morocco; and even the Fatamids of Egypt all captured and eventually lost the city over a period of 765 years. During this period of the Middle Ages, Tangier was already making a name for itself in Europe as a materially rich but immoral city.
The Portuguese, during their brief period of world maritime power, captured Tangier in 1471. Nearly 200 years later, in 1661, they handed the city -- along with Bombay, India -- to the British as part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry to Charles II. During their time, the Portuguese had built beautiful residences, chapels, monasteries, and a new cathedral, but a series of corrupt and inept British governors, along with their ill-disciplined troops, drove away both the Portuguese colonists and the sizable and economically important Jewish community.
Sultan Moulay Ismail of Meknes was determined to regain Tangier as part of his campaign to rule over all Morocco, and in 1678 he eventually surrounded the city and cut off supplies from the interior. In 1680, England's parliament refused any further funding to defend it, and by 1683 the British were ready to abandon Tangier.
Secretary of the Admiralty Samuel Pepys was sent to help oversee the withdrawal. What he found shocked him. "Never surely was any town governed in all matters both public and private as this place has been . . . an excrescence of the earth and nothing but vice in the whole place of all sorts, for swearing, cursing, drinking and whoring." The British blew up a lengthy sea wall they had built to protect the harbor -- the only public work they had undertaken in their 20 years -- and left behind their one enduring character and now Morocco's national drink, tea.
Tangier fell back to Moroccan rule and was repopulated with Berbers and Arabs from the countryside. The British, who in 1704 captured Gibraltar, still kept an interest in the strategically important city, giving the citizens guns and ammunition in exchange for supplies, and in doing so denied other European powers, especially the French and Spanish, any great foothold. Over the next 200 years, Tangier gradually became an enclave where European diplomats and merchants could establish bases close to Europe and took on the character of an international city.
By the end of the 19th century, as Moroccan power waned, the contest for control of Tangier heated up. The French, Spanish, Italians, and Germans all tried to exert their power over the city.
In 1912, as the European "Scramble for Africa" was finally run and Morocco came under French and Spanish "protection," Tangier was accorded status as an International Zone whose system of government was to be decided later (not until 1925 due to World War I). It was in this year that the Statute of Tangier, a document drawn up by the major European powers, formalized the city's status as a permanently neutral, demilitarized International Zone. Officials from 12 European countries and the United States combined with native Tanjawis to make up a 26-member Legislative Assembly. Overseeing the activities of the assembly, and with veto power over their decisions, was a group of eight Western consuls known collectively as the Committee of Control. Of course, this entire bureaucratic structure was hopelessly unworkable, and thus Tangier began its 31-year run as a wild, lawless city of decadence and vice. The city expanded rapidly prior to World War II, and by 1934 there were an estimated 50,000 residents, a quarter of whom were European residents of various nationalities, called Tangerinos.
At the outbreak of World War II, Franco's fascist Spain marched into Tangier from the Spanish zone and took power. However, Franco curiously still allowed access to everyone. Americans, British, French (both Free and Vichy), Germans, and Italians -- many still in uniform -- moved freely about the city. Tangier became a hotbed of espionage. The Petit Socco and place de France would be rendezvous points for spies and their secret messages. Neutral nationalities, from Moroccan shoeshine boys to Portuguese aristocrats, were recruited to inform on the enemy, whoever they might be. Not surprisingly, then, Tangier was never attacked, never bombed, and continued with business as usual throughout the entire war. At war's end, the Spanish marched back to their protectorate zone and the Committee of Control resumed administration of the city, with the obvious absence of its former German member.
The dozen years immediately after the war were Tangier's greatest as a center of vice and freedom, a black cloud that is only just starting to clear 50 years later. There were no drug laws, no corporate or personal taxes, no currency or banking restrictions, no censorship laws, no import duties, and no morality or vice laws. By 1952, nearly 150,000 people lived in Tangier, almost a half of whom were foreign. The Tangerino community included many British and Americans escaping their socially restrictive, postwar countries. American writers Paul and Jane Bowles were some of the first to arrive, settling in Tangier permanently in 1947, followed by William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, and others.
In 1957, control of the city was returned to the newly self-governing Moroccans, and within a year the authorities began to clean up, instituting a municipal police force, higher import duties, and press censorship. By the late 1970s, those Europeans who weren't attracted by or stuck in the new Morocco left, and the city fell on hard times.
Mohammed VI's ascension to the throne in 1999 has heralded a new dawn for the city. Tangier's aging port is now a passenger-only marina for yachts, cruise ships, and ferries, as a new commercial harbor halfway between Tangier and Ceuta -- Tanger Mediterranée -- became fully operational in 2008. A spate of renovation and building projects have been undertaken, including the beautification of many of the city's public spaces such as the Grand Socco, place el Oumame, and the beach promenade that now bears the king's name.