Gibraltar and Ceuta

The Rock of Gibraltar

Islands are often conquered by external powers. Two of the first British colonies in the New World were Roanoke and Jamestown, both islands. Europeans first established themselves in West Africa on the island of Goree just off of now Dakar. The African island of Zanzibar was held by the Portuguese and then the Omanis, as were the islands of Pemba and Lamu up the coast. Singapore and Hong Kong are both islands. The appeal of taking an island is obvious–an island is much more easily defended (some even had the advantage of being relatively unpopulated when “found”) but can still serve as a base for restocking ships or for forays into the mainland. On a relatively small piece of land can be built a formidable economic and administrative center. The extent to which one can develop an enduring and distinct social or political culture on an island is quite astonishing–consider that Arab Zanzibar lasted until 1964 and Hong Kong held by the British until 1997. Singapore remains an unchallenged, independent city-state and Taiwan is still controlled by the “Nationalist” Chinese, who have built a thriving, prosperous democracy just miles away from a rival many many many times its size.

And, it doesn’t take an island to accomplish these ends–a peninsula or “near-island” has also been used countless times. Examples include the city of St. Louis in now Senegal, Macau and the city of Bombay.

Our route from Morocco to Spain took us into two of the three odd territories in the region that are still examples of a “foreign” power in control of territory acquired in the colonial era: Spanish Ceuta on the African continent and British Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsula (the third is Spanish Melilla, also attached to Morocco). The colonial histories of Ceuta and Gibraltar go way back–Portugal or Spain has held Ceuta since the early 15th century, and Spain kept Ceuta even after it gave up its colonial control over (other) parts of Morocco, and the British have been in control of Gibraltar since the early 18th century, with its residents overwhelmingly rejecting Spanish sovereignty as recently as 2002–and in each the culture of the controlling power has taken deep root, battling against the geographical and demographic forces that will no doubt, over time, put stress on their statuses. How long will they last?

Some photos to consider the unique socio-political circumstances existing in Gibraltar and Ceuta.

Gibraltar’s Muslim history is recalled in the prominent white mosque built by the Saudis in 1997.

The name Gibraltar comes from Gibr Tariq, meaning Rock of Tariq, the Muslim Berber conqueror of Gibraltar and much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.

Other street names serve to remind you that you’re on British soil, like this avenue just in from the Spanish frontier.

British-style booths and bobbies, despite the fact that locals actually speak not English, but a language indistinguishable from Spanish.

Moorish-inspired architecture is a reminder that you are not only close to Spain, but the Arab world. Below, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

The Union Jack, flying on the Rock

The geography of Ceuta explains in part how long it has remained in control of a different power than the mainland. The border does not currently lie at the narrowest point, but the isthmus is still marked by medieval walls and moat.

Churches and mosques vie for space.

Ceuta is not only a bit of Spain in Africa but a bit of the European Union in Africa, an entry point for refugees and migrants from all over the continent. In the second picture, Moroccan workers commuting into Ceuta. Just as Moroccans commute to work in relatively wealthier Ceuta, many Spaniards and Gibraltarians living in Spain commute into Gibraltar.

Muslim woman, walking in downtown Ceuta

[Gibraltar and Ceuta are, geographically speaking, examples of near enclaves. For a list of similar places, see:

We passed near a couple other notable enclaves on our trip: Nahwa, now pay attention, a piece of the UAE inside a piece of Oman inside the UAE–we just *had* to make a detour here when we were in the UAE/Oman in April 2009–and the many enclaves of Central Asia. “Islands” of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lie in Kyrgyzstan, islands of Kyrgyzstan in Uzbekistan and islands of Tajikistan in Uzbekistan–all this despite the fact that the ethnicities in these countries are totally mixed up anyway (see post of 2009.07.08). The enclaves appeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union–had the practice of reuniting all ethnic groups with their ethnic name country continued, Central Asian boundaries would have been almost completely redrawn! For more information, see and]

From Africa to Europe

As I’ve said before, one of the great things about overland travel is being able to experience the transitions between places. Places may appear as solid blocks of color, delineated by neat lines, on a map, but the reality is that places blend and bleed into each other. Derek used to remark how, when taking the New York subway, your location shifts as if by magic–as if by pneumatic tube, which of course some early subway systems were based on, you are whisked from one place to another, instantaneously and jarringly, without seeing any of the places in between. Each neighborhood exists in one’s mind as a certain radius around each subway entrance, unconnected to other neighborhoods. And so it is with air travel. I remember as a child reading the introduction to the book The Twenty-One Balloons, and its elegy on balloon travel. We may not have the teleportation it disdains, but travel by modern jet is similar–traveling by air disconnects us from what used to be a fundamental part of the travel experience, the “getting there.” In a world where you can fly direct from Paris to Mopti in Mali or from Verona to Samarkand, places until recently reached only by exerting extreme effort, there’s a lot to be said for avoiding air travel when possible.

We’ve completed two great overland stretches on our trip–from Shiraz, Iran to Xian, China, through the old Silk Road, and from Cairo, Egypt to Venice, Italy, through Palestine and Turkey, using one short flight to cross from Israel to Cyprus–and are nearing the end of our third, from Dakar, Senegal to Spain, crossing the Sahel and the Sahara. And today we took one of the most monumental and defining steps of that journey, the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to Europe, a continental shift in geography and politics.

Morocco may lie in Africa and Spain in Europe, but of course even the most minor delving into the two countries identifies their close ties throughout history–history which ties almost all connected regions together, despite their apparent differences. In the case of Morocco and Spain, the two Mediterranean regions have often been part of the same cultural and political spheres, from the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Arabs. Even the break caused by the Reconquista and more recent times is being eroded by proximity and deeper historical cultural ties, as Moroccans emigrate northward and Europeans vacation and retire southward, and perhaps even more by technology, in the form of a futuristic tunnel connecting Andalucia to the North African coast.

So, by ferry, a farewell to Africa, and a welcome to Europe.

The line to get on the ferry, headcover helping to identify the ethnic Moroccans, perhaps travelers perhaps new immigrants perhaps citizens of Spain

The pillars of Hercules, in sculptural form

From mid-Strait, it’s possible to see Africa on one side and Europe on the other