CEUTA – gateway to the Mediterranean

PictureView of Ceuta

I always feel that a location is an important aspect of any book, but maybe more so with historical novels. Those of you who have read books two and three of the City of Dreams trilogy, will remember that a great deal of the action occurred in a place called Sebta on the north African coast. In the 11th century that was the name given to Ceuta, now a Spanish territory on the African mainland. Its history is long and complicated, so I’ll keep it simple.

When you look at the map you will understand why Ceuta was such an important and strategic city. Along with Gibraltar, known as Jabal Ţāriq during the 11th century, it controlled the passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. These two cities were crucial for the movement of trade and troops. Whoever had control of the Pillars of Hercules as they had been called since ancient times, controlled access to the Mediterranean. This was still as true in the 20th century as it was in the 10th.


In the year 1000 BC the Phoenicians established an outpost in Ceuta, which later became occupied by the Romans and then the Vandals. But in the 8th century AD Islamic tribes conquered the Maghreb and with it, Ceuta, before moving across the Straits of Gibraltar to conquer and colonise southern Spain and establish a Moorish dynasty that lasted seven hundred years. They were finally expelled in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for America.
Ceuta, however, remained in Moorish hands until 1479 when it became a Portuguese possession for a hundred years, when it was declared a Portuguese possession, under the new King Philip I of Portugal. As he was also King Phillip II of Spain, Ceuta was eventually formally recognised as being part of Spain. (I told you it had a long and complicated history.)  It remained part of the Spanish province of Cádiz until 1995 when it became an autonomous Spanish city, along with the city of Melilla, both of which share a border with Morocco.

PictureWalls of Ceuta

The City of Dreams trilogy is set in the 11th century when Ceuta was largely controlled by the Barghawata tribe. Although they too were Muslims, they practised a slightly different version of Islam to the majority of Muslims, and this caused them to come in conflict with the rulers of Moorish Spain. For three hundred years they rebelled against the invaders. But, as with much of the history of the period, there are very few written accounts about this, and what do exist, are very inconsistent.

PictureArab baths

Today Ceuta is a cosmopolitan city. The majority of the inhabitants are a mixture of Christians, mostly Roman Catholics, and Arab-Berber Muslims, most of whom speak Spanish as their official language, and a small percentage speak Darija Arabic. Both major Christian and Muslim festivals are celebrated as public holidays.

​Because of its position on the narrow straits of Gibraltar, the Ceuta Peninsula is famous for its migratory birds, such as hawks, storks, eagles and vultures, amongst many others, and has been designated an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.

As far as its nearest neighbour, Morocco, is concerned, it would like the sovereignty of both Ceuta and Melilla transferred to Morocco, but the Spanish government argues that the cities have been an integral part of Spain since 17th century, and insist they remain so. 


Migrating cranes in Autumn


Straits of Gibraltar


Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.