The Spanish Enclaves of North Africa

The Territories of Ceuta and Melilla Lie Within Morocco

Scenic View Of Sea Against Sky
Photo Taken In Spain, Ceuta.

Marina Lubinets / EyeEm / Getty Images 

At the onset of the Industrial Revolution (circa 1750-1850), European countries began scouring the globe looking for resources to power their economies. Africa, because of its geographic location and its abundance of resources, was seen as a key source of wealth for many of these nations. This drive for control of resources led to the "Scramble for Africa" and eventually the Berlin Conference of 1884. At this meeting, the world powers at the time divided up the regions of the continent that had not already been claimed.

Claims for North Africa

Morocco was viewed as a strategic trade location because of its position at the Strait of Gibraltar. Although it was not included in the original plans to divide up Africa at the Berlin Conference, France and Spain continued to vie for influence in the region. Algeria, Morocco's neighbor to the east, had been a part of France since 1830.

In 1906, the Algeciras Conference recognized France and Spain's claims for power in the region. Spain was granted lands in the southwest region of the country as well as along the Mediterranean Coast in the North. France was granted the rest and in 1912, the Treaty of Fez officially made Morocco a protectorate of France.

Post World War Two Independence

Spain continued its influence in the north, however, with control of two port cities, Melilla and Ceuta. These two cities had been trading posts since the era of the Phoenicians. The Spanish gained control over them in the 15th and 17th centuries after a series of struggles with other competing countries, namely Portugal. These cities, enclaves of European heritage in the land the Arabs call "Al-Maghrib al Aqsa," (the farthest land of the setting sun), remain in Spanish control today.

The Spanish Cities of Morocco


Melilla is the smaller of the two cities in land area. It claims approximately twelve square kilometers (4.6 square miles) on a peninsula (Cape of the Three Forks) in the eastern part of Morocco. Its population is slightly less than 80,000 and it is situated along the Mediterranean coast, surrounded by Morocco on three sides.

Ceuta is a little larger in terms of land area (roughly eighteen square kilometers or about seven square miles) and it has a slightly larger population at approximately 82,000. It is located north and west of Melilla on the Almina Peninsula, near the Moroccan city of Tangier, across the Strait of Gibraltar from mainland Spain. It too is located on the coast. Ceuta's Mount Hacho is rumored to be the southern Pillar of Heracles (also vying for that claim is Morocco's Jebel Moussa).


Historically, these cities were centers of trade and commerce, connecting North Africa and West Africa (via the Saharan trade routes) with Europe. Ceuta was especially important as a trade center because of its location near the Strait of Gibraltar. Both served as entry and exit ports for people and goods going into and coming out of, Morocco.

Today, both cities are part of the Spanish Eurozone and are primarily port cities with much business in fishing and tourism. Both are also part of a special low tax zone, meaning that the prices of goods are relatively cheap when compared to the rest of mainland Europe. They service many tourists and other travellers with daily ferry and air service to mainland Spain and are still points-of-entry for many people visiting North Africa.


Both Ceuta and Melilla carry with them the marks of western culture. Their official language is Spanish, although a large portion of their populations are native Moroccans who speak Arabic and Berber. Melilla proudly claims the second largest concentration of modernist architecture outside of Barcelona thanks to Enrique Nieto, a student of the architect, Antoni Gaudi, famous for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Nieto lived and worked in Melilla as an architect in the early 20th century.

Because of their close proximity to Morocco and connection to the African continent, many African migrants use Melilla and Ceuta (both legally and illegally) as starting points to get to mainland Europe. Many Moroccans also live in the cities or cross the border daily to work and shop.

Future Political Status

Morocco continues to claim possession of both enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta. Spain argues that its historical presence at these specific locations predates the existence of the modern country of Morocco and therefore refuses to turn over the cities. Although there is a strong Moroccan cultural presence in both, it appears as though they will remain officially in Spanish control in the foreseeable future.

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Baskerville, Brian. "The Spanish Enclaves of North Africa." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Baskerville, Brian. (2020, October 29). The Spanish Enclaves of North Africa. Retrieved from Baskerville, Brian. "The Spanish Enclaves of North Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).