Spanish Africa: Ceuta and Melilla

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If you think of Spain, you probably think of a European country which has its arm around Portugal where they eat tapas and paella.

However, what if I told you that Spain is also an African country? In fact, it is the smallest country in Africa, and no, I’m not talking about the Canary Islands

Learn more about Ceuta and Mellia, the African parts of Spain, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

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This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

While it is easy to think of Spain as the country which sits on the Iberian Peninsula, it is important to remember that Spain is actually more than that.

Whether it is the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, Ceuta and Melilla on the continent of Africa, or the tiny exclave of Llivia totally surrounded by France, there is more to Spain than what you first see on the map.

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting Spain.info where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish experience.

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When I say that there are parts of Spain in Africa, I’m not trying to be tricky and play with words. I’m not saying that Spain used to have colonies in Africa, although that’s true. I’m also not trying to define the Canary Islands, which are a part of Spain off of the coast of Africa, as being in Africa. 

I mean, in the most literal sense possible, that part of Spain is in Africa. 

There are two very small Spanish cities located on peninsulas which are on the African mainland, bordering Morocco

The cities are Ceuta and Melilla, and their very existence is, as you probably would expect, are due to historical quirks and happenstance. 

Due to geography, Spain has always had a close relationship with Africa. Phonecians based in Carthage in what is today Tunisia established settlements on the Spanish coast. 

The Roman province of Hispania was part of a greater empire that included all of North Africa which bordered the Mediterranean. 

After the Roman empire fell, Islamic Moors from North Africa conquered and controlled Spain for over 700 years. 

So, there has always been a back and forth between North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. 

Ceuta and Melilla, both being Spanish territories in Africa, have different yet similar histories despite being about 130 miles apart from each other. 

Ceuta is located directly across the sea from Gibraltar. So, if you ever want to stump someone ask them what country lies directly south of Gibraltar and what country lies north of Gibraltar. The answer is the same. Spain is on both ends. 

Ceuta makes the counterpart of the Pillars of Hercules which were the ancient names for the two promontories which guarded the Strait of Gibraltar. 

As with most everything in the region, it has an ancient history. Carthage, Mauritania, and Numidians all controlled the area before Rome. 

The Umayyad Caliphate controlled it for centuries. When the Caliphate of Cordoba fell in 1031, it then was passed between various North African kingdoms with support from various kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Ceuta came under European control on August  21, 1415, when King John I of Portugal launched a surprise invasion of the city.  Ceuta served as a trading outpost for goods that came from inland Africa, as well as served as a base to help control much of northern Morocco. 

This Portuguese history is why the flag of Ceuta is almost identical to the flag for the City of Lisbon, save for the coat of arms. 

From 1580 to 1640, Spain and Portugal were united during the Iberian Union. During this period, the city attracted more people from Spain than Portugal, due to its close proximity to Spain. 

When Portugal regained its independence in 1640, Ceuta was the only part of Portugal whose loyalties were on the side of Spain. 

In 1668, Portugal formally ceded the territory to Spain in the Treaty of Lisbon. 

In 1694, the Moroccans laid siege to Ceuta, which began the longest siege in world history. The siege wasn’t lifted until 1727. 

During the period, the Spanish abandoned the city due to the plague, and the Moroccans then took it over, only to abandon it themselves a few months later when war broke out over the Moroccan throne.

The entire siege ended up being a colossal waste of resources. 

The history of Melilla is slightly different. It isn’t located in such a strategic position as Ceuta. 

Like Ceuta, it was controlled by all the ancient civilizations in the region. 

It came under Spanish control in 1497, and the invasion wasn’t really much of an invasion. The city had been all but abandoned by the Islamic rulers in the region. 

As with Ceuta, the Moroccans made attempts at taking the city, but it was never as high of a priority. 

Given its proximity to Algeria, Melilla actually had a small trade war with Frace, who controlled Algeria in the early 20th century. 

Today, both cities are fully integrated parts of Spain, even though they are not on the Iberian Peninsula. 

They each have similar populations. Both Ceuta and Melilla have about 85,000 people. Both of the cities have very diverse populations, with a mix of Spanish and Arabic people.  Both cities have mixed Christian and Muslim populations. 

Both cities are also the only places in Spain where the Islamic holiday of Eid is an official holiday. 

While both cities are part of the European Union, each has a unique status. Spain is part of the Schengen Zone, so you don’t need any sort of special visa to enter either city. 

However, given the fact that they are the only parts of the EU that border a non-European country, they do check passports when going back to continental Europe. 

This actually affected me when I visited Ceuta several years ago. I did a day trip to the town of Tetouan in Morocco. When I crossed back into Ceuta, they just waved me in without stamping my passport. 

The next day, when I boarded the ferry, they wouldn’t let me on board because I didn’t have an entry stamp after getting an exit stamp to go to Morrocco. So, I had to take a taxi all the way back to the border to get my stamp, and then all the way back to the port. 

The official language in both cities is Spanish of course, but you will hear Arabic and Berber spoken in both cities as well. Most Arabic speakers will also speak Spanish, but the opposite is not necessarily the case. 

Both cities are pretty easy to visit. Not quite as easy as the rest of Spain as they are not connected to the rest of the country by road, but still not that hard.

Both cities have regular ferry service from mainland Spain. The ferry to Ceuta goes from Algaceris and the ferry to Melilla leaves from Malaga and Almería. 

I should note that Ceuta and Melilla are not the only part of Spain in Africa. 

Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera is really just an tiny island with a sand spit connecting it to Morroco. The border here is only 80 meters wide, making it the shortest segment of an international border in the world. 

No one really lives there other than some temporary military personnel who are there just to establish a presence. 

Beyond these three places which have an actual border with Morroco, there are also eight tiny, uninhabited islands that are just off the coast of Morocco which is a part of Spain as well. Collectively they are known as the Plazas de soberanía. 

So, to summarize, yes, Spain does have a very small of Africa. The total area of everything is about 11 square miles, out of a total of  11,000,000 square miles for the entire continent. 

At 1 millionth the total area, that would make Spain the smallest country in Africa.