A sleepy enclave that makes for an ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of Tangier's hectic medina and the often crowded beaches, Ceuta was once ones of the finest cities in northern Morocco, prospering under Spanish rule. Originally thriving under its Arab conquerors, the city was extolled in 14th-century documents for its busy harbors, fine educational institutions, ornate mosques, and sprawling villas. Smelling prosperity,
the Portuguese seized Ceuta in 1415; the city passed to Spain when Portugal itself became part of Spain in 1580, and it remains under Spanish rule today. The town's Arabic name, Sebta, comes from the Latin septum from sepir ("to enclose").
Ceuta's strategic position on the Strait of Gibraltar explains its ongoing use as a Spanish military town (many of the large buildings around the city are military properties). There has been little argument from Morocco to claim the small peninsula; this can be explained by a desire not to lose Spanish support for Moroccan rule over the Western Sahara, and also to maintain steady relations with Spain in general. Walls built by the Portuguese surround the city and are, together with the ramparts, impressive testimony to the town's historic importance on European–Near Eastern trade routes.
Now serving mainly as a port of entry or departure between Spain and Morocco, Ceuta's heyday has long since passed, though the mere existence of this Hispano-African hybrid that has successively belonged to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Portuguese, and Spaniards is staggering, and it remains an important transportation base between Africa and Europe.