When it was incorporated into Spanish rule in 1580, Ceuta was one of the finest cities in northern Morocco. 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 contestation by Morocco to claim the small peninsula, despite a small incident in 2002. This can be explained by a desire not to lose Spanish support for Moroccan rule over the Western Sahara but 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 has scant attractions for travelers, 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. If you're short on time, you might give it a miss, as the town is a bit sleepy, especially during siesta time. The most interesting sights are in the upper city, away from the port's bustle.