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Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?

How did these two cities in North Africa become Spanish and why do they remain so to this day?

Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?
Painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Wad-Ras (1860), which put an end to the African War and increased Spain's control over Ceuta and Melilla. Painting: Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer.

The Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla are Europe’s only landmasses in continental Africa.

Their borders with Morocco are the only physical borders between Europe and Africa, and they have for centuries existed as places of contested sovereignty that ebb and flow alongside other political tensions in the region.

Humanitarian crises in Ceuta and Melilla have made headlines in recent years as thousands have attempted to cross the border into Spain from adjacent Morocco, whose leaders refer to them as the occupied “Sebtah and Melilah”.

But what’s the backstory to Ceuta and Melilla? Where are they? Why are they Spanish, and are they politically relevant today?

Where are they?

Ceuta and Melilla are technically Spanish autonomous cities on mainland Africa in a similar way to Catalonia and the Basque Country are in mainland Spain.

Ceuta is bordered by Morocco on Africa’s northern coast, sitting on the boundary between the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. It sits about 17 km away from Cádiz province across the Strait of Gibraltar, and is just 18.5 km2 with 76,000 inhabitants. 

Melilla sits 250 km further eastwards down the coast towards Algeria, and is just 12.3 km2 with a population of 86,000.

Map of Morocco’s (in green) and Spain’s (in orange) borders, highlighting places of Spanish sovereignty in the north African nation, which includes Ceuta and Melilla but also several other small territories.


In the 5th century Ceuta and Melilla were colonised by the Carthaginians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans.

From the 7th century, Ceuta was ruled by competing Berber and Arab dynasties, and in the 8th century both Ceuta and Melilla were port towns used as launch-pads for the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula that would last for centuries and stretch as far north as Galicia. 

Melilla first fell under Spanish rule in 1497, invaded as part of the Christian reconquista of the peninsula that ended in the late-fifteenth century, and Ceuta, which was a Portuguese territory from 1415, was given to Spain under the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668.

Tile panel by Jorge Colaço (1864–1942) at the São Bento railway station, depicting Prince Henry the Navigator during the conquest of Ceuta. Photo: HombreDHojalata/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Both Ceuta and Melilla were attacked intermittently by North African forces throughout the next century and became heavily fortified. They also served as strategic hubs for trade because of their advantageous locations linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic.

For centuries and even to this day, they have had a sizeable Spanish military population living there, and at a time both territories served as a type of penal colony for convicts banished from the Iberian peninsula. 

Why are Ceuta and Melilla still Spanish?

In the 1930s, Spanish troops stationed in Ceuta and Melilla were some of the first to rebel against the government and played a key role in Franco’s seizure of power.

When Morocco finally gained its independence in 1956 after decades of rule by the French and Spanish, Spain refused to include Ceuta and Melilla in any negotiations and they remained Spanish territories.

Morocco has made several sovereignty claims to the territories since gaining independence.

In 2002, tensions flared when Moroccan soldiers occupied the Spanish-controlled Parsley Island off the coast of mainland Morocco. They were eventually removed by force by the Spanish navy.

General view of the 16th century fortress known as “Melilla la Vieja” (The Old Melilla) located in the port of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Spanish King Juan Carlos – himself no stranger to controversies – infuriated Moroccans by making an official state visit to Melilla in 2007, and in recent years the territories have also played a role in politics.

Spaniards who believe that Ceuta and Melilla should remain Spanish argue that both territories were part of Spain for more than 400 years before Morocco gained independence, considering their separation from Spain based only on their geographical location as non-negotiable as that of the Canary Islands, which have been Spanish since the 15th century. 

Unlike Gibraltar, which was given the status of colony by the UN in 1967, Ceuta and Melilla have not been classified as such by the United Nations given that they’re fully integrated into Spanish governance and administration. 

“Rabat knows well that it has no legal route to substantiate its claim (over Ceuta and Melilla), only a political one, and for this reason in principle it will never go to the International Court of Justice to reactivate a claim that has been frozen in the United Nations since 1975,” writer and analyst Ángel Manuel Ballesteros told El Faro de Ceuta.

In the last several years both the borders in Ceuta and Melilla have been the focus of attempts by refugees and asylum seekers from all over Africa, and the Spanish government’s treatment – including its illegal ‘pushback’ strategy – has earned it condemnation from human rights and refugee groups.

In March 2022, Ceuta became the focus of international news when as many as 10,000 people crossed the border from Morocco in a matter of days. The migration crisis was back in the news again in late June after at least 18 African migrants died when a huge crowd tried to cross into Melilla.

Migrants climb a sea wall in the northern town of Fnideq after attempting to cross the border from Morocco to Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on May 19th, 2021. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

This came at the height of tensions between Madrid and Rabat, and it is believed that Moroccan border guards simply left their posts in a deliberate – and rather callous – negotiating tactic to instigate a humanitarian crisis after they were angered that Spain had treated Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, a separatist group that campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, in a Ceuta hospital.

There is no indication at present that Spain will ever be willing to renounce Ceuta or Melilla as a bargaining chip over a dependence on natural gas supplies from the Maghreb or any possible future diplomatic spat between Morocco and Algeria, Spain and Algeria or Spain and Morocco.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

But what does seem clear is that when it comes to controlling immigration from the African continent, Ceuta and Melilla are somewhat of an Achilles’ heel for Spain which Moroccan authorities are prepared to take advantage of. 

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Why are December 6th and 8th public holidays in Spain?

Spain has two public holidays in early December which often form a “puente” (bridge), allowing workers in the country to enjoy an extended break before Christmas. Why are these two days “festivos” in Spain?

Why are December 6th and 8th public holidays in Spain?

In 2022, December 6th and 8th fall on a Tuesday and Thursday respectively, which means that workers in Spain can take off three days from their annual holiday leave and get a total of nine days off in a row.

It’s one of the many ‘holiday bridges’ (known as puentes in Spanish) that can be enjoyed throughout the year. 

READ ALSO: How to make the most of Spain’s public and regional holidays in 2023  

They are non-replaceable national holidays, meaning that regional governments cannot swap them for other days, which essentially guarantees that they’re public holidays across the country’s 17 regions and two autonomous cities.

That also explains why most shops in Spain will be closed on those days.

So why is it that Spain has two public holidays so close to Christmas?

December 6th – Constitution Day

On December 6th 1978, millions of Spaniards voted in favour of the country’s first democratic constitution during a referendum, the culmination of Spain’s transition to democracy after decades under Franco’s dictatorship. 

The magna carta was checked by Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela and it’s one of Europe’s least reformed constitutions, having only been changed on a couple of occasions in its history.

Since 1983, every December 6th has been a public holiday in the country. 

There are no big air shows or military parades as during Spain’s National Day on October 12th, but people in Spain’s capital can visit the Spanish Parliament and Senate for free on El Día de la Constitución.

December 8th – Immaculate Conception Day

As you may have guessed from the name, Spain’s el Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception Day) is a public holiday with religious origins.

The origin of this celebration can be traced back to the mid-19th century and Pope Pius XI, who wanted to commemorate the birth of the Virgin Mary.

According to the Catholic Church, La Virgen María was born on September 8th, therefore they subtracted nine months to make the day of her immaculate conception December 8th.

In Spain, this day also marks the date of The Battle of Empel, also known as the Miracle of Empel (El Milagro de Empel in Spanish).

It was an unexpected Spanish victory in 1585 in the Netherlands as part of the Eighty Years’ War, where a greatly outnumbered and surrounded Spanish force near the village of Empel won against its Dutch enemies.

Prior to battle, a Spanish soldier who was digging a trench allegedly unearthed a painting of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, seen by Spanish troops as a sign from God. A sudden drop in temperatures meant that Dutch ships were trapped in by frozen water and Spaniards could attack and beat them in battle, confirming the divine intervention. 

In 1892 Maria Cristina of Austria, Queen Regent of Spain, proclaimed Mary of the Immaculate Conception patroness of the entire Spanish Infantry, and thus December 8th became a public holiday in Spain.

READ ALSO: What you should know if you’re travelling to Spain in December