The Sea and Our Story

Worlds come together, collide and cross at the coast. In few places is more the case than Morocco’s northernmost coast- which I visited in November.

A rooftop in Tangier, with the harbor in the distance.

A millennium ago, Arabic scholarship made it to Europe through Morocco. Many stars have Arabic names, a mark of Arabian skill in Astronomy during. Important concepts in mathematics, including algebra and algorithms were developed by Arabic speaking intellectuals and first made it to Europe via Morocco. Words like cotton and sugar, alcohol, and lemons, and often the materials they represent, came to Europe via Morocco.  My personal favorite is the lute named after its four strings- chitahabra (chit= strings, ahabra = 4). Eventually, two more strings were added and the lute’s name was changed to la guitarra, and then the guitar.

Exchanges have gone the other way as well. Five hundred years ago, thousands of Jews and Muslims crossed into Morocco from the north fleeing the ethic cleaning of the Spanish inquisition. These days, tourists from Europe are an important source of funds for Morocco’s economy. Plenty of goods flow by Morocco’s coast, including oil from Libya and the Middle East en route to Europe and the Americas.

The north coast of Morocco, with Spain across the
straight of Gibraltar.

One thing these exchanges have in common is the coast; they all involved people getting on or off a boat in North Africa- and often in Morocco as it is the closest distance between Africa and Europe. What does this coast look like? And how does it function? While there is much of this region that I need to explore, I’ve learned a few things so far.  

First, the Moroccan coast is dramatic. It’s a rough, mountainous region that dramatically overlooks the straights of Gibraltar. The city of Tangier itself has a port, and a ferry that connects to Europe. About 20 miles to the east is the much larger port of Tangier Me. It is the one of the larger commercial ports in Africa, more ferries at Tangier Med connect Europe and Africa.

Two very different bodies of water connect here- the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean’s salty waters flow underneath the Atlantic. The opposite of what happens at the edge of most oceans where salty sea water slides underneath fresh river water, and a product of that sea’s very high salinity. The Atlantic also has tides- about a 6-foot range in Morocco, while the Mediterranean a little to any. The reason for this is not the size of the Mediterranean, but its shape. Most large bodies of water resonate- almost like a musical instrument. It turns out the natural frequency with which the Mediterranean resonates does not match any of the natural frequencies that generate tides- those governed by the movement of the moon and the sun. Elsewhere on this planet- the 45-foot tides in Canada’s Bay of Fundy result from the fact that system’s natural frequency is almost perfectly in sync with our moon’s resonance frequency.

I was here, in part to visit Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the African side of the straights of Gibraltar. The Spanish claimed this port in the Colonial era and refused to return it during Morocco’s independence movement in the 1950s. Ceuta is an unusual combination of a wealthy enclave and a naval base, the latter of which has research advantages. The Spanish have been measuring water levels here almost continuously since the end of the Second World War, and data from this tide gauge in an important part of my research. Interestingly, Ceuta has one of the slowest rates of sea level rise I know about on the planet.  I’m not 100% sure why, but I suspected it is related winds that push water across the Atlantic- raising sea levels in places like New York.

Ceuta and its harbor.

Crossing into Ceuta was a reminder of how complex- and unfair borders are. Ceuta is strikingly different from nearby places in Morocco. Is it wealthier, an order of coffee at the cafe is larger, and there far fewer stray cats and far more pigeons. The border cross is a maze of crowded lines that seem complex to navigate.  In an embarrassing lesson in privilege, I quickly learned that if you have an American passport- and look like I did- the answer to which line you go in was simple. You go in the short line.

Bookending my day trip to Ceuta were two days in Tetouan. Tetouan is located near the sea, but in on the other side of a mountain range, from it. The city has a wonderful old medina- built into the hillside, and old architecture. (For those of you curious, the name comes from the Amazigh word for spring, and the famed planet was named after a town in Tunisia where said move was filmed in the 1970s. There you have it.)


Tetouan has a bit of a Moroccan Switzerland feeling, which- to some extent it was. It was largely settled by Jews and Muslims fleeing war and oppression the southern Iberian peninsula in the late 15th and early 16th century. They left behind the multicultural society in Andalusia and settled here. Many have told me that Morocco’s history of multiculturalism and tolerance for diversity, comes is part from the refugees of medieval Andalusia- the multi-religious society that flourished in southern Spain in the middle ages.

Downtown Tetouan

Which comes back to the sea. I think about what it would have been like for Jews and Muslims to put their possessions in a boat and sail across the Straits of Gibraltar. How heavily loaded were their boats? Could they find an area of out the waves on both the outgoing and incoming ports? Traversing the world by water has both its advantages and disadvantages. You have more places to go than on land, you can often carry more equipment, but there’s less margin for error. A strong wind, a small flaw in your vessel, and everyone onboard can die. I imagine that in 1492, many did. To this day, the sea is still a place for migrants. Just a few years ago, tens of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria got on boats in Northern Africa, heading for Europe. My adopted hometown of New Orleans owes much of its culture to 19th century migrants from Haiti who sailed through the Gulf of Mexico northward- fleeing slavery and civil war. The sea, for some many, is a part of our story.

At the end of Tetouan’s medina.

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