Tangier rests on a strange, wayward little corner of Africa. It is a great accident of history and privileged geography, having been the first stop in Africa for many people from around the world, as well as many foreigner’s first experience with a muslim culture. It has played host for thousands of years. “Much of Tangier’s history,” Richard Hamilton writes, “is a chronology of foreigners and exiles.” In fact, one could do a tour of Tangier solely on these misfits of history. These exiles have long been welcomed to promenade along the famed terrace of soor magazine, where 150 year-old cannons thrust out, down through the chaotic souks and on to the long stretch of sand along the bay.
Over the years, each of these guests have stopped in Tangier, heeding to the strange draw this city has. And each of these guests have left their mark on the Tangier, if not the cityscape. There really is something of a siren’s call to this city. Perhaps that’s why so many writers, artists, travelers, adventurers, pirates, and princesses and other lost souls have passed through here. Some have stayed years. While others have stayed for a lifetime or two.
Moroccophile, former BBC World Service Africa Editor and author, Richard Hamilton, takes it upon himself to chase this furtive siren’s call throughout the ages in his latest: Tangier: From the Romans to the Rolling Stones. With great humor, humility and erudition, Hamilton’s investigation opens with the clues modern city provides. Each chapter opens a window onto the vast weave of history that has, over the centuries, deftly woven together the fabric that is today’s modern Tangier. One such story begins with Hamilton’s failing research (always one for humility!) in 2014, how he couldn’t access the then-closed Cave of Hercules on the Atlantic Coast, about a 20 minute drive from downtown Tangier. This unexpected struggle leads Hamilton to recount the myth of Hercules, how he found himself in this corner of Africa, and how this all relates to today’s city along the Strait of Gibraltar.
Yet another slight twist to this [Hercules’] legend is that on his way to the Hesperides, the hero spotted a lovely young woman sleeping in the sun. The problem was, as is so often the way in these cases, that the woman, called Tinge, was already married. In fact she was Antaeus’ wife. Antaeus found Hercules ogling his wife and challenged him to a duel. Once Hercules had crushed the giant to death, he buried him at the exact spot where Tangier stands today. Anteaus was the god of losers, which is perhaps appropriate given that the city has been a haven for many washed-up people ever sense. Some say Hercules went on to marry Tinge and they had a child named Sophax, who founded the city of Tinge in honor of his mother. The city has, at various points in history had many names: Tinge, Tingis, Tingi, Titga, Tandja, Tanger, and Tangier. Some researchers have suggested that the name Tinga, which is engraved on Phoenicians coins, had Berber origins as ‘Tin Ga’ which means “heights,” so really Tangier is really another word for ‘high town.’ Indeed, later visitors may have interpreted the meaning of ‘high town’ in another sense.
From ancient tales and cryptic texts, to a contemporary understanding, often with wry wit, Hamilton blends all of this together in what is truly a unique sort of travelogue and history book. Hamilton’s Tangier functions like a set of Russian dolls or a series of labyrinthine doors, one scene opening onto another, opening onto another.
“The toilet looked like the end of the world.” Richard Hamilton quips toward the end of the book, as he descends into the bowels of the Villa Muniria, a hotel showing a derelict patina of time passed, like much of Hamilton’s Tangier. Why does Hamilton want explore this aged accommodation tucked on the hillside, away from the beach and the old medina? For starters, it was here that William Burroughs wrote his seminal work, Naked Lunch. The Beat Writers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac also stayed here, as well as many other notables of the 50s and 60s. But it is on Burroughs whom Hamilton focuses for this chapter.
From the toilet of the apocalypse, Hamilton takes us on a ride through Burroughs’ experience in Tangier, giving us a sense of what his life was like, where he frequented, who he met, who he liked and who he disliked. Hamilton manages this through a series of interviews, vignettes, quotes and material pulled from a myriad of sources. From stories of elaborate parties thrown by the Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton, to Adolf Hitler’s addiction to Eukodol (the same drug used by Burroughs for awhile), and on to to a quote from a contemporary “expert on stamps and postal history” who paints a picture of the Petit Socco lined with competing postal services from Europe: “the sounds of clerks stamping letters echoed into the night.” The stories and histories Hamilton compiles is truly remarkable, an astounding achievement of erudition and research.
Though the Hamilton in these pages can’t help to play the funny man, often poking fun of his failure to open a door or a gate or his panic when faced with a blunt question to which he is sometimes left grasping at straws — Hamilton’s straight man is the real thread here. His academic, well-researched persona pulls us not only through Burroughs’ time in Tangier, but many of the great figures of the city’s long, storied past, from the myth of Hercules to the mythic Ibn Battuta and on to the seminal figures of Paul Bowles, Henri Matisse, and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones and many, many more figures of history who have touched down in Tangier, finding themselves forever transformed. Hamilton examines these characters throughout the ages, each of whom has a story of their Tangier told.
In a way, in the pages of Tangier: From the Romans to the Rolling Stones, Hamilton is the ultimate tour guide. At once humorous and knowledgeable, he gives you insights and makes connections, threading them from around the world in often surprising ways, each of them leading back to Tangier. As you turn the last page, you’ll be left with a veritable ball of yarn and a kaleidoscopic understanding this historic, often misunderstood, city nestled on the ever-churning Strait of Gibraltar. If you’re looking for fun, erudite, armchair traveling to Morocco, look no further.
Pick up Tangier by Richard Hamilton wherever you buy your books, Amazon, Powells, Waterstones, or at your local, indie bookstore. There seem to be an inordinate amount of books concerned with Tangier, though it is not the most popular travel destination in Morocco. That designation belongs to Marrakesh. If you’re interested in some further reading about Tangier, you might also consider checking out Josh Shoemake’s Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travelers.
For more of Richard Hamilton, consider reading his other Morocco-based book, a collection of translated oral stories from masters in Marrakesh: The Last Storytellers.
About the Author
Written by award-winning author and photographer Lucas Peters. Check out his two popular guidebooks: the Moon Morocco Country Travel Guide, and city-specific, Marrakesh and Beyond. Lucas is also the editor of our award-winning blog. He lives in Tangier with his wife and two children. You can find him on his website, www.lucasmpeters.com. He often posts pictures on Instagram and Facebook.