A Not-So-National National Historic Site

The National Park Service celebrated its one hundredth birthday this year. While celebrations were focused on parks and national monuments across the country, ranging from Gettysburg to Yellowstone, one site on the National Register of Historic Places was quietly celebrating on the other side of the world.


The Moroccan city of Tangier sits on the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar and has been an important and cosmopolitan trading center since its founding centuries ago by Carthaginian colonists. Over the long years Tangier has traded hands from the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Arabs and then switched between various European colonizers and independent Moroccan kings until Morocco achieved true independence in 1956 from France. Throughout these centuries of diplomatic jockeying, the port has retained its strategic and commercial importance and achieved legendary status as a cosmopolitan international city. This reputation attracted artists and writers like Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, Mohamed Choukri, George Orwell, Jack Keourac, Delacroix, and the Rolling Stones who all lived or worked in the city for some time. It has also long attracted foreign adventurers, spies, businessmen, and diplomats. For this reason the city has been the focal point of the over 200 year relationship between the United States and Morocco.


The Tangier America Legation is located in the Moroccan city of Tangier. This building was acquired by the United States in 1821 as a gift from Sultan Moulay Suliman, the country’s first property acquired outside of the United States itself. The two story Moorish architecture building proceeded to house the United States Legation and Consulate for 140 years until the Moroccan capital moved to Rabat where it remains today.


This begs the question, what makes this building so special and why is it on the national register to this very day despite being located an ocean away from the continental United States?


That answer dates back to the founding of the United States and our earliest diplomatic efforts. In 1777, the Sultan of Morocco listed the United States as a country whose ships were allowed to enter Moroccan ports. Thus, Morocco was the first country whose head of state officially recognized the United States. From that point on the U.S. and Morocco have had friendly relations and worked closely together on numerous issues and fought together in several wars. The foundation of this friendship has been the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship signed in 1786 by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Sultan Muhammed III. It remains the longest unbroken treaty relationship in American history and one of the few remaining legally binding issues ratified by the Congress when the U.S. was governed by the Articles of Confederation and not the Constitution. This relationship is the key to why Morocco was the first country the young U.S. government decided to acquire property that it outright owned.


In addition to serving as the base of U.S. diplomatic efforts, the legation was a headquarters for U.S. Intelligence agents in World War II, helped facilitate the evacuation of thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and housed Peace Corps offices once the embassy moved to the new capital in Rabat. It is also believed that the current building is the second structure in the legation’s history with the original being destroyed during the French bombardment of Tangier in 1844.


With the current building in disrepair and facing demolition, a group of Americans created the Tangier American Legation Museum Society and began renting the building from the U.S. Government in 1976. The legation now houses a museum and institute, which provides community outreach, promotes U.S.-Moroccan relations, and teaches Arabic. Its main tenant is the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies. TALIM is the research center in Morocco of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, part of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.


All of this long history is why the legation was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on January 8, 1981. It became a National Historic Landmark on December 17, 1982. It is the only such listing in a foreign country. For most of its history the National Register has been administered by the National Park Service. While the small structure in the middle of a Moroccan city is not likely to be added to the parks system and placed under direct NPS control anytime soon, its presence on the register and continuing legacy is a testament to American history and influence, including that legacy of preservation, even far from U.S. shores.

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