Tetouan Assmir Association
Adresse : 8 Rue Mhammad Benaboud. App.21 -Tetouan- (Maroc)
Phone: [+212]



Mhammad Benaboud


Tetuan, its History and Culture


M’hammad Benaboud,           


How can we explain the fact that Tetuan’s unique history and culture are generally ignored despite the city’s exceptionally rich cultural legacy, despite the fact that the massive documentation which exists for studying this subject during the last five centuries in Arabic, Spanish, English and French is impressive? The General Library of Tetuan is the second largest public library in Morocco,[1]  the city  has dozens of private libraries some of which have been catalogued, not to mention the thousands of documents of different types which many traditional tetuani families have conserved [2].  Studies on the city’s history and culture which were published during the period of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco between 1912 and 1956 are extremely interesting [3]. These include Spanish as well as Arabic publications. They include newspapers, books, journals, etc.. of the Protectorate. 

During Independence, individual publications such as the Caudernos de la Biblioteca Española de Tetuán reflect individual efforts to continue the intellectual and cultural tradition which Tetuan has known.  

Another landmark in the cultural history of Tetuan has been the contribution in the field of publications on Tetuan by the Faculty of Letters at Tetuan [4] which was created before the Abdelmalek Es-Saadi University of which it is now a part of, followed by N.G.O.’s, especially the Tetuan Asmir Association [5].      

Tetuan has attracted a great general interest ever since it was classified by U.N.E.S.C.O. In conformity with the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by U.N.E.S.C.O., the city of Tetuan is inscribed on the World Heritage list as a Historic City. It is thus internationally recognized as a place of exceptional and universal value: a cultural heritage worth of preservation for the benefit of all of Mankind. 

The city of Tetuan was built near the Roman city of Tamuda which is situated five kilometers in the outskirts of present day Tetuan. The Medina of Tetuan flourished during the eleventh and twelfth centuries as a little town and was demolished by the Iberians during the beginning of the fifteenth century. This traditional Islamic city was rebuilt during the end of the fifteenth century by Sidi Ali Al Mandari who emigrated from the Andalusian city of Granada to escape the persecution of the Inquisition. Tetuan has continued to flourish as a dynamic center of economic, social and cultural activities where , Christians and Jews lived peacefully side by side. This city reflects a variety of cultural influences including local Moroccan, Andalusian, Ottoman and even European elements. Tetuan has contributed to enrich Moroccan history over the past five centuries.

The monuments of the Medina of Tetuan date back to the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its seven gates, narrow streets, squares, traditional houses and mosques have captured the minds of historians and artists across the world. It has constituted a source of continuous inspiration for creative minds. This original and flourishing traditional Moroccan city stands out for its distinctive features which have enriched Moroccan culture for more than five centuries.

Despite its similarities with other Medinas in Morocco and in the Islamic World, Tetuan’s history stands out for its specificity. Tetuan’s historical monuments reflect the city’s originality while sharing the global features of other Moroccan Medinas. Compared to Tangier, the Medina of Tetuan reflects powerful Andalusian features as opposed to Tangier’s predominantly European mark. This trend has been accelerated since 1777  when the European community was ordered to move to Tangier as the new diplomatic capital. Tetuan was built by Andalusian emigrants so that the foundations of its cultural heritage remain Andalusian, unlike Fez which already existed as a flourishing commercial urban centre. Thus while the Jewish Andalusian community which settled in Tetuan was able preserve its religious and cultural traditions in their purest form, that which settled in Fez clashed with the previously existing Moroccan Jewish community of Fez. As opposed to Chauen, which was able to preserve its original Andalusian culture due to its geographical isolation  the Rif Mountains since the end of the fifteenth century when it was built by BenRashid, Tetuan developed through the first five centuries, because it has always been a crossroad of cultures and civilizations, due to its geographical location. This is clear in the traditional social structure of Tetuani society. In an umpublished manuscript by Tetuan’s historian Muhammad Dawud, entitled Families of Tetuan, the author mentions the origin of different families. These can be divided into eight categories, namely the Andalusians, Fassis, Algerians, Rifies, Jews, Christians and emigrants from different cities and regions of Morocco. It is curious that he does not mention the Jebli or Arabic speaking elements of the city’s surrounding areas which have always played an essential role in the city’s history. There are several possibilities for explaining this silence. The first possiblity is that he refrained from mentioning this group to avoid  offending Tetuani families of Jebli origin who consider themselves to be fully integrated city dwellers. The second possibility is that he parted from the premise that the essence of Tetuani society has traditionally been Jebli and the third option is that the term Riffi combines inhabitants from the Rif Mountains and the Jebli elements, because the term Rifi in Arabic literally means belonging to the rural areas.

The fact is that these multiple groups melted to form a Tetuani homogeneous society whose members acquired a strong sense of social consciousness of pertaining to a well identified id stratified Islamic society which developed side by side along with the Jewish community, on the one hand, and the European Chrstian community on the other. Culturally, the three religious groups lived side by side quite harmoniously during certain periods. Their often common economic interests, similar even cross penetrating social traditions and their shared cultural heritage clearly marked the development of a multi-ethnic Tetuani society.

Tetuan’s cultural heritage is not easy to identifiy, because of its evolutionary

Nature and extended ramifications. The folowing factors explain this complexity:

 Firtsly, Tetuan’s culture is composed of numerous and at times contradictory but fully integrated elements, while some elements are common to other cities of the region such as the Andalusian element, Tetuani culture strongly incorporated some elements such as the Ottoman ingredients introduced by large numbers of Algerian emigrants introduced by Algerian families which are totally absent in many Moroccan Medinas like Marrakech. This is due to the intensive Algerian emigrants to Tetuan since 1830 when the French occupied Algeria.

Secondly, Tetuan’s local environment has obviously played a fundamental role in the city’s cultural evolution. For example, traditional Tetuani houses are whitewashed in their external façade as opposed to plaster Fassi houses or brownish traditional houses in Marrakech. This could be explained by local environmental factors as well as by different cultural tendencies in different Moroccan cities. Tetuan’s historical maritime and commercial relations with the Mediterranean European countries such as Britain, Spain and Italy explain the presence of European products in Tetuani houses ranging from English carpets and silverware from Manchester to Italian lamps and Chinese porcelain.

Thirdly, Tetuan’s contact with Maghribi and Mashriqi regions has always left its mark in Tetuani culture given their common Islamic identity. Pilgrimage to Mekka, cultural missions to such areas as Palestine and Egypt reflect Tetuan’s historical and cultural links to the Arab world.

Fourthly, Tetuan’s capacity to assimilate a variety of cultural elements in order to produce an original local blend has enabled its culture to resist the pressure of a variety of cultural pressures while giving it the dynamism required to stimulate creative initiatives which have marked its distinctive characteristics marked by a variety of cultural elements marked  by a variety of cultural elements, Tetuani culture has always been reflected its characteristic cultural features which have been clearly manifested in a variety of intellectual, artistic and cultural traditions ranging from Tetuani cuisine and Tetuani embroidery to Tetuani social traditions (dress or wedding celebrations) and intellectual works in a variety of fields including jurisprudence, literature, history, music, architecture and religious sciences)

Tetuani culture has always stood out for its capacity to integrate new cultural elements on the one hand, while evolving in order to meet new challenges on the other. Its conservative blend is reflected in its tendency to conserve its cultural heritage, but its tendency to evolve by assimilating new cultural elements explains the vitality and strength of Tetuani culture.

Furthermore, the full consciousness and even pride which Tetuanies have manifested over the centuries of their identification with Tetuani culture. At times when this culture appeared to be threatened to the point being annihilated, it has always been able to spring out and express itself with the utmost determination. The balance between destructive external elements and the purest ingredients of Tetuani culture have always ended with the decisive reaction of the latter in favour of the continuation and persistent expression of Tetuani cultural identity, a product of more than five centuries of cross cultural interaction.

Finally, Tetuan’s history and culture have been readily recognised if not accepted inalienable components of the city’s identity. This is clear in the internal implicit or explicit contribution of its inhabitants  and in the external impression of visitors. When one generation of Tetuanis appears on the verge of collapsing, leaving Tetuani culture to face its apparently inevitable and inexplicable fatal downfall, a new generation of emigrants picks up the relais, and injects a new vitality which guarantees the permanence and continuation of the development of Tetuan’s cultural heritage.

The city seems to be experiencing just such a moment now. At a time when Tetuan appeared to be forgotten by members of its society, abandoned by Western tourists who have shown a preference for the old and newly developed havens, bypassed by visitors from the most remote regions of Morocco who only visit Tetuan for its beaches, black market or as a temporary station towards or coming from Europe, UNESCO has proclaimed the Medina of Tetuan as a World Cultural Heritage.

This will necessarily reverse the present trend in favour of the conservation of this cultural heritage of Mankind. The apparently local cultural specificity of the city will be sought by intellectuals and artists from around the world.

Yet this trend will not occur overnight, nor will it take place without heavy sacrifices. The following changes seem to be beginning to happen.

Firstly, the total neglect of Tetuan as a World Cultural Heritage is beginning to give ground to the growing consciousness of the public as an important cultural station. Cultural guide’s are being prepared for publication by different Ministries through individual initiatives, without any co-ordination or previous agreements of collaboration. Projects which are meant to revitalise the city are being prepared by more than one Ministry ranging from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Habitat. A CDROM of Tetuan, A World Cultural Heritage has been produced by the Tetuan Asmir Association [6].  Identical expositions of the greatest magnitude have been organised by Spanish and Moroccan cultural, political and financial institutions[7]. Tetuan’s profound culture has suddenly started moving, despite the moribund attitude of under qualified stagnant bureaucrats who have been designated as the official defenders  of the city’s intellectual and cultural heritage.

Secondly, the terrible problems which have paralysed the city’s economic and cultural progress and prosperity are gigantic, but they are now beginning to be addressed. There is the legislative obstacle, the economic crisis, the corruption disease, the negative social attitudes, preconceptions and modes of behaviour as well as the indifference of different central ministerial departments and local institutions towards Tetuan’s most urgent problems. A combination of internal and external factors which appeared to contribute to the continuation of a permanent deadlock have begun to break, setting Tetuan’s cultural world heritage free and enabling it to burst out vigorously. Tetuan’s past splendour is now more evident. Its future must surpass its present hibernation, but for this to happen, the city’s rich culture and history must be publicised and exploited as the city’s most precious capital for its economic development on the basis of cultural tourism.

Politically, Tetuan s history may be considered to have constituted a fragile balance  between the need to both attack  and to defend the city against external elements, especially Spanish and Portuguese Christian maritime ships, the desire to preserve the city s autonomous flourishing economy and culture in the midst of an often hostile local environment and the obligation to obey a powerful central government following Morocco’s unification by Mawlay Ismail since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The city’s policy has always been determined by global developments in the Mediterranean region.      

Tetuan’s culture has really developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This culture is interesting because it englobes numerous spheres which are different, but complementary and in some ways interrelated. The intellectual production of tetuani scholars stands out strongly. Before discussing some of its main features, I would like to point out to two fundamental factors which have stimulated this trend up to the mid-twentieth century. The first is that the city’s cultural heritage, its geographical situation which has attracted a variety of different cultural trends which have been incorporated into its cultural traditions, the permanent concern for education by tetuanis, the traditional contact of tetuani scholars with scholars in other parts of Morocco, the Middle East or Europe and the contribution of exceptional tetuani intellectual figures to the intellectual and cultural development new cultural trends in Tetuan have together contributed to the development of an interesting local culture with universal implications, which has not yet been studied in all its proportions. The second important factor which has contributed to the full development of culture in Tetuan is the proclamation of the city as the political capital of the Spanish Protectorate in Northern Morocco and the Sahara. During this period, Moroccan traditional scholars and nationalists alike reacted to the presence of the newly introduced Spanish culture by stimulating and promoting their own culture with a new vigour and enthusiasm.

Tetuani scholars have excelled and innovated in numerous fields of specialisation including history, literature, jurisprudence, art and music. The following constitute some of Tetuan’s outstanding cultural features :

Firstly, in the field of history, historians of Tetuan or Morocco include Skirej, Ahmad Rhoni, Muhamma Dawud, Tuhami Al-Wazzani and M’hammad Abdeslam Benaboud [8]. Even a jurist and literary figure like Ahmed Morer wrote an interesting but unpublished history of Morocco during the thirties. Together, these works reflect Tetuan’s privileged place in the history of Moroccan historiography. Each of these works stands out for specific reasons. For example, Muhammad Dawud’s fifteen volume history of Tetuan entitled Tarikh Titwan is not only important as historical writing, but also as an impressive corpus of hitherto unpublished private and official documents, particulary for nineteenth century Moroccan history[9]. Tuhami Al-Wazzani’s third volume of his history of Morocco entitled Tarikh Al-Maghrib is one of the rare historical works which studies the history of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco from 1912 to 1956 and stands out for having been published during the period of the Protectorate [10].   Muhammad Morer’s history of Morocco stands out as a history of Morocco which was written during the thirties to be a high school text book, but the author was unable to publish it.

Secondly, Tetuani jurists have published important works. Some of Tetuan’s most eminent jurists include Ahmed Rhoni, Muhammad Afailal and Ahmed Morer. Rhoni has left thousands of verdicts or fatwas from the early part of the twentieth century[11].   Sidi Muhammad Afailal is the author of an interesting social and juridical document which he wrote in the name of Tetuan’s ulema during the thirties in order to criticize negative anti-Islamic social traditions like overspending in weddings[12]. Other jurists like Larbi Khatib have left an important juridical private library. Muhammad Morer who was a prolific author published his classical work on Islamic verdicts published in two volumes under the title, Al Ahkam As-Samiya fi l Mahakim Al-Islamiya.[13]

Thirdly, literature is another field in which Tetuanis have contributed to in different literary genres. In the field of poetry, Sidi Mfedal Afailal who was a contemporary figure of the War of Tetuan in 1860 was the first to refer to Tetuan as the white dove in verse.[14]

Muhammad Seffar’s travel account to Paris which has been published in Arabic and translated into English is one of the most exquisite Moroccan travel accounts.[15]

Another original literary genre where Tetuani scholars have excelled is letters. The letters exchanged between Skirej, Bachir Afailal, Muhammad Morer and others have not been published, but they have been conserved in private libraries.

Fourthly, music, especially Andalusian music,  has always been highly developed in Tetuan. The  Kunnash Al-Hayik At-Titwani has been edited by Malik Bennouna lately[16] This is one of the earliest and most important compilations of Andalusian music in Morocco. The name of Abdesadak Shqara stands out as one of the most prominent masters of Andalusian music in Morocco.

Haj M’hammad Bennouna was an original composer and literary figure whose recordings combining Andalusian music and flamenco stand out for their originality.

Fifthly, art in a variety of forms is one of the most highly developed forms of expression in tetuani culture.

Sixthly, political literature is an integral part of Tetuan’s cultural legacy. This city’s political contribution has been important. The Torres family archives consist of more than 20,000 documents which have been distributed among several libraries [17].  These include nineteenth and twentieth century documents pertaining to Haj Mohamed Torres, Haj Ahmed and Abdelkhalaq Torres.

Other important documents belong to the Bricha and Erzini families. The Erszini docuements are political as well as commercial and are kept in the library of Mr Abdelqader Erzini at Tangier.

Seventhly, Jewish sources are fundamental for examining tetuani culture given the importance of the Jewish community for studying the history and culture of Tetuan. These include religious, musical, literary and juridical sources.

Eighthly, the Christian European, especially Spanish sources are equally rich to the history and culture of  Tetuan. The General Library of Tetuan is excellent for studying the Spanish contribution to Tetuan at numerous levels.

Ninthly, it is necessary in order to form a complete picture of Tetuan’s history and culture to study documentation on Tetuan abroad given the importance of the city’s historical links with Europe on the one hand and the Mashriq on the other. A complete evaluation of the sources for the history and culture of Tetuan is difficult to carry out for the following reasons :

First of all, this documentation is scattered in different places including private libraries, public libraries and official institutions.

Secondly, much of this documentation is not classified or catalogued thus making it difficult to identify.

Thirdly, the fact that this documentation exists in Arabic as well as in a variety of other languages makes it difficult for many scholars to study all the documentation that they need for their particular subjects of interest related to Tetuan.

Fourthly, much of this documentation is inaccessible to researches, but the real problem is the non existence of serious qualified researchers.

Finally, Tetuan’s history and culture is interesting to study not only because it reflects such a rich variety of cultural blends, but also because it continues to thrive and will hopefully continue to do so in the future.




Foot Notes


1) This library consists of a section of more than 3000 sixteenth, seventh, eighteenth and twentieth century Spanish books which are extremely rich for studying themes related to the Moriscos, over two thousand Arabic manuscripts, a rare collection of Arabic and Spanish newspapers and magazines, an important collection of over 40000 photographs of Tetuan and Northern Morocco during the period of the Spanish Protectorate and a collection of almost 2000 gold and silver coins. First created as the Library of the Protectorate, the General Library of Tetuan, is presently the second largest public library in Morocco. 


 2) The project of cataloguing private libraries of Tetuan is in the process of being carried out by the Center of Documentation and Studies on Northern Morocco which was created by the Tetuan Asmir Association and the Ecole Normale Superieure of Tetuan. So far, over 150000 books, manuscripts and docuements from more than 25 private libraries in Tetuan have been catalogued. We can now evaluate the works of exceptional Tetuani scholars like Muhammad Morer, Muhammad Dawud, Tuhami Al-Wazzani and Ahmad Rhon in a diversity of fields ranging from history to jurisprudence and literature. This project has enabled us to extimate the number of material which exists in Tetuan’s private libraries, to classify these libraries into different categories according to their field of specialization, to discover some of Tetuan’s most important manuscripts and to evaluate these libraries as part of the city’s cultural heritage.

3) These include the Spanish publications of the Francisco Franco Institute for Research  and the Arabic publications of the Mawlay Mehdi Institute on a variety of themes related to Moroccan Studies. For a list of the publications of these two important research centers, see Francisco Valderrama, La acción cultural de españa en Marruecos, Tetuan, 1956, pp. 605-611, 811-832

4) These include the publications of the Journal of the Spanish Library of Tetuan which was published by Guillermo Gozalbes Busto in more than 21 issues and covered a variety of themes related to Tetuan and Morocco. The publications of the Faculty of Letters at Tetuan on different aspects of the city’s history and culture have also been important. The Group for Research on Morocco and Al-Andalus has greatly contributed to our understanding of Tetuan’s past and present through a series of international conferences on Tetuan’s history from its reconstruction by Sidi Ali Al-Mandari during the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the Spanish Protectorate in Northern Morocco in 1956. The main characteristics and objectives of this project may be summarized in the following points,
To study the history of Tetuan during the past five centuries by stressing the outstanding features of each individual phase or century. This division into four main periods would limit each period in terms of time making it easier for each posible to examine the city’s history more profoundly.
To adopt a multi-disciplinary approach which would cover different dimensions of the city’s history including its political, social, economic and cultural history.
To allow the presentation of papers in four languages, namely Arabic, English, Spanish and French in order to allow for the application of different methodologies and academic traditions.
To stress the importance of documentation in order to allow us to evaluate this aspect in its full proportions given the huge magnitude and great variety of a hitherto unexploited documentation in Arabic, Spanish, French and English for Tetuan’s history over the past five centuries.
To constitute an important corpus on Tetuan’s history which would enable us to orient future research on the city.
The works of these conferences have been published (Titwan fi ahad al-Himaya (1912-1956), Tetuan, 1994, 300pp.; Titwan qabla al-Himaya 1860-1912, Tetuan,, Research Group for the History of Morocco and Al-Andalus, 1995, pp.400; Titwan fi al-qarn ath-thamin ashar, Tetuan, Research Group for the History of Morocco and Al-Andalus, 1995, 300 pp.; Titwan fi al-qarnayn as-sadis ashar wa as-sabi ashar, Tetuan, Research Group for the History of Morocco and Al-Andalus, 1995, 400 pp.).

5) Tetuan Asmir Association’s publications appeared between 1996 and 2000 in Arabic, Spanish and French covering a variety of themes related to Tetuan and Northern Morocco. These include publications by some of Tetuan’s most eminent scholars such as the second edition of Tuhami Al-Wazzani’s Az-Zawiya, Hassan Ibn Abdelwahhab’s Tarikh Al-Qadaa fi Shamal Al-Maghrib ala ahd Al-Himaya, Ahmad Rhoni’s Umdat Arawin fi Tarikih Tittawin and Muhammad Morer’s An-Naim Al-Muqim.


6) This cultural CDROM is the first of its kind on a Moroccan Medina and covers a diversity of cultural themes including Tetuan’s history during the past five centuries, a detailed cultural map of the Medina, images of its narrow streets, squares, traditional houses, museums, mosques, towers, city walls, manuscripts, eminent personalities, music, traditional arts and paintings.


7)The latest expositions include one on Almohad Seville and another one on the Spanish artist and painter of the Medina of Tetuan, Mariano Bertuchi.


8) Some of these works have  been published by the Tetuan Asmir Association as part of its project to publish the works of eminent Tetuani figures.(see for example, Ahmed Rhoni, Umdat Ar-Rawin fi Tarikh Tittawin, vol.1, ed. by Dr. Jaafar Benelhaj Soulami, Tangier, Publications of the Tetuan Asjmir Association and the Faculty of Letters at Tetoun, 1998; Tumami Al-Wazzani,  As-Zawiya, 2nd ed., ed. by Abdelaziz Saoud, Tangier, Publications of the Centre for Documentation and Research on Northern Morocco, 1999.


9) Dawud is also the author of other historical works related to Tetuan or Morocco such as an unpublished unique social history of Tetuani families entitled A’ilat Titwan in three volumes which Mrs. Hasna Dawud has edited and hopes to publish soon.


10) Tuhami Al-Wazzani,  Tarikh Al-Maghrib, vol.3, Tetuan, 1940, pp.129-285.


11) Ahmad Rhoni’s documents have been conserved by his daughter Mrs. Fatima Rhoni and will be edited and published by Dr. Muhammad Miftah.


12) This work is in fact a manifesto of Tetuan's 'ulama' in protest against overspending on social ceremonies and was signed by over twenty eminent figures such as Muhammad Dawud, Muhammad Morer and Muhammad Mekki Naciri.(Sidi Muhammad Afailal, Tanbih Al-Akyas li-l-Iqtisadi fi-l-Mala’imi wa-l-Aaras, Tetuan, Dispress, 1976,pp.123-128).


13) Muhammad Morer who was one of the most distinguished jurists and literary figures of his times was a prolific writer. Over twenty manuscripts of his publications in such diverse fields as biographical dictionaries, mysticism, history, law, literature and hisba may be found in his library. (See for example Muhammad Morer, Kitab Al-Abhath As-Samiya fi Al-Mahakim Al-Islamiya, 2vols., Tetuan, 1955). This is an important work on the Islamic court as an institution. The first volume of his biographical dictionary of Northern Morocco has been published recently (Muhammad Morer, Ana’im Al-Muqim…, ed. by Ahmed Morer and Dr. Jaafar Benelhaj Soulami, Tangier, Publications of the Tetuan Asmir Association, 2000)


14) Some of the most beautiful verses on Tetuan have been reproduced by Muhammad Dawud in his Tarikh Titwan. Yet this work is most important as an essential source for the history of Tetuan and also as a landmark in the development in historiography in Tetuan.


15) The Arabic edition is preceded by an Arabic translation of Susan Miller’s important study of this travel account. Seffar, Muhammad, Sudfat Al-Liqa’ ma’a Jadid, Rihlat As-Saffar Ila Faransa 1846-1845, ed. by  Susan Miller and Khalid Benshir, Rabat, Publications of the Faculty of Letters at Rabat, 1995, pp.7-88.


16) Al-Hayik At-Titwani, Kunnash Al-Hayik, ed. By Malik Bennouna, Rabat, Publications of the Royal Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco, 1999.


17) Most of the Torres family documents may be found in the General Library of Tetuan and Abdelkhalaq Torres’ private library. They belonged to Haj Muhammad Torres, Haj Ahmed Torres and Abdelkhalaq Torres. They include a variety of documents ranging from correspondence with Sultan Mawlay Hassan 1st duirng the nineteenth century to Abdelkhalaq Torres’ docuements related to the activities of his Party of Nationalist Reforms which he founded in 1935.