Approaching Tetouan from the landward side it looks strikingly beautiful, poised atop the slope of an enormous valley against a dark mass of rock. Its name (pronounced Tet-tá-wan) means “open your eyes” in Berber, an apparent reference to the town’s hasty construction by Andalusian refugees in the fifteenth century.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the city had a bad reputation for conmen and hustlers, which, combined with a neglected Spanish quarter and a Medina that was considered tourist unfriendly, meant it was bypassed by most travellers. Times have changed, however, and, thanks to both Moroccan and Euoprean investment, the past few years have seen Tetouan almost reborn again – in particular, the Medina is now looked upon affectionately as one of the most “untouched” in the country. Tetouan has remained a popular Moroccan resort that attracts huge numbers of Moroccan families during the summer holiday season, who flock to the city’s nearby beaches in the summer to escape the heat.
Two cities rose and fell in the vicinity of Tetouan before the present-day city was built. Tamuda, the scant ruins of which can still be seen on the south side of Oued Martil, 4km southeast of town, was founded by the Berber Mauritanians in the third century BC, and razed by the Romans in 42 AD; and the original Tetouan, built by the Merenids in 1307, on the same site as today’s Medina, destroyed by a Castilian raiding party in 1399. The present town was established in 1484 by Muslims and Jews fleeing the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in southern Spain. Jewish merchants – able to pass relatively freely between Muslim North Africa and Christian Europe – brought prosperity to the city, and ramparts were put up in the seventeenth century under Moulay Ismail.
Tetouan has since been occupied twice by the Spanish. It was seized briefly, as a supposed threat to Ceuta, from 1859 to 1862, a period which saw the Medina converted to a town of almost European appearance, complete with street lighting. Then, in 1913 a more serious, colonial occupation began. Tetouan served first as a military garrison for the subjugation of the Rif, later as the capital of the Spanish Protectorate Zone. As such it almost doubled in size to handle the region’s trade and administration, and it was here in 1936 that General Franco declared his military coup against Spain’s elected Liberal–Socialist coalition government, thus igniting the Spanish Civil War.
For Tetouan’s Moroccan population, there was little progress during the colonial period. Spanish administration retained a purely military character and only a handful of schools were opened throughout the entire zone. This legacy had effects well beyond independence in 1956, and the town, alongside its Rif hinterland, adapted with difficulty to the new nation and was at the centre of anti-government rioting as recently as 1984. Aware of this undercurrent, the new king, Mohammed VI, made it his business to visit the former Spanish protectorate almost as soon as he ascended the throne in 1999, a gesture that helped to give Tetouan and its region a much stronger sense of nationhood than it had under the previous monarch.
The Orquesta Andalusi de Tetouan is one of the best-known groups playing Moroccan-Andalous music, a seductive style awash with Oriental strings. It was founded, and is still conducted, by Abdessadaq Chekana, and his brother Abdellah leads on lute. The orchestra has recorded with Spanish flamenco singer Juan Peña Lebrijano and has toured with British composer Michael Nyman (best known for his soundtracks for Peter Greenaway’s films – and for The Piano), from which came the 1994 album “Michael Nyman - Live”. Despite such collaborations, none of them reads music; everything is committed to memory. They often play in Tetouan and you may be able to catch them locally at an official reception, or at a wedding or festival; ask at the tourist office, where staff may be able to help.