The Americans in Tangier

Diplomats, soldiers and students at the American Legation in Morocco
guest contribution by Ayla Amon

[1] View of the Old Legation building, 2013. 
Unless noted otherwise, all photos by the author. 
In a recent article in the New York Times Style Magazine, Orhan Pamuk notes that “Museums must not confine themselves to showing us pictures and objects from the past; they must also convey the ambiance of the lost time from which those objects have come to us. And this can only happen through personal stories.” The Tangier American Legation Museum, [Fig. 1] nestled in the old medina of Tangier, Morocco, embodies this philosophy, reveling in stories of diplomacy, cultural encounters, espionage, piracy and...disco. 

[2] Old Legation building, ca. 1910.
Photo courtesy of TALIM.
The building of the Tangier Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies (TALIM)  [Fig. 2] embodies one of the oldest relationships between the United States and a foreign government. The original Legation building was home to the first U.S. ambassadorial residence abroad, established in 1777; this same year, Moroccan Sultan Muhammad III included the U.S. in a list of countries to which Morocco’s ports were open, thus becoming the first foreign nation to publicly recognize the newly independent United States. These relations were formalized a few years later with the 1786 Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship, which was signed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Muhammad III. This treaty, ratified by Congress in July 1787, has withstood more than 220 years of transatlantic stress, making it the longest unbroken treaty in United States history.

But why establish a Legation in Tangier at all? The geography of Northern Morocco and more specifically the position of Tangier provide one clue: Morocco lies at the westernmost entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar, and the rich Mediterranean is just beyond. [Fig. 3] Second, establishing a consul in Morocco by the sea recognized a ubiquitous threat: pirates. The young U.S. could not afford exorbitant ransoms for captured sailors, nor could they afford to pay protective tribute to a foreign ruler in exchange for protection, but political recognition provided a form of maritime security from both attacks and expenses. Serendipitously, their plight lined up with the Moroccan sultan’s own development strategies, and he provided a small, stone structure rent-free to the Americans.  

[3] De Leth, Map of the Straits of Gibraltar, original drawn in 1726, then printed in Amsterdam ca. 1740, hand-colored. Tangier American Legation Museum. 
Located within Tangier’s ancient medina walls, the Legation building became the first U.S. property and diplomatic mission abroad on December 4, 1821, after Sultan Moulay Suliman (r. 1792 – 1822) gifted the land to the American people. Moulay Suliman (also known as Slimane) noted “I order and permit free trade with all Americans in any part of my empire… the Americans mean more to me than any other nation, and whatever footing the most favored nation is on, they are to be favored more than any other.” (1) The building’s diplomatic function lasted more than 140 years, after which the Legation assumed multiple rolls until its incarnation as a museum in 1976.

[4] The TALIM courtyard, 2013. 
After a protracted length of time, the original 18th-century stone building was in need of repair. James de Long, consul from 1861 – 1862, complained of his lodgings: the dispatch and letter books were mutilated, the house dilapidated and leaking, the furniture broken, the books rotten, and the documents mildewed, if not eaten by mice [Hall, 128-30]. It was not until 1926 when Congress finally allocated funds to the new Consul Maxwell Black (serving between 1910 – 1917 and 1925 – 1941), who turned the old Legation building into an enlarged complex surrounding a courtyard, which is in essence what we see today on the ground. [Fig. 4] From 1927 – 1931, U.S. Consul Maxwell Blake undertook an ambitious program of restoration and renovation, gradually incorporating the surrounding buildings into the Legation (including a former brothel, which is now the research library). He also added doors, tilework, lanterns, grillwork, and mantelpieces from around Morocco and neighboring Spain that he meticulously selected [Wylie, 4 – 5]. The resulting harmonious blend of Andalusi and Moorish architectural traditions is still evident today throughout the museum in beautiful mashrabiya and a pavilion overlooking the courtyard.

During World War II, Tangier played a major role as a strategic entrance to the Mediterranean and hosted a number of Allied troops, including U.S. military personnel. The Legation building itself was used as a clandestine base by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and was the headquarters for military planning operations in North Africa that lead to landings in France and Italy in 1942. [Fig. 5] Tangier enjoyed a general reputation of intrigue and espionage throughout this period, which was captured in the 1942 film Casablanca (although this was filmed entirely in Hollywood).

[5] Sultan Mohammad V, President Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the President’s villa at Casablanca on January 22, 1943. Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
[6] Ladder leading down into the cistern.
 Image courtesy of TALIM.
After the end of the Spanish and French Protectorates and Moroccan independence in 1956, all foreign diplomatic missions moved to Rabat, Morocco’s new capital. The Legation building continued as the Consulate for five more years, until 1961 when it was turned first into a Western Arabic (Darija) language school for American diplomats (1961 – 1970) and then used as a Peace Corps training center (from 1970 – 1973) under Richard Holbrooke. During this time, the Legation building also developed a unique feature: a nightclub housed in the underground cistern called the Cistern Chapel, only accessible using a rickety metal ladder. [Fig. 6] It is easy to imagine the walls, still covered with graffiti, pulsing with music and candlelight late into the night. A Peace Corps volunteer from that time discusses the paintings: “one of the PC staff - a pretty good artist - did some murals, and then one night we got a little crazy with the paint and started putting our hands and feet and other body parts in paint and decorating the walls." [Fig. 7]

[7] Graffiti on one of the walls of the "Cistern Chapel." Image courtesy of TALIM.
This fond nostalgia is what infuses the walls and collections of the museum today. On July 4, 1976, in conjunction with the American bicentennial, a group of conservation-minded Americans established the Tangier American Legation Museum Society, transforming the old Legation building into a museum and cultural center. The museum and connected library document this rich history of the relationship between the United States and Morocco through its art collection, documents, seminars, concerts, lectures, and support services to the community.

[8] Malcolm Forbes Library in the Arab Pavilion, 2013.
The Legation promotes academic research in North Africa through an astoundingly deep library, one of the best on the history and culture of Morocco, which contains more than 8,000 materials in Arabic, French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. It also contains the ambassadorial archives, memorabilia, and book collection of former Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed (1981 – 1984), and one of the only printed and bound copies of the Tangier Gazette, which ran in various forms from 1884 – 1960. Another hallmark of the library is a large collection of antique maps (some of which are on display in the museum) that document European, American, and Moroccan explorations of the region. Additionally, the Arab Pavilion of the museum houses Malcolm Forbes’ book collection and two large dioramas showing the Battle of the Three Kings and the Battle of Songhai. [Fig. 8]

[9] The Pericardis room, with Ion Paricardis’ 
Arab Groom and Horse (oil on canvas, c. 1880). 
Tangier American Legation Museum. 
The museum maintains a collection of engravings, maps, paintings, drawings, and artifacts spanning multiple media and over 1,000 years of Moroccan history. When it opened, the museum primarily featured a large gift of over 300 objects (maps, prints, paintings, mirrors, rugs, and a grandfather clock) donated to the museum by Donald Angus, many of which are still on display today. Other significant gifts came from Marguerite McBey, wife of Scottish artist James McBey, who donated her husband’s paintings and sketchbooks, and William Pickering, who donated a number of carpets from his personal collection. The ground floor of the museum showcases Moroccan and international artists who have worked in and depicted Morocco from the 17th to 20th centuries, as well as a set of rooms dedicated to the life and works of Paul Bowles, including his music recordings. The upper floors are laid out as a series of period rooms filled with antique carpets, historical prints, documents, engravings, paintings, and maps. These objects “all reflect the fascinated affectation [Tangier] has long evoked in visitors” and combine to tell engaging stories about the past [Wylie, 9] . One such room, decorated with paintings, carpets, and Angus’ grandfather clock, tells the story of Ion Pericardis. [Fig. 9] 

[10] Museum display showing Raisuli (upper left)
and Pericardis (bottom right).
The room details the saga of Ion Pericardis, a Greek-American playboy prominent in Tangier’s foreign community, who on May 8, 1904 was kidnapped by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli’s bandits. [Fig. 10] Raisuli, who has been described as a combination of Robin Hood, feudal baron, and tyrannical bandit, was considered the last of the Barbary Pirates. In return for Pericardis, Raisuli demanded a $70,000 ransom, safe conduct, and control of two of Morocco’s wealthiest districts from Sultan Abdelaziz (r. 1878 – 1943). Despite the circumstances, Pericardis came to admire Raisuli, even going so far as to say “He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny” [Forbes, 74]. The episode eventually culminated in Secretary of State John Hay sending a wire stating: “The government wants Pericardis alive or Raisuli dead” before Pericardis was eventually released on June 21, 1904 after pressure on the Sultan to accept Raisuli’s demands. The kidnapping story was loosely adapted into the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, with a significant Hollywood twist: Pericardis was played by Candice Bergen. The room houses paintings by Pericardis in addition to photographs of himself, his kidnapper, and a copy of the wire sent by John Hay, all attempts to bring the saga alive for visitors more than a century later.

[11] James McBey, Zohra, May 1952, oil on canvas.
Tangier American Legation Museum.
The museum is full of objects that spin stories and tell tales, including James McBey’s 1952 oil painting, Zohra, who is known as the “Moroccan Mona Lisa” for her eyes that follow the visitor around the room [Fig. 11]; a 19th-century toy theatre likely from the French Pellerin d’Epinel (a woodcutter and card maker founded in 1796) meant to entertain visitors; a letter from George Washington to Moulay Abdallah; three sets of prehistoric arrowheads from the Grottos of Hercules; a collection of posters left over from the Jazz ambassadors from the 1960s; and, last but not least, Henry Kissinger’s tie. All of these stories bring to life the collections and history of the Legation, showcasing its role as a repository of the relationship between the U.S. and Morocco. More than that, the Legation creates a cultural bridge between two worlds, between past and present, and between fantasy and reality.

**This post is part of a co-production with Tajine, a podcast about the Maghreb. To hear Ayla discuss her work with TALIM's museum collection, check out  Tajine's podcast Inside the Tangier American Legation:

**The Museum, located at 8 Zankat America in the old medina, is open Monday through Thursday from 10:00 to 1:00 and from 3:00 to 5:00, and Fridays from 10:00 to 12:00 and 3:00 to 5:00, or by appointment on the weekends. To schedule a weekend or group appointment, visitors can contact Museum Curator Mohammed Jadidi ( or +212 539 93 53 17). To make appointments in the research library, open daily from 10:00 to 3:00, contact the Associate Director Yhtimad Bouziane ( or Administrative Assistant Latifa Samadi ( Any additional questions can be directed to 

AYLA AMON currently works in the Islamic Art Department of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also an M.A. Candidate in Museum Studies at The George Washington University. 

(1) Letter from Moulay Suleiman to Consul General John Mullowny, dated December 4, 1821. Original located at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Record Group 59).

FORBES, Rosita. The Sultan of the Mountains, the Life Story of Raisuli. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1924.
HALL, Louella. The United States and Morocco 1776 – 1956. Methuen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1971.
Secretary of State. The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. Washington, D.C., 2010.
Tangier American Legation.A Brief History.” 
United States Embassy.Strengthening U.S.-Morocco Relations.” 
WYLIE, Diana. Enchantment: Pictures from the Tangier American Legation Museum. Tangier: Tangier American Legation Museum, 2010.

Citation: "The Americans in Tangier," Ayla Amon, Stambouline (April 12, 2014).

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