Ceuta stands on a small peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea from the coast of North Africa. The hill on the tip of this peninsula, Monte Hacho, may be the southern pillar of the ancient Pillars of Hercules (the northern pillar being Gibraltar), which marked the western end of the Mediterranean. The town itself lies on the isthmus, a narrow neck of land that links the Monte Hacho with the mainland.
Ceuta was occupied by the Carthiginians and the Romans, who used it as a naval base. Throughout its history the defences of the city revolved around two sites: the isthmus where the town lay and the Monte Hacho above it. In the 12th century a castle was built on the Monte Hacho, although there had probably been some kind of fortification on the site since Roman times. The hill was also important because all the shipping passing through the Straits of Gibraltar can be seen from its summit. In 1415 the Portuguese attacked Ceuta and occupied it, making it one of the earliest Iberian posessions outside of Europe.
The Portuguese strengthened the fortifications and made some adaptations for artillery in the 1540s, which mainly consisted of lowering the walls and adding artillery platforms. At the west end of the town a short wall ran across the isthmus. This wall separated Ceuta from the hostile mainland of North Africa, so it was the most important part of the defences. The Portuguese built two large arrow-headed bastions at either end of the wall and a third smaller bastion to flank the north end. This impressive landward front was known as the Muralla Real. There was a flooded ditch in front, fed by water from the sea. The east end of the town was less vulnerable, but it was also given a partially flooded ditch and two small bastions.
The Muralla Real (Royal Wall) and its bastions are typical 16th century bastioned fortifications. The bastions are arrow-headed, with recessed flanks to protect the guns. Inside each bastion, behind the thick stone walls, there was a vaulted chamber. These chambers were casemates that had space for one gun to fire out of each flank. There was also provision for guns on top of the bastions. The south half-bastion (called the Baluarte de la Coraza) also had a cavalier on top to enable more guns to be mounted there. The central bastion, the Baluarte de la Bandera, was given a curious squat round tower at its apex. This was probably an observation point, but it is in stark contrast to the elegant sentry posts that were usually used for this purpose.
One problem of the narrow landward front was that it limited the defending artillery to what could be mounted on top of the relatively short wall. To offset this disadvantage and to protect the ends of the landward front, the Portuguese built two breakwaters extending the landward front at either end into the sea. These breakwaters had batteries installed on them, which covered the beaches approaching the town.
In 1668 Ceuta became Spanish when a period of Spanish-Portuguese union came to an end and the town sided with Spain. Part of the walls on the south side of the town were damaged during a fierce storm in 1674, leaving a large breach. The governor ordered these walls to be repaired, a particularly urgent task given the rising agression towards Europeans in North Africa. In the second half of the 17th century a local ruler called Muley Ismail expelled Europeans from Tangier, Mazagan, Mamora and Larache. It was clear that Ceuta was in danger of attack and the Spanish had to ensure that the fortifications were in a good state of repair.
Ceuta was attacked by Muley Ismail's forces in 1694, which marked the beginning of a prolonged siege that lasted for decades. At times the siege was not pressed and became nothing more than a blockade, but at other times serious assaults were made and the garrison was close to being overcome. The Moors attacked from the west, which was the only landward approach to the town. There were no suitable landing places on the peninsular and the Spanish were free to send supplies and reinforcements in by sea, so a frontal assault on the land front was the only way for the Moors to take Ceuta.
At the beginning of the siege the landward front was almost unchanged from the time of the Portuguese work in the 1540s. On the far side of the ditch, some crude outworks had been constructed - a small hornwork extending towards the north and some demi-lunes. The first Moorish attacks in the 1690s demonstrated that these outworks were woefully inadequate and left the main wall behind dangerously exposed. To strengthen their position, the garrison set to work remodelling the outworks during a lull in the fighting in the late 1690s.
A new hornwork, called the Hornabeque de la Valenciana, replaced the original outworks. It stretched across the isthmus and lay directly in front of the main wall, shielding it from enemy fire. The terrace of the hornwork was deliberately slightly lower, to enable guns on the main wall to fire over the top. However, the ground to the west of the new hornwork sloped upwards, so the attackers would be able to fire down onto it.
Despite the threat of continued Moorish attacks, the Spanish set to work constructing a series of outworks in front of the hornwork to take control of this higher ground. Directly in front of the hornwork they built a demi-lune called the Revellin de San Ignacio. On the left of this demi-lune was a small work called the Contraguardia San Javier and on the right was a larger triangular work, known as the Angulo de San Pablo (this outwork was in fact a modification of one of the outworks that existed at the start of the siege).
Beyond these, an additional line of outworks was built at various stages, whenever a lull in the fighting occurred. This outer line consisted of three works; one at the north end, one at the south end and the small and aptly named Reduto de Africa in the centre. This outer line of outworks prevented the Moors from exploiting the high ground to bombard the hornwork. On various occasions the Moors tried to dug tunnels under the fortifications in an attempt to destroy them with mines. In response, the garrison used countermines to stop the attackers' tunnels and plant mines underneath the siegeworks.
In 1720 a large force of Spanish troops arrived in Ceuta by sea. This army, led by the Marquis de Lede, had been sent to attack the Moorish army and break the siege. This force sallied out of the city and routed the besiegers, who were forced to retreat, abandoning their artillery. The Spanish destroyed the trenches and batteries that the Moors had dug and then withdrew. This is sometimes regarded as the end of the siege (1694-1720), although in reality the Moorish attacks were not one continuous siege in the conventional sense.
After the relief force was withdrawn the Moors returned and took up positions against the city again, but the battle had given the garrison a much-needed respite. The engineers made the most of this respite to repair the fortifications, as well as correcting some weaknesses. For instance, the outworks did not form a coherent defensive system, because each one had been constructed as a response to a particular threat or attack. They were remodelled in 1720 so that each one was covered by its neighbour and no gaps were left in either line.
By 1720s the Moorish trenches were approaching the second line of outworks, but their attacks stood no chance against the strengthened fortifications. In 1727 Muley Ismail died and the besiegers finally withdrew. The Moors returned briefly at the end of 1727 and then laid siege to Ceuta again from 1732 to 1734 but they could make no progress against the strong fortifications.
After the major changes made in the 1720s, the rest of the 18th century saw relatively little work on the fortifications of the land front. In the 1730s a new breakwater battery was built at the north end of the outer line of fortifications. The network of countermine galleries was also perfected and extended, linking all the outworks. One distinctive feature was the lack of "entrance road" through the fortifications, since they were constructed at a time when there was no peaceful traffic through the land front.
However, the 18th century did see work on other aspects of Ceuta's fortifications away from the land front. During the Moorish attacks the city was shelled and some of the inhabitants moved outside the walls to the east of the town. A new suburb grew up in this area, called the Almina. There was little risk of an attack from the east, but in time the Almina was surrounded by a wall of its own, with a partially bastioned front at the east end.
The most significant fortification work at Ceuta in the second half of the 18th century was on the Monte Hacho, the hill that dominates the peninsular. The old castle had been occupied for centuries, but its walls were obselete. In the 1770s it was transformed into a fort with five bastions. Some of the medieval walls with their semi-circular towers were retained between the bastions, making the fort a mixture of old and new.
Two other small forts were built by the Spanish on the peninsular, both protecting possible landing sites. The first, the Castillo del Desnarigado, was built on the south side of the peninsular as a semi-circular battery in the 1690s. In the 1860s it was enlarged and equipped with more powerful artillery. The second was the Fuerte del Sarchal, which was also on the south side of the peninsular, but close to the Almina. It was built in the early 18th century and consisted of a curved coastal battery with two half-bastions at the rear.
Ceuta suffered a final siege in 1790-1791, but the Moors were again defeated by the strongfortifications of the landward front. Following this period all of Morrocco came under Spanish control and the danger to Ceuta was reduced. During the Napoleonic Wars the fortress was garrisoned by British troops for Spain while the two countries fought the French together. After this period bastioned fortifications were becoming obsolete and eventually Ceuta's walls were decomissioned, although the Monte Hacho is still garrisoned to this day.
As with many bastioned fortifications, Ceuta has suffered from urban development but there are still plenty of remains to be seen. The most impressive part is the land front, where the Muralla Real, the flooded ditch, the hornwork and most of the first line of outworks are intact and have recently been restored. Unfortunately the outer line of outworks has been built over and no longer exists.
The land front fortifications are mostly accessible, apart from the top of the Muralla Real, which is part of a hotel. The Revellin San Ignacio contains an art museum and the Anugulo San Pablo is home to an exhibition on the history of Ceuta (both free entry). The Contrguardia San Javier has two restaurants inside and there is a cafe on top of the south breakwater, so the remaining fortifications are being put to good public use.
The Baluarte de los Mallorquines was partially demolished in the 1900s. Recently it was rebuilt, along with a wider archway for traffic, to house the tourist information office. The reconstructed bastion replicates the shape of the original Portuguese bastion, but its colouring and texture distinguishes it very effectively from the original fortifications.
The walls on the south and north sides of the isthmus still survive, but only fragments of the east front and the Almina walls can be seen. The Monte Hacho fortress is still occupied by the Spanish military, but it is possible to walk around the outside. Ceuta is a short ferry ride from mainland Spain (ferries sail from Algeciras) and there is plenty of accommodation to be found in the town.