A Historic Bond: The Tangier American Legation Institute and U.S.-Morocco Diplomacy

A Historic Bond: The Tangier American Legation Institute and U.S.-Morocco Diplomacy

Darren Raspa
The Tangier American Legation Institute
The Tangier American Legation Institute

The Emperor has done a favor, by providing a house for me, and any future consul, free of expense or rent which will prevent in future any annual charge for rent from and after the 17th December last, this act is putting the United States on the same footing with all the Christian powers, he has either provided a house or the ground for all heretofore, and now the whole are equal.   

–Consul John Mullowny to John Quincy Adams

                                              Tangier, Morocco, 1 July 1822

Phoenix, Arizona – With the words above a permanent physical partnership was forged between the United States and the Kingdom of Morocco which lasts to today. Indeed, the Tangier American Legation Museum serves as a reminder of the precious historic bond between the two nations, Morocco being the first state to recognize the United States in 1777. The Legation building is difficult to miss in the medina of the city. Located at number 8 Zankat America Street, this gift to the United States from the Sultan Moulay Slimane one hundred and thirty-five years ago is the oldest American diplomatic property in existence and the only National Historic Landmark located outside the bounds of the United States.

A trip inside the museum now housed on site will provide the visitor with breathtaking works of art, early-nineteenth-century furnishings, period photographs, books, and assorted diplomatic documents of interest to both the researcher and nonacademic guest alike.

Although the current Legation architecture is noteworthy for its finely-crafted Moorish arches, fountains, gardens, ornate zellij tilework, finely-crafted metalwork, and sprawling layout, the building looked far different in 1821 than it does today, and began its existence as a simple single-story structure to house visiting diplomats during the early Jacksonian period of American history. The updated building that visitors witness is primarily the product the late 1920s and instituted by the consul at the time, Maxwell Blake. The property is currently administered and maintained by the Tangier American Legation Museum Society in Washington, D.C.

The Tangier American Legation Institute
Photo courtesy of the author

The Legation remained a consular residence and office until Moroccan independence finally came in 1956. The working diplomatic function of the Legation concluded in 1961 with construction of a new consular office and residence in the new town section of Tangier. With the moving off-site of the diplomatic functions of the structure, the old Legation became an Arabic language school for diplomats and their families as well as a Peace Corps training site. 

Following the departure of the Peace Corps in 1975, the Legation seemed destined for demolition. However, a group of American historians and preservationists used the momentum of the two-hundred-year anniversary of American independence to rescue the condemned and crumbling facility built when nation was still young. Working for little or no pay, the preservation team worked for nearly three years to retrofit the building, rescue its dissolving interior and exterior, and make it safe once again for guests. In 1978 the Legation building changed its purpose once more and began life anew as the Tangier American Legation Museum. The staff immediately began the lengthy process to obtain recognition from the National Register of Historic Places for historical site status. Two years later, in 1980, their efforts paid off and the Tangier American Legation Museum gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, the first such designated site outside the United States, and became a National Historic Landmark shortly thereafter.

The Tangier American Legation Institute
Photo courtesy of the author

Taking the place of the American consuls who formerly lived on the grounds has been the site directors and their families, understandably one of the most coveted positions in the National Historic Landmark system. What a wonder it must be to live among the collections contained on site, which range from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European engravings, watercolors, and prints, and sixteenth-century antique maps, to a comprehensive collection of art from Gibralter and priceless Moroccan rugs.

The Legation continued its heritage of fostering learning when it became affiliated with the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS) in 1987, serving as one of its two overseas sites. Today the site also serves as a conference center and a study center for researchers. For the student of Moroccan, North African, or American diplomatic history, the Legation library houses over 2,500 volumes of books and documents dating from the seventeenth-century, as well as English-language newspapers from Tangier dating from 1883. Microfilm of dispatches between U.S. and Morocco from 1797 and 1906 are also sure to enthrall the professional researcher and student alike. Processing continues on items recovered and donated to the facility from around the world, which makes each visit to the Legation Museum a new and rewarding one. 

The Tangier American Legation Institute
Photo courtesy of the author

Although the Legation is the property of the U.S. State Department, the administration of the historic property as well as the preservation and management of the site’s collections are the responsibility of the Tangier American Legation Museum Society. The site’s current primary role as the Tangier American Institute for Moroccan Studies ensures that scholars and visitors alike will discover something remarkable with each trip and that the historic bond of friendship between the United States and Morocco will continue for generations.

For more information visit: www.legation.org

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