The Skeletons of Portuguese Tangier

6a00e54f782d83883301a511ca2bdb970c-800wiThe skeletons of Martin Malcolm Elbl’s book are not in any closets, they’re the very walls of Tangier’s medina, its old walled city which was, for centuries, Tangier itself, before the city dared build outside the fortifications.

“Your library has been randomly selected…” was the explanation on the $0.00 invoice slip that accompanied Portuguese Tangier (1471-1662): Colonial Urban Fabric as Cross-Cultural Skeleton, by Martin Malcolm Elbl of Trent University in Ontario.  This 1,000 page tome is the first volume of a series published by the Baywolf Press for Portuguese Studies Review (PSR).

Here’s how PSR describes the book:

The book offers a “virtual archaeology” of the Portuguese urban fabric heritage–both vanished and preserved–in Tangier’s médina, the walled Old Town. Solidly grounded in archival sources and profoundly revisionist, Portuguese Tangier alters our image of the médina to an unexpected extent.

“Encyclopedic” is often overused, but in the case of Martin Malcolm Elbl storehouse of knowledge, it is an understatement; Elbl is as at home in Portuguese as in Arabic, as at ease with GIS modeling as he is with Wencelas Hollar engravings of British Tangier.

Oh yes, what is British Tangier doing in a book on the Portuguese era, the mere twenty years which came on the heels of the two long centuries of Portuguese rule?  Elbl says that the British conveniently renamed much of what was in fact Portuguese (our own neighbor, the wonderfully-named “Irish Battery,” was originally the Portuguese Cubelo do Bispo).  Same stones, different colonists.

There’s much useful background for understanding what Elbl calls the “prehistory” of the Legation’s immediate surroundings.  The drouj merican or American steps, built into the medina wall in 1911 to allow more convenient access to the American Legation, had been predated by a Portuguese-era entrance further down what today is, appropriately, Rue du Portugal.

And then there’s another long-gone neighbor: “the ‘Sultan Steam Mill’ (almost back to back with the Legation). This was in the 1880s — one of the early waves of industrialization at Tangier.”  And the nearby “Times of Morocco” offices… we have much to learn from Portuguese Tangier, which is an unexpected but important addition to our research library.

Thank you Martin Malcolm Elbl, the Portuguese Studies Review, Trent University, and the Baywolf Press.  We suspect that the “random selection” had a bit of human agency behind it!

Gerald Loftus

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