Tales of pirates, diplomacy and espionage frame America’s liaison with the exotic city

In May 1904, Ion Perdicaris, a wealthy American expatriate living in Tangier, was abducted from his sumptuous villa by Ahmed er Raisuli, "the last of the Barbary pirates." His kidnapping, writes Jonathan Broder, "set in motion an extraordinary international drama that would pit the might of the U.S. Navy against the wily Riffian bandit, secure Theodore Roosevelt's nomination for the Presidency and ultimately help him retain the White House." But above all, says Broder, "the Perdicaris affair would serve as a reminder of Tangier's power to taunt and tantalize the American imagination."

In 1777, Morocco, with its diplomatic capital in Tangier, became one of the first countries to recognize American independence. It also gave Americans their first taste of terrorism, helping to harbor the notorious Barbary pirates who raided U.S. ships, enslaved its citizens and eventually provoked America's first official foreign war. But by the turn of the century, Tangier's mercurial blend of beauty and barbarism had enticed a cadre of rich, adventuresome Americans like Perdicaris to make the sun-drenched, exotic city their second home. In the years that followed, Tangier would become a cauldron of espionage and international intrigue, a haven for smugglers and exiles, and a home for such American writers as Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, who transformed the city into the most celebrated expatriate colony of its time.

The symbol of America's historic fascination with Tangier is the old American Legation, a rambling 18th-century mansion inside the walls of the city's old quarter. Now a private museum and cultural center, the structure, a National Historic Landmark since 1981, is the longest-held American property on foreign soil. Over the years the legation building has sheltered consuls, both notable and notorious; lions, both literal and literary; and a host of renowned dignitaries, spies and expatriates, lured to the city by its strategic locale and compelling beauty.

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