The Fortaleza De Hacho is the world’s oldest colonial-era fortress, and one of its last still in use. The site of an earlier castle, Monte Hacho was captured by Portuguese adventurers in 1415, and, though it switched hands between the Portuguese and Spanish several times in its history, has remained an enclave of European powers ever since. Built to defend the city of Ceuta, which remains to this day a Spanish territory, the fort still houses a detachment of the Spanish army. Though still in use the Fortaleza de Hacho is one of Ceuta’s most popular tourist destinations.
It can be argued that the European colonial era began in 1415, when a Portuguese naval force seized Monte Hacho outside of the city of Ceuta in what is now Morocco. Ceuta subsequently became the first permanent territory of a European power outside of Europe since the Arab conquest centuries earlier. It remained a Portuguese territory for more than a century and a half.
To secure their possession, the Portuguese rebuilt and expanded earlier fortifications on Monte Hacho. The fortress batteries protected the city both from Muslim attacks by land and pirates and rival powers by sea. From 1580 to 1668, Ceuta was caught in a tug-of-war between Portugal and Spain, both of which were contending to expand their naval empires in the Mediterranean. In the end the city was ceded to Spain, and except for a few brief periods has remained a Spanish possession ever since.
Throughout the many colonial wars that wracked Western Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Ceuta became an enticing target for rival naval powers, notably France, as well as the fierce Barbary pirates that ravaged the North African coast. To further protect their territory, the Spanish expanded and strengthened the Fortaleza de Hacho into one of the most formidable fortifications in Africa. Interestingly, it was matched by the equally impressive British fortifications on the opposite shore at Gibraltar, which was effectively in Spanish territory.
The Fortaleza de Hacho is one of the oldest active fortresses in the world. It was still a key outpost of the Spanish army in the early 20th century, and witnessed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in North Africa in 1936. During World War II, Ceuta and its fort was one of the few havens in the region which escaped the ravages of both the Nazis and the Allies. Because it effectively controls travel between Africa and Europe at its narrowest point, the fort remains one of the most important Spanish military sites and checkpoints outside of Europe.
The Fortaleza de Hacho is one of the most impressive military structures on the North African coast. It stands on Monte Hacho, a very tall, steep rocky hill that dominates a peninsula on the eastern end of Ceuta. Cannons from its position utterly dominated the seaward approaches in three directions during colonial times. Because it has been in nearly-continuous military use for centuries, the fort has been regularly maintained and updated.
Fortunately, it still maintains its colonial era appearance, with thick outer walls and a half-dozen bastions. The modern day artillery is a reminder that Hacho is still in use. There are also a few outer defenses built on the mountain spurs, but these are no longer in use.
The Fortaleza de Hacho is still an active military installation of the Spanish army, one of the only such fortifications in the world built prior to the 20th century that is still in use. Because of this the interior is off-limits to visitors. However, the rest of the mountain, including close-up views of the fort exterior, are available to intrepid hikers. Web: www.ceuta.es (official tourism website of Ceuta).
During the 16th century, the Spanish expanded their hold on the coast of the Maghreb by building other forts. Probably the second best is the Santa Cruz Fort overlooking the city of Oran in neighboring Algeria.