Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock

…The concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high …The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa… [covered in bushes which] flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.
–William Serfaty, The Pillars of the Phoenicians

Macaque at Gibraltar
Straits of Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Mons Calpe. Pillar of Hercules (Ἡράκλειαι Στῆλαι). Jabar Tariq. What the Neanderthals called it is unknown. The Barbary Macaques–The Rock Apes–don’t tell us their name for it either. Nowadays, most humans call it Gibraltar.

Because of an advertising campaign, Gibraltar has long been associated with safety and security. Getting a “piece of the rock” is connected to insurance which yearns for a boring, uneventful existence. However, assumptions which link Gibraltar and peace are flawed at heart. The Rock has reflected 2.6 square miles of arguments and disputed ownership for much of its human history, especially during the last five centuries.

Prudential Insurance early advertising
Prudential Insurance advertising, sourced Wikipedia.

Rock of Ages

The Phoenicians settled Calpe as early as 950 BC. Their trade-based civilization stretched west across the entire southern Mediterranean, from Tyre (Lebanon) to Carthage (Tunis) to Tingis (Tangier), and lasted for centuries just as Greece and Rome were beginning to flower. Cala-Pietra meant hollow stone in Aramiaic/Phoenician; the Romans made it Mons Calpe, hollow stone mountain, though that seems a tad redundant.

Greek mythology linked the rock to the Pillars of Heracles/Hercules. One of his twelve Labors was to fetch the cattle of Geryon, on the Iberian peninsula, but his way was blocked by a giant mountain. Supposedly, he smashed it in two, creating the Straits and the two high points or pillars. Gibraltar was further referred to as Non Plus Ultra–Nothing Beyond Here. Plato thought perhaps Atlantis lay beyond its borders and some interpretations of Homer place part of Odysseus’ journeys out into that giant body of water of mystery, so different from Our Sea–Mare Nostrum–that was familiar.

For all those early sailing cultures, the rock existed as landmark and gateway, both final resting place, and the last piece of the known world to the west. Beyond There Lay Dragons.

The land near the Rock was not particularly habitable and establishing settlements on the high promontory was difficult at best. Yet, because of its position at the point of the southern tip of the peninsula, with access to both land and sea and miles of visibility, Gibraltar was settled and resettled. After the Phoenicians declined and the Romans let the barbarians have the west as they fled east, the Visigoths planted settlements throughout Spain and scratched a living out of the soil. Being less literate than their Phoenician predecessors, they left little records of what they encountered or how they dealt with the natives. For most of The Rock’s known history, humans shared the fortress with the original settlers–the macaques.

The Original and Undisputed Champion Settlers of Gibraltar

Tha monkeys have presided over the disputes for centuries. Or, ignored them, knowing that they were in fact the true owners of the territory. Spanish accounts say the animals stowed away on ships that crossed the ships with the Muslims. The monkeys–not apes, although they are tailless–share their DNA with the Barbary Macaques across the northern tip of Africa. Whether they spread with the Saracens, the Phoenicians, the Neanderthals, or even earlier, when the land mass was still one, their legacy is long.

So many different settlements took root around the promontory that it’s easy to imagine wave after wave of cultures annoyed that they couldn’t quite get rid of the pests. Tales in older diaries and journals make it clear that the creatures would come down from the heights frequently enough to steal into houses on the plain. Such tales abound today as we heard guides and taxi drivers on our tour repeatedly mention cases where homeowners had found their refrigerator raided and one kind of mess after another spread around their breakfast room.

The macaques today rule the railings, walkways, platforms, and roads–they hopped on the hood and roof of every taxi that crawled up the tiny road. According to warnings we received, they can empty a backpack quicker than you can say “wear that on your front.” As you cry, “How cute!”and come close for a photo op, they grab your Galaxy 9 and after a minute’s entertainment with the Shiny Thing, toss it nonchalantly off the cliff. Snapping spectacular panoramas from the highest platform, we heard a cycle of coos and punctuated screams as other tourists got close, then tried to jump away when the creature got too chummy, like a mugger who drapes his arm across your shoulders as he helps himself to your wallet.

No doubt the shop keeper of the little cafe spends all day long bellowing CLOSE THAT DOOR without even turning to look.

Macaque at Gibraltar souvenirs
Going for a Coke at Gibraltar. Barbara Macaque photo by kajmeister.

The Saracens Take a Turn

When the Muslims came up to Spain in 711, they also put hooks into land, building a Moorish castle on the plain that stands today. No doubt they stationed guards up on Lookout Mountain, which by then they called Jabal Tariq–Mount Tariq–after their commander Tariq ibn Ziyad. They spread out across, firmly establishing Andalusia across the south and spreading northward for centuries.

Eventually, the northern European traders and farmers pushed back and slowly started taking territory back across the kingdoms of Aragon, Catalan, and Castille. The Crusades, the desire to protect increasingly lucrative Mediterranean trading, and the rise of stronger central governments in French, Italian, and Austrian kingdoms kept the Muslims busy, and they clustered into Andalusia for much of the 11th-14th centuries.

As written history–written northern European history–became more prevalent, detailed accounts of battles over Gibraltar proliferated. The Muslims are pushed out of Andalusia and Granada in the 1460s, just prior to the unification of Castille and Aragon through Ferdinand and Isabella. But disputes continued, as historical accounts refer to the Tenth Siege of Gibraltar in 1504, as a wayward Duke of Medina tried to take The Rock away from the Castillians now firmly rooted.

After nearly a thousand years of legend and quiet occupation by a few different groups, Gibraltar’s story from 1400 on becomes mired in one dispute after another. It’s particularly curious that it ends up in the hands of the British.

World War Beta version 0.5

The Treaty of Utrecht is one of those great answers in a Trivia Contest; the Treaty of Utrecht is how Gibraltar was ceded to the Brits.

I was taught in history that WWI was the first time countries engaged in mass alliances on a large scale. However, reading about earlier contests–such as the War of Spanish Succession–suggests that large scale alliances go back for centuries. In one instance, a Spanish king died without an heir, leaving the territory vulnerable to yet another dispute between the Habsburgs and French, with the English and Dutch maritime powers taking sides. If you read a short history of Gibraltar, it always seems to “start” in 1704 with this dispute, most likely because Great Britain ends up on the winning side.

As Spain/France fought against an alliance of Austria/England/Netherlands, the Anglo-Dutch alliance managed to grab on to the Rock. When this particular Spanish succession war ended in 1713, the Treaty gave Gibraltar to the British. The language was fuzzy enough about boundary lines, however, that even today the Spanish do not agree about the border or even Britain’s rights. For the remainder of the 18th century, Spanish and French forces tried to take the mountain back with at least four more sieges.

1704 illustration Siege of Gibraltar
One of many Sieges of Gibraltar, painting displayed in the siege tunnels. Photo by kajmeister.

The British spent a chunk of time in the late 18th century digging out the siege tunnels that you can walk through today. Between a little dynamite and a lot of manpower, they hollowed out spaces to put plenty of cannons. The fourteenth and final (so far) siege took place in 1779, as the Spanish and French tried to take advantage of British distractions over on my side of the pond.

Gibraltar Siege Tunnel
Siege Tunnel inside Gibraltar, photo by kajmeister

Miles of tunnels and better position let the British keep their hold on this 3 mile monolith. According to stories inside the tunnels, when the French commander visited after 1780, he was astonished at how extensive and deep the fortifications were created and exclaimed that he could not have done it better.

Gibraltar view from the inside
View from inside the Gibraltar siege tunnels, photo by kajmeister

Hitler didn’t stop here

During World War II, the British also garrisoned 16,000 troops in Gibraltar, concerned about Hitler’s attempt to gain a toehold into Spain. They also were preparing areas inside the large interior caverns to act as military hospitals. While Spanish King Franco was allied with Hitler and Mussolini, he was none-too-keen to lose Spain to Germany, so he tried to keep Spain out of the battle zone. For one reason or another, Hitler never did attack Gibraltar.

Gibraltar St. Michael's Cave
St. Michael’s Cave inside Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Today, the caves are yet another reminder of how much is inside Gibraltar waiting to be discovered. The macaques surely know all the secrets, but they don’t tell.

La la la I don’t Acknowledge You…

Referring to the current demarcation, Spanish official terminology always uses the word “fence” (verja in Spanish) instead of “frontier” or “border”, since it does not acknowledge the possibility of having a frontier with what Spain considers to be its own territory. Historically however it has often been referred to as a frontier, even during the Franco era on official documents. Frontier passes were issued by the Spanish authorities which clearly referred to it as a frontier.

–Wikipedia discussion on Spain’s dispute of British possession of the isthmus

Today, Spain and Britain still disagree over what belongs to who. Even as recently as yesterday, Britain’s Daily Star had a story about a Spanish gunboat “trespassing” into British waters and a feisty UK version of the coastal navy guards.

Any siege today would not doubt have to shoo away both monkeys and hordes of tourists that penetrate the caverns and tunnels and swarm over every paved substance. But when you are up on Gibraltar, and you can see that view of Spain, the sea, the ocean, and Africa, it’s easy to understand its seductive charm.

Gibraltar today, photo by kajmeister

In a unique view of such a chunk of the known world, everyone–the sailors, the conquerors, the traders, the inhabitants, the strategists, the soldiers–would want to be there. Everyone wants a piece.

San Francisco, American Phoenix

1906 SF earthquake
April 18, 1906 San Francisco, photo from wikipedia

Today marks the 112th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Watching the news of the commemoration this morning, I am struck by how the city has throughout its history managed to stand for both old and new. The more I poked around the ashes of the story of this most famous disaster, the more I realized how much it stands for rebuilding and the spirit of renewal.

Perhaps the 50th Largest Earthquake

The 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12 am and lasted for 42 seconds, less than a full minute.  The estimated Richter magnitude is 7.9, which makes it the tenth largest quake recorded in the United States. However, the frequency and size of earthquakes around the Pacific Ocean–from Sumatra to Alaska–means that the SF quake doesn’t even make the list of top forty largest earthquakes in world history.

Earthquakes were not particularly frequent or known occurrences in the fledgling California at the time. The Richter scale wasn’t to be invented for another thirty years and scientists, looking back, don’t think there was a tremendous amount of seismic activity beforehand. But, of course, that is how pressure builds up and the quake is the mechanism that allows the faults relieve themselves when they are crushed too closely together. Pressure must escape and, like a genie released from a bottle, the impact of releasing a giant force from a tiny space is hugely felt. Continue reading “San Francisco, American Phoenix”

Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator

Beautiful Brain
The Stupendous Middle-Aged Brain, picture from

Of course my keys are in the laundry basket. Of course my wallet fell out of the pouch I forgot to zip. My middle-aged brain forgets the name I looked up only two minutes ago, how to fix that thing that WordPress always does, and what you just said. Last week, my wife came out of the garage with a piece of paper. “Honey, did you need this list of CDs?” Such relief!  “I was frothing at the mouth looking for that! Where did you find it!” On top of the frozen bagels.

At middle-age, we lose episodic memory. More on that later, if I make myself a note not to forget to write that part. As we age, we do lose cognitive function, and we incur an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But our Over-40 brains also have a lot going for them, as I learned from Barbara Strauch’s fascinating book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.

Debunking the Brain Myths: Smarter than a 25-year-old

Believe it or not, we are smarter than we were and, in some ways, demonstrably smarter than a 25-year-old. Strauch cites a number of studies that have had me crowing with pride for the last week. For example, psychologist Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University ran a forty-year longitudinal study on the mental prowess of 6,000 participants. This Seattle Study, which covered people of multiple genders, ages, and occupations, found that they performed better on cognitive tests between age forty and sixty than at any other time in their life. Continue reading “Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator”

Fun with Tariffs

They’re in the news. They’re in our history. They’re causing massive churn in the stock market. They make my eyes want to roll back in my head. Like gremlins, those wacky, pesky tariffs are back to bother us again!

They even have funny names, like Smoot-Hawley, which has to be one of the more unfortunate names for a piece of legislation, or political theater, if that’s your preferred description for a tariff. The Tariff of Abominations from 1828 at least had a zing to it. Harmonized Systems sounds like something you listen to while floating in a hot tub, looking up at the stars. Even the possible origin of the word--Tarifa--might make you think of the sirocco whistling through an oasis of palm trees.

Smoot-Hawley was a name I could never remember, when I was a wee lass back in high school AP History. The Alien & Sedition Acts was a much easier moniker because that sounds like the title of sexy sci-fi thriller, doesn’t it?  Smoot-Hawley, nope; the long “o” and lazy “aw” sounds would make my eyelashes flutter faster than a hypnotist’s swaying watch. Filmmaker John Hughes understood this dynamic because he created one of the most famous teacher scenes ever filmed, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Continue reading “Fun with Tariffs”

A Quartet Convenient but not Required

Vivaldi Spring and cherry blossoms
Spring is the ideal time for Vivaldi, photo & music from Youtube

I had a lovely post on tariffs all mapped out for this week’s essay, but then the sunrise came up pink and the Dailypost word turned out to be “Quartet” and I looked at the daffodils on the kitchen counter, and all I could think about was Spring! Spring! Spring! We’ve sprung into a new season–officially last week in northern California, the northern United States, the northern hemisphere of Terra Firma. Everyone knows there are four of everything that make up the universe: seasons, elements, states of matter, humors, food groups. Is four some sort of natural requirement?

Maybe only Two Seasons. Or, How about Six?

We are humans; we like to divide things. It seems pretty obvious that there would be at least two seasons, since the winter and summer solstice create natural divisions in a calendar. There is a point of time where the days get longer in most of the civilized part of the world, and another point where days get shorter.  Western civilization evolved to recognize four separate seasons, with the other two categorizes recognizing the equinoxes, those times when the day and night are roughly equal before transitioning to slightly longer or slightly shorter. Continue reading “A Quartet Convenient but not Required”