…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
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.
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, although 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 Mare Nostrum–Our Sea–which was so 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.