"Gibraltar - the ancient 'End of the Earth'" Gibraltar by dlytle

Gibraltar Travel Guide: 1,135 reviews and 2,284 photos

The spectacular rock monolith of Gibraltar

On the way from Malaga to Ronda we stopped off the road (C344) a couple of times so that we could get photographs from these heights looking back towards the Mediterranean. Our guide, Felix, pointed out that way off to the west, in the distance, almost shrouded in mist was the legendary 'Rock of Gibraltar'. By golly, there it was! I had wanted to see it since I was a kid watching Television. The old Prudential Insurance Company advertising showing the 'Rock' never did leave my imagination. Even as I toured Ronda, thoughts of taking a side trip to Gibraltar were formulating in my mind. When I discovered that my traveling companion also wanted to see Gibraltar the decision was made and instead of going back to Malaga, after touring Ronda, we headed for the Spanish city of La Linea that shares an uneasy border with Gibraltar.

The Straits of Gibraltar separate Gibraltar from North Africa with a distance of over 14 miles (21 km) between them. Before Columbus 'discovered' America, Gibraltar was considered to be the end of the earth. Where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea was widely known to be the end of the ancient world. Only after Columbus made his epic journey to America in 1492 and passed through the legendary Pillars of Hercules, and then far beyond Gibraltar, were it and the mountains of Africa no longer considered to be at the edge of the world.

In the modern world, the spectacular rock monolith of Gibraltar is a territory of the United Kingdom that is carved out of the southwestern European coastline, abutting Spain, and occupies a strategic location on the Strait of Gibraltar. Interestingly, this is the only place on the Iberian Peninsula where English is the official language.

The name Gibraltar comes from the Arabic Jabal al Tariq, which means 'Tariq's mountain' (named for the Arab Tariq ibn Ziyad). Earlier it was Calpe, one of the Columns of Hercules. Today, Gibraltar is known colloquially as 'Gib' or 'the Rock'.

Gibraltar is dominated by a huge mass of limestone rock thought to be at least 135 million years old (Jurassic Age for you science buffs). Remember that limestone is made up of millions upon millions of small shelled creatures that have died and then settled onto the sea bed. Slowly, over eons, these shells harden and become rock. So for many millions of years there is a mass of underwater limestone growing taller and taller atop the bedrock of the Mediterranean. This happened when the earth's continents look nothing like they do today and Dinosaurs still ruled the land. Then, during the Cretaceous Age (140 to 65 million years ago), with unimaginable force, the African tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate. The collision caused the land to fold and formed mountain chains like the Alps. Other pieces and chunks were pushed out of their old positions. One of those pieces was thrust westwards and came to rest where Gibraltar stands today. Also, resulting from this titanic impact, the Mediterranean became a huge lake that, in the course of time, dried up. Then, about five million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean broke through the then closed Strait of Gibraltar with the resultant flood creating the Mediterranean Sea. So Gibraltar had a very violent birth indeed!

Today, Gibraltar's territory covers over 4 square miles (6 sq. km) and it shares land border about 7/10ths of a mile (1.2 km) long with Spain. Its terrain is composed of narrow coastal lowland bordering the 1,400 foot (426 m) high Rock of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar's Turbulent Past

Gibraltar has an extremely varied history. Early tourists here were the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Berbers. Notably, it served as a fortress (see the picture) for the Moors between the 11th and 15th century. The walls of that old castle enclosed a considerable area, reaching almost to the sea. Today it is a place showing the marks of battle but still standing proud with the Union Jack flying overhead.

Ancient man was drawn here because of its impressive stature, towering isolated above the surrounding countryside. Gibraltar is like a giant beacon that signals the position of the Strait of Gibraltar which provides the only link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

This beacon that attracted the early inhabitants had many advantages as a home. Being limestone, the Rock is now riddled with caves. Over 140 have been discovered so far. Those that had openings to the outside world made perfect shelters for these early tourists. The climate was also colder than today which meant that the sea level was lower. So off the eastern cliffs of the Rock a large, flat, sandy plain stretched out towards the distant Mediterranean. It had to be full of good hunting. Experts believe there were many rabbits, red deer, wild cattle and horse along with now extinct species of elephant and rhinoceros while on the cliffs there were wild mountain goats. The early inhabitants of Gibraltar probably considered this place a paradise.

But what a turbulent past Gibraltar has had. In historical times it has been besieged 15 times but never forcefully taken. And during the course of the 19th century, Gibraltar developed into a fortress of renowned impregnability - the phrase "As safe as the Rock" becoming commonplace in the English language.

Its history is long and glorious. Mohammed's followers burst out of Arabia after his death in 632 and by the end of the 7th century their descendants had conquered the whole of North Africa. Their first incursion into Iberia (modern Spain) was in 710. In 711 the Rock was firmly in control of the Muslims. Although it changed hands a few times over the years, the Moors retained Gibraltar until 1462, when it finally passed from Moorish possession into Castilian ownership. In 1502, it was annexed to the Spanish crown.

In more recent times, Gibraltar was Spanish until 1704 when Britain captured it away from Spain. Then Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain by Spain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. In 1779, Spain wanted Gibraltar back and began its 'Great Siege' which lasted for four years causing great destruction to Gibraltar and its fortifications. In 1783 Spain ended its four-year siege without regaining Gibraltar. The result being that in 1830 Gibraltar became a British crown colony. Spain still contests that Gibraltar belongs to it and is at odds with the British government about it even today.

Myth of the Pillars of Hercules

In early historical times Gibraltar was known as Mons Calpe, one of the legendary pillars created by Hercules as a religious shrine and as an entrance to the Mediterranean. According to Grecian mythology, the Pillars of Hercules was the gate to the new world. These Pillars (or Gates) of Hercules are usually identified as Gibraltar in Europe and Mt. Acha at Ceuta in Africa. The Jebel Musa (West of Ceuta) is also considered one of the pillars. Recounted below is the myth as I found it on the internet.

The Myth of the Pillars of Hercules:

After killing Medusa, Perseus took the head of the Gorgon with him to distant lands and reached the western end of the Earth where the sun sets - the land where Atlas the Titan resided and raised magical golden apples. Perseus wished to rest in Atlas' garden and asked him for food but Atlas - fearing that the hero would steal his magical fruit - refused and sent Perseus away. Perseus then showed Atlas the head of Medusa and the Titan turned into a giant mountain - his hair turning into a great forest, his shoulders into cliffs and his bones into solid rock.

The naming of the pillars

When Hercules had to perform twelve labors, one of them was to fetch the Cattle of Geryon and bring it to Eurystheus. On his way to the island of Erytheia he had to cross the mountain that was once Atlas. Instead of climbing the great mountain, Hercules split it in half using his indestructible mace. By doing so, he connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and formed the Strait of Gibraltar. One part of the split mountain is currently called Gibraltar and the other is the Acho Mountain. These two mountains taken together have since been known as the Pillars of Hercules.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Incredible monolith that just draws the eye from miles away
  • Cons:I didn't get to really visit it, just see it from the Spanish side and photograph it
  • In a nutshell:I want to go back and experience it fully
  • Last visit to Gibraltar: Apr 2004
  • Intro Updated May 2, 2004
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dlytle

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