Gibraltar—More than a Symbol of Strength
By “Awake!” correspondent in Morocco
STANDING as a sentinel guarding the western entrance of the Mediterranean Sea is a huge rock—the famous Rock of Gibraltar. It has become so closely associated with the quality of strength that, whenever it is mentioned, the expression immediately comes to mind, “As strong as the Rock of Gibraltar.”
But Gibraltar is more than a strongly fortified rock. It is also the home of many people. From even before the first century of our Common Era there is record of its occupation by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans; the Romans relinquishing possession to the invading Goths in the fifth century C.E.
More Recent Occupants
In 711 C.E. Tarik ibn-Ziyad led some 12,000 Moors in the capture of the strategic citadel. The Moors named it “Jabal Tarik” (Mountain of Tarik) after their leader. In time the name became corrupted to “Gibraltar.”
Six hundred years later the Moors’ occupation was interrupted by Spain’s seizure of the Rock in 1309. King Ferdinand IV of Castile issued a decree designed to encourage people to settle here. The decree exempted settlers from military service and payment of royal taxes. It even made Gibraltar a sanctuary for criminals escaping from justice. Their crimes would be pardoned upon completion of a year and a day of residence.
Spanish efforts to hold the fortress failed, however, the Moors retaking it in 1333. In the following years ferocious fighting for possession erupted intermittently, with Spain finally capturing the prize again in 1462. Although fortified by the Spanish so that it was considered impregnable, Gibraltar fell to the British in July 1704, and they have held it ever since.
When capturing Gibraltar, the British permitted the 6,000 Spanish residents the choice of either staying or leaving. Fewer than one hundred stayed. The rest crossed the isthmus to found the little town of San Roque about six miles away. Gibraltar’s population was thus drastically reduced.
In time the human vacuum filled, principally with Spanish and Italian settlers. But also Jews, Moroccans, Indians and others took up residence. Eventually these all became welded into a distinct people—Gibraltarians. Today the colony has some 25,000 inhabitants. Most of them speak both Spanish and English.
A Distinctive Home
The home of Gibraltarians is a rocky peninsula, less than three miles long and one mile wide, that juts out from the Spanish mainland. It is about one-tenth the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, and would be an island, too, except for the low, sandy isthmus that forms a heavily guarded “neutral zone” between Spain and Gibraltar.
The massive Rock, of course, is the colony’s predominant feature. It rises to about 1,400 feet, and from the top one can see Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The colony’s only town lies on the western side of the Rock, where a good deal of land has been reclaimed from the sea. The entire business district is on level ground; however, the residential area clings spectacularly to the terraced slopes.
Here there are shaded lanes and hanging gardens, and the air is scented with blossoms. According to actual count, there are more than five hundred species of plants. These include date palms, pine, cypress, eucalyptus, carob, fig, pepper, wild olive, orange and lemon trees and a variety of cactus plants. Almost all this rich vegetation grows on the western side. The eastern and northern faces of the Rock are bare and precipitous.
Gibraltarians are blessed with a warm but not extremely hot climate that favors outdoor activity. In summer almost everyone likes to spend time on the beaches. Many families prepare their meals the previous evening so that they can be on the beach bright and early. Some youths like to go underwater fishing, often returning with young octopus or other tasty delicacies of the sea.
On the other hand, many persons enjoy riding to the top of the Rock in one of the new cable cars. These travel up the aerial ropeway in a matter of minutes. From there one can see Morocco’s Rif Mountains and, upon looking the other way, Spain’s Costa del Sol. How spectacular!
Inside the Rock
Some of Gibraltar’s most remarkable attractions are inside the Rock itself, where many natural caves are found. St. Michael’s cave is sometimes used as an auditorium in which up to six hundred spectators have watched musical performances. It is thrilling to observe the stalactites and stalagmites as they take on various hues from the colored lights that are played on them.
But besides the natural caves, the Rock is literally riddled with man-made tunnels and huge excavations that serve as reservoirs. During World War II the British blasted thirty miles of underground passageways. There they had hospitals, barracks, ammunition dumps, workshops—a regular city! Recently my family and I took a tour inside the Rock.
Our guide showed us several reservoirs, explaining: “Each one is twenty-one feet deep and its bottom is 340 feet above sea level. They have all been blasted out of solid rock.” All together, there are thirteen reservoirs, We learned, with a total capacity of sixteen million gallons of water. To give a better idea of their size, the guide said that one of them had been used as a three-story barracks housing four hundred soldiers during the war!
It had not rained for several months when we took our tour, so a number of the reservoirs were empty, ready to receive anticipated rains. “One inch of rainfall,” explained the guide, “produces three-quarters of a million gallons, which lasts only three days.” So to supplement the colony’s water supply freshwater wells have been dug, and also a couple of distilling plants have been set up to produce freshwater from seawater.
At last we came out of the tunnel on the eastern side, right at the edge of the huge water catchment area. Here 72,000 sheets of corrugated metal covering a thirty-four-acre area catch the rain and channel it into the reservoirs. So even the bare surface of the eastern slope is utilized beneficially.
As we made our way back through the tunnel, it became obvious that Gibraltar is not really so strong as one might think. It is not granite, but limestone. And certainly it is not solid, lined as it is with caves, reservoirs and tunnels. But, then, Gibraltar is much more than a symbol—it is home for thousands of people.