History of the Rock of Gibraltar

On the Rock of Gibraltar, the past is a living reality. Colourful ceremonial events such as the Changing of the Guard and the Ceremony of the Keys are performed exactly as they have been for centuries.  In the Gibraltar Museum – strategically positioned over one of the finest fourteenth century Moorish bathhouses – you can find a series of fascinating exhibits from every period of the Rock’s extraordinary history. It is a story that begins at least as early as the Stone Age, the first Neanderthal skull ever discovered was found here in 1848.

Since men first braved the sea, the Bay of Gibraltar has sheltered ships and sailors. To the ancient Greeks, Gibraltar marked the limit to the known world. To pass beyond it was to sail to certain destruction over the bottomless waterfall at the edge of the world. Thus the many findings of remains  and offerings  made to the gods by these and other civilisations such as the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the many caves on the shorelines.

The Gibraltar Skull, Forbes' Quarry 1848
Tarik-ibn-ziyad during the conquest of Gibraltar

Once the Romans extended their Empire, they included Gibraltar, which then was know, by them, as Calpe.  Neither the Phoenician or the Romans settled in Gibraltar.

The Islamic empire conducted raids to achieve of a great extension of territory in the Middle East and North Africa by the Omayadas of Damascus. The Omayadas sent two expeditions from Morocco to Spain, the first was in the year 710 head by Tarif, who captured the city which is today know as Tarifa.

A year later in 711 a second expedition, headed by Tarik-ibn-Ziyad landed his boats, horses and men on the eastern side of the Rock. Tarik’s soldiers, in honour to their commander named the Rock “Jebel (Mountain in Arabic) Tarik” and name continued in use during Spanish and English times as Gibraltar. Tarik, together with Musa, continued to conquer the whole of the Iberian peninsula with their conquest eventually stopping at the city of Poitier in France. The Jews of Morocco and Spain were vital in assisting the Arabs in their conquests, acting as translators and medics.  Being vital to the caliphate, they saw a great deal of prosperity. During the time that the Arabs controlled Gibraltar, there is proof that in the year 1357 the members of the Jewish Community paid some money to redeem some Jewish captives, who had been captured by Corsair Pirates.

Fifty years after the capture of Spain by the Umayyad, the whole royal family was massacred, except for one member who escaped from Damascus and made his way to Cordoba, where he created an Umayyad Caliphate, his name was Abdelrahman the First. By this time, and due the Umayyad loosing strength in North Africa in the 8th century, Al Yazid the First, created what is today know as Morocco. 

Eventually, the Caliphate of Cordoba lost its prominence and small offshoots of the Caliphate sprouted around the south of Spain. Eventually, these places, which were know as “Taifas”, existed as independent entities ruled by different leaders and Gibraltar came under the jurisdiction of the largest, Granada.

The Arabs were the first to build a City in Gibraltar and by 1160 they had built a Castle or Tower of Homage with a fortified wall to the North, facing Spain and a fortifying wall to the west next to the seafront. In addition, there were inhabited areas close to the castle.

The Coat of Arms granted to the city by Isabella I
Battle of Gibraltar - 1607
Battle of Gibraltar - 1607

By 1309 the Christian forces captured Gibraltar and held it for twenty-four years until 1333, when Gibraltar was recaptured by the Arabs, after a bloody eighteen week siege. During this time, they extended the fortifications and worked on further additions to the City. They built an aqueduct that bought water down to the town area. They built a mosque in the centre of the City, which was later converted to St Mary the Crowned Cathedral. They also built Moorish baths which still exist to this day, at the basement of the Gibraltar Museum.

Gibraltar being a very important military and naval base, changed hands many times during the following eight centuries of Arab occupation in Spain.  The Rock did not finally become Spanish until 1462 when the Duke of Medina Sidonia recaptured it on behalf of the Catholic Kings of Spain. During the subsequent 242 year Spanish rule, Gibraltar fell into severe decline.

In 1474 we find that over 4,000 converso Jews, led by Pedro de Herrerapurchased the Rock of Gibraltar from the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Two years later, the Duke realigned himself with the Spanish Crown and expelled everyone from the Rock, most of the evacuees heading to the city of Cordoba and into the waiting clutches of the Spanish Inquisition. From 1474 until 1704 we don’t find any mention of Jews in Gibraltar.

The eighteenth century saw another change of ownership.  In July 1704, as he lay off Tetuan with a large combined fleet of British and Dutch warships, Admiral Sir George Rooke saw an opportunity to capture the Rock. The city fathers initially refused Rooke’s call to surrender but 15,000 rounds of shot and shells, and landings by British marines and sailors persuaded them otherwise. Many attempts and sieges ensued with multiple failed attempts to recapture the Rock.

Since that day, the Rock has played a part in some of the most famous episodes of British history. During the American War of Independence, the combined forces of France and Spain besieged Gibraltar for four and a half years. The body of Nelson, preserved in a barrel of rum, was brought to Gibraltar after his magnificent victory at Trafalgar. During the Second World War, the Rock was a key factor in British victories in the Mediterranean. It acted as a veritable fortress for the troops stationed here and also gave Britain the capability to control the entrance to the Mediterranean and support Allied forces in North Africa.

HMS Victory captained by Lord Horatio Nelson
WWII on the Rock of Gibraltar
WWII on the Rock of Gibraltar
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