Gibraltar or Jebel Tariq or Tariq’s mountain
(Moroccan Berber general, Tariq ibn Ziyad)
The name “Gibraltar” looks back to an older history that dwarfs these proud 300 years of British rule. The Moors ruled here for well nigh 600 years followed by 200 years of Spanish rule. Gibraltar is actually an Arabic word, a corruption of Jebel Tariq –¬ Tariq’s mountain. It is named after a young Moroccan Berber general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, who had been placed in command of the garrison at Tangier ¬- a new military outpost of the vast Empire of the Muslim Caliphs that then stretched from the Atlantic shore to the banks of the Indus.
Tariq’s boss was Musa ben Nasser, a brilliant Arab general who had extended Muslim rule over all of North Africa in 704. Tariq had been left with the task of besieging the last military outpost of the Byzantine Empire, the fortress of Ceuta below the African Pillar of Hercules, but instead Tariq skillfully made a friend out of his adversary, the Byzantine Count Julian. Together they planned a raid on the Spanish kingdom of the Visigoths ¬ which was looking vulnerable as it was caught up in a civil war. Using a fleet provided by Count Julian, Tariq crossed the straits and landed near -¬ or on – Gibraltar, with his small army of 7,000 soldiers supported by just 500 horseman. Outside Jerez on the banks of the river Barbate Tariq met the hastily assembled Visigothic army, which he destroyed that fateful day of the 27th April 711.
As he advanced to occupy the capital of Toldeo, it became clear that he had seized control of the whole of Spain for Islam. When Musa ben Nasser arrived to take over the command he was furious at being overshadowed by his subordinate and so his first action was not to praise Tariq but to publicly lash him to the ground with his whip. This notorious confrontation would lead to them both being recalled to Arabia for judgement by the Caliph. The destruction of these two heroes became a new layer of mythology for the straits. The southern pillar of Hercules became known as Jebel Musa while the northern pillar was known as Jebel Tariq.
The Rock was still uninhabited, though it is claimed that the celebrated poet-king of Seville, El Mutamid (the man who declared that “he would rather drive camels in Fez then tend pigs in Castile”) built a watch tower on the summit in 1068. The decisive foundation date in the history of Gibraltar is 1159 – the period when the Almohad Empire extended over all of Spain and North Africa. The Almohad ruler, Abdel Moumen, ordered the construction of a new “City of Faith” – Medinat al-fath – on the Rock. It was laid out and designed by the same team of architects who would build such world-class monuments as the Giralda tower in Seville and the Hassan mosque in Rabat. By all accounts it was magnificent settlement supplied with plentiful water from aqueducts powered by windmills. To this glittering new show piece were summoned all the petty Muslim and Christian princes of Spain to give their allegiance to Abdel Moumen in Gibraltar’s tower of Homage.
The long crusading war between the Spanish Catholics and Muslims of Spain would gradually wreck this fine city but the town of Gibraltar was to reborn in 1333. In that year Sultan Abou Hassan of Morocco recaptured the Rock. Abou Hassan was a great warrior but was also a great builder and is responsible for many of the Islamic teaching colleges – the Medersa – that still remain the architectural glory of Morocco. Abou Hassan lavished attention on Gibraltar which was laid out in four parts. The uppermost section, the Moorish castle, is still as he left it though the Kasbah quarter below it (the government offices) no longer survives. From his 14th century civil town ¬ there is still a surprising amount to be seen; such as the Moorish Baths, the formal land gate (on upper castle road) and the Nuns well and shrine of Our Lady of Europa ¬- all of which our Moorish.
Excavations have also revealed that the Casements square ¬ the formal heart of Gibraltar and the scene of many a stirring parade ¬ began life as an inner harbour for the galleys of the Merenid navy. While it has always been known that the Cathedral Church of St Mary was built over Sultan Hassan”s great mosque which in its heyday was ornamented with a courtyard of sweet smelling orange trees. This last flowering of the Moorish-Andalucian civilization was silenced on August 20th 1462 when the Count of Arcos captured the city just ahead of his principal rivals, the Duke of Medina Sidonia and the Knights of Jerez. These factions would soon war with each other over the “reconquered” town though August 20th would always be celebrated and St Bernard of Clairvaux (whose feast day it is) would be chosen as the patron of Gibraltar. The Kings of Castile would eventually impose order on their over-mighty subjects and Gibraltar became a royal town in 1501.
Despite the devestation of a raid by Barbarossa in 1540 it was clearly a prosperous period for the town’s population expanded to 6,000. The old look out towers had to be manned against corsairs but they also earned their keep as observation points for the lucrative ¬ and highly organized ¬ hunts for the great shoals of tuna fish. Later sieges would all but obliterate the buildings from this Spanish period though we know of the presence of a dozen distinct churches and four charitable monastic foundations that cared for the poor, the sick, travellers and old seamen. Only the Cathedral of St Mary would survive as a working church – though the old Spanish convent of the Franciscans would have a celebrated afterlife as the palatial residence of Gibraltar’s governors. The Franciscans had been invited to settle in Gibraltar by King Henry IV who gave them a plot of land though the existing building with its famous garden (and its adjacent Kings Chapel) rose up in 1560.
After the Anglo-Dutch conquest of Gibraltar in 1704 it was taken over the British governor who seems to have co-existed with the five remaining friars until they were driven out by the heartless treatment of Brigadier Stanwix. They joined the other Spanish exiles in the nearby villages of San Roque and Los Barrios. By 1713 their fine chapel had become a place of Anglican worship. Although much damaged, like all the old town, by the bombardments of the Great Siege it grew in grandeur over the 19th century with the addition of a ballroom, a creakingly Gothic banqueting room, royal guest suites (as used by King Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II) though the original old cloisters and gardens still arguably remain the most charming part of the house.
Britain seized whole of Gibraltar almost by chance. A failed attempt to intervene in Cadiz and Barcelona left a large fleet twiddling its thumbs in the shelter of the bay of Tetouan. On the spur of the moment they decided to capture the Rock which was then badly defended by a small garrison of sixty Spanish soldiers. However once in control there was nothing half hearted about Britains attachment to this strategic harbour which benefited from a succession of visionary governors ¬ who when not planning the construction of new bastions would indulge in a little town planning ¬building an elegant high street, setting up clubs and subscription libraries as well as laying out the famous Almeida gardens and building a very handsome Anglican Cathedral ¬inspired by the arches of a Moorish mosque.
This was especially true during the Great Siege (1779-1783) when General Elliot proved himself an inspiring and decisive commander. He ordered the demolition of all church steeples and towers that could be used for range-finding by enemy gunners as well as ordering the ploughing up of the streets ¬ to absorb shell fragments and diminish the power of cannonballs to ricochet. When the French and Spanish lines inched dangerously close to the defences he outflanked them by opening new galleries cut into the rock face, and when they took to attacking the town from armoured barges he replied in kind. In truth the Rock was never in imminent danger while the Royal Navy remained in command of the sea though during this period this was very far from being assured. All the three great maritime powers were ranged against Britain which had to fight a war on all fronts, protect her trade routes as well as try and subdue the rebellion amongst the American colonies. In this critical time the example set by the heroic garrison of Gibraltar went straight to the nations heart.
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