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History of Gibraltar
 
 
 

Early History

Gibraltar's appearance in prehistory was very different to its modern aspect. Sea levels were much lower due to the amount of water locked up in the larger polar ice caps at the time. The peninsula was surrounded by a fertile coastal plain rather than water, with marshes and sand dunes supporting an abundant variety of animals. Neanderthals are known to have lived in caves around the Rock of Gibraltar.

More Neanderthal remains have been found elsewhere on the Rock at Devil's Tower and in Ibex, Vanguard and Gorham's Caves on the east side of Gibraltar. Excavations in Gorham's Cave have found evidence of Neanderthal occupation dated as recently as 28,000-24,000 years ago, well after they were believed to have died out elsewhere in Europe. The caves of Gibraltar continued to be used by modern homo sapiens after the final extinction of the Neanderthals. Stone tools, ancient hearths and animal bones dating from around 40,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago have been found in deposits left in Gorham's Cave.

During ancient times, Gibraltar was regarded by the peoples of the Mediterranean as a place of religious and symbolic importance. The Phoenicians were present for several centuries, apparently using Gorham's Cave as a shrine to the genius loci of the place, as did the Carthaginians and Romans after them. Excavations in the cave have shown that pottery, jewellery and Egyptian scarabs were left as offerings to the gods, probably in the hope of securing safe passage through the dangerous waters off Gibraltar. The Rock was revered by the Greeks and Romans as one of the two Pillars of Hercules, created by the demigod during his Tenth Labour to join the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. According to a Phocaean Greek traveller who visited in the sixth century BC, there were temples and altars to Hercules on the Rock where passing travellers made sacrifices.

To the ancients, Gibraltar was known as Mons Calpe, a name perhaps derived from the Phoenician word kalph ("hollowed out"), presumably in reference to the caves in the Rock. It was well-known to ancient geographers; however, there is no known archaeological evidence of permanent settlements from the ancient period. There were more mundane reasons not to settle, as Gibraltar had many disadvantages that were to hinder later settlers; it lacked easily accessible fresh water, fertile soil, a supply of firewood or a safe natural anchorage. Its geographical location, which later became its key strategic asset, was not a significant factor in ancient times.

For these reasons the ancients declined to settle on the Gibraltar peninsula but chose instead to live at the head of the bay in what is today known as the Campo (hinterland) of Gibraltar. The town of Carteia, near where the modern Spanish town of San Roque is located today, was founded by the Phoenicians around 950 BC on the site of an early settlement of the native Turdetani people. The Carthaginians took control of the town by 228 BC and it was captured by the Romans in 206 BC. It subsequently became Pompey's western base in his campaign of 67 BC against the pirates that menaced the Mediterranean Sea at the time. Carteia appears to have been abandoned after the Vandals sacked it in 409 AD during their march through Roman Hispania to Africa.

Muslim Rule

By 681 the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate had expanded from their original homeland of Arabia to conquer the whole of North Africa as well as the Middle East and large parts of West Asia, bringing Islam in their wake and converting local peoples to the new religion. The Berbers of North Africa, called Moors by the Christians, thus became Muslims. The Straits of Gibraltar gained a new strategic significance as the frontier between Muslim North Africa and Christian Spain. The Visigothic rulers of Spain were, however, split between rival contenders for the throne. This gave the Moors the opportunity to invade and pursue a course of dividing-and-conquering the Christian factions.

Following a raid in 710, a predominately Berber army under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed from North Africa in April 711 and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Gibraltar. Although Tariq's expedition was an outstanding success and led to the Islamic conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula, Tariq himself ended his career in disgrace. His conquest nonetheless left a long-lasting legacy for Gibraltar: Mons Calpe was renamed Djebel al-Tariq, the Mount of Tariq, subsequently corrupted into "Gibraltar".

Gibraltar was fortified for the first time in 1160 by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu'min in response to the coastal threat posed by the Christian kings of Aragon and Castile. Gibraltar was renamed Djebel al-Fath ("Mount of Victory"), though this name did not persist, and a fortified town named Medinat al-Fath ("City of Victory") was laid out on the upper slopes of the Rock.


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