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  1. Newstatesman Gibraltar
9 December 2014

More than sun, sea and sangria: why Gibraltar’s history might be the best reason to visit

From the early Neanderthals to a strategic post in WWII, Keith Farrell reveals the wealth of history that Gibraltar has to offer tourists 

By New Statesman

Gibraltar has been a point of historical and geographical reference for centuries. The Rock traces its story from the dawn of humanity, having provided a place of refuge for Neanderthals and their early-modern human cousins. It also featured large in Greek mythology as one of the Pillars of Hercules, and was a sanctuary and holy place for Phoenician seafarers passing through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Later, it saw the launch of the Moorish conquest of Spain (Al Andalus) in 711, and was named Jebel Tariq (“Mountain of Tariq”) after General Tariq ibn Ziyad who led the invading Moorish forces. It remained in Moorish hands until its final conquest by Spain in 1462 on St Bernard’s Day (St Bernard is Gibraltar’s patron saint). Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were so proud of Gibraltar that in 1502 they presented it with the famous “castle and keys” coat of arms, which remains on the national flag.

In 1704, Anglo-Dutch forces captured Gibraltar on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne. Britain later absorbed the Rock into its emerging empire so that it might act as a fortress and naval base at the entrance to the Mediterranean, thus bolstering the sea power which underpinned the empire’s expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For many, tourism is not just about two weeks a year of sun, sea and sangria. It is about a satisfying our fascination with another country’s culture and history. Appetites have been whet by the many quality programmes available on television; many people want to experience the real thing and can increasingly afford to do so.

Gibraltar’s heritage is as diverse as its historical backdrop. The territory’s physical dimensions and location have always determined its function, which was primarily as a fortress and naval base. As such, its many fortifications and gun batteries, which evolved from medieval times and over the 300 years of British rule, are scattered throughout the territory. That is why those seeking out these heritage gems, be they military or architectural, will always be rewarded by the wonderful vistas from the Rock and the upper-rock nature reserve.

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Heritage assets include the 30,000 year-old site of early human habitation which is concentrated in a group of sea caves (the Gorham’s cave complex) on the south-eastern shore of the Rock. This historic site is being nominated for UNESCO world heritage status next year.

Meanwhile, the old town, with its quirky streets, steps and alleyways, is a curious mix of Mediterranean (Genoese) and colonial regency architecture. In the middle of all this is the amazing ethnic mix of Christian, Jewish and Islamic places of worship, demonstrating Gibraltar’s long history of religious tolerance. Perhaps most strikingly, Gibraltar has a medieval castle built by the Muslims in the 13th century, offering the largest tower and keep in the whole of Al Andalus (Muslim Spain).

Elsewhere, we have grand Portland and local limestone bastions, which surround the city and provide Gibraltar with an appearance of impregnability, one which guaranteed its fortress’ survival throughout the 19th century. The two world wars added to Gibraltar’s myriad of fortifications, with many miles of tunnels designed not only to strengthen the fortress, but to provide for the invasion of North Africa in 1943 and to allow Gibraltar to survive a possible siege by Axis forces in World War II.

Gibraltar’s heritage sites are too significant and abundant to be seen by a day visitor, yet this is so often the case. Gibraltar receives tens of thousands of cruise-line passengers and hundreds of thousands on cross-border day visits who can only glimpse the Rock’s attractions. For a historically immersive experience, you would need to spend up to a week in Gibraltar, or even longer if you were to combine it with a tour of southern Spain or Morocco. So, the question you should be asking yourself is: why have I not been on a long holiday to Gibraltar before?

Dr. Keith Farrell was chair of Gibraltar Heritage Trust between 2012 -2014, and remains a trustee to the board

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