Not any ordinary rock
Leave it to me to admire and become obsessed over a rock. Ever since I can remember I have always been a rock lover, hound, connoisseur etc. Many family trips revolved around natural landscapes, such as mountains, canyons, and yes you got it “rock formations.”
For the most part the rest of the family was tolerant and understanding of my fanatical interest in rocky landscapes and formations but occasionally I would hear not-so-subtle-feedback on our frequent observation stops.
“Are we actually stopping to look at another rock?” was the most common statement uttered from the back seat of the car. Needless to say there is not a rock or mineral on this planet that I don’t like (with the exception of a rock slamming into my windshield kicked up from the vehicle in front of me).
One such rock that will forever be emblazoned in my mind is the massive monolithic limestone named the “Rock of Gibraltar.”
The Rock of Gibraltar is located off the southwestern tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. And yes, I will travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to look at a rock.
The name Gibraltar was derived from Gibel el Tarik, “The mountain of Tarik.” Tarik was the leader of the Saracens when they entered Spain in 711, and he first fortified the hill as a base of operations and a ready point of access from the Barbary Coast.
The Rock is 1,398 feet high and is the crown property of the United Kingdom.
The Rock sits next to the Bay of Algeciras with a dominating position over the narrow strait that bears its name.
This strategic position between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and Africa, has proven to be a significant landmark in history.
The history of sieges and military action has inspired the saying “solid as the Rock of Gibraltar,” which is used to describe a person or situation that cannot be overcome and does not fail. In fact, this is a saying that I use often to describe my wife, since she has been my rock during many tough situations in my life.
The motto of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and Gibraltar itself is Nulli Expugnabilis Hosti (Latin for “no enemy shall expel us”), a reflection on the perceived resilience of the people of Gibraltar.
The Rock of Gibraltar was one of the Pillars of Hercules and was known to the Romans as Mons Calpe, the other pillar being Mons Abyla or Jebel Musa, on the African side of the strait. In ancient times the two points marked the limit to the known world, a myth originally fostered by the Phoenicians.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the authorities evacuated the civilian population to Morocco, the United Kingdom, Jamaica and Madeira so that the military could fortify Gibraltar against a possible German attack.
By 1942 there were over 30,000 British soldiers, sailors and airmen on the Rock. They expanded the tunnel system and made the Rock a keystone in the defense of shipping routes to the Mediterranean.
In February 1997 it was revealed that the British had a secret plan called “Operation Tracer” to conceal servicemen in the tunnels beneath the Rock in case the Germans captured it. The team in the Rock had radio equipment with which to report enemy movements. A six-man team waited under cover at Gibraltar for two and a half years. The Germans never got close to capturing the Rock and so the men were never sealed inside. The team was disbanded to resume civilian life when the war ended.
There are many unique characteristics and features that exist within the Rock. One is a system of underground passages, known as the galleries or the great siege tunnels, a system of halls, embrasures and passages with a total length of nearly 997 feet. In my visit to these galleries I was taken aback by the breathtaking views of the Bay of Gibraltar, the Isthmus (a narrow strip of land bordered on both sides by water, connecting two larger bodies of land), and Spain.
A park attendant explained that the Rock of Gibraltar is comprised of calcite (the mineral that makes up limestone), and that the calcite dissolves slowly in rainwater. Over time, this process can form caves.
The Rock of Gibraltar contains more than 140 caves. The most prominent and certainly most popular cave for tourists is Saint Michael’s cave, which, according to legend, connects with Africa through a secret passageway under the waters of the strait.
Another cave of interest is Gorham’s Cave. Archaeological excavations have found evidence that Neanderthals used it as far back as 30,000 years ago, and plant and animal remains found in the cave indicate that the Neanderthals had a highly varied diet.
Another unique feature is the castle that is situated on the Rock. It is a Moorish structure, a relic of the Moorish occupation of Gibraltar.
The Moors (medieval Muslim inhabitants) occupied Gibraltar for approximately 710 years. The castle was built in the year A.D. 711, when the Berber chieftain Tariq ibn-Ziyad first landed on the Rock. The 17th Century Muslim historian Al-Maqqari wrote that upon landing, Tariq burned his ships.
If the massive Rock of Gibraltar doesn’t lure you, the monkeys living in the upper portion of the Rock will. Most of the Rock’s upper area is covered by a nature reserve, which is home to around 250 Barbary Macaques.
The monkeys have no tails and belong to the Macaca Sylvanus species which in the wild, can only be found in Morocco, Algeria and Gibraltar. Their origin on the Rock is unknown as there are no written references of their presence until the 18th century.
There is some belief that the Macaques may have originated from an escape of North African animals being transported to Spain.
Currently, each Macaque’s birth and death is registered and they each have a name. They have been the responsibility of the government of Gibraltar since the beginning of the 20th century, and the army takes care of their food and peaceful existence.
Several times I witnessed monkeys grabbing bags from the hands of unsuspecting tourists. Usually the tourist would be left standing dazed and confused, not to mention horrified, as they watched the monkey fleeing with their souvenirs, food, etc.
Near the Rock is Europa Point, the southernmost point of Gibraltar. The area is flat and on a clear day, North Africa can be seen across the strait, as well as the Bay of Gibraltar and the Spanish towns along its shores.
There are five notable buildings situated on Europa Point: The Europa Point Lighthouse, the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, Harding’s Battery, the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Europe and the Nun’s Well.
The city of Gibraltar is inhabited by approximately 30,000 people made up of Gibraltarians, British, Moroccans, Indians, and Spanish.
Gibraltar is a British self-governing colony. Its governor is the Queen’s representative on the Rock and commander-in-chief of the British forces stationed there.
Britain is responsible for Gibraltar’s foreign affairs, defense and the political stability of the colony. The Rock however, has its own chief minister plus a House of Parliament and a government which oversees the day-to-day affairs of the Rock.
Gibraltar is a member of the European Union by virtue of Britain’s membership. However, Gibraltar is outside the customs union so travelers from the European Union member states can still enjoy duty free purchases.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating events of my trip to Gibraltar was when our tour bus to come to a complete stop to allow a British Airways jet to take off.
The main highway that connects Spain to Gibraltar, Winston Churchill Avenue, actually intersects the Gibraltar International Airport runway and so has to be closed every time a plane lands or departs.
It is something you just have to see to believe. In fact, the History Channel program “Most Extreme Airports” ranks it as the fifth most dangerous airport in the world and the most dangerous in Europe.
Thank goodness it’s not a busy airport as the airport handles only 30 flights a week — all flying to and from the United Kingdom.
As mentioned earlier, I often find myself admiring rocks of all types, and my visit to the Rock of Gibraltar was certainly no exception.
I was truly captivated with the features and characteristics that the Rock of Gibraltar had to offer. It was so gratifying to actually visit the real life landmark that symbolizes everything that is supportive, strong and safe.
After visiting the Rock I can now say that the phrase “you are my rock of Gibraltar” will no longer be just a metaphor, and that this is the real thing — and I am grateful for that.
Derek F. Miller is married to Kathleen and lives in Salisbury. He is retired from the U.S. Air Force.