The People of Gibraltar
1961 - N.T.Norris - The Swans at Chantilly

In 1961 somebody called N.T.Norris - probably an academic, possibly an Arabist and definitely somebody who knew quite a bit about the history of Moorish Gibraltar - wrote a paper with the intriguing title The Early Islamic Settlement in Gibraltar.

It was met, as far as I can see, with massive calm. To paraphrase Marshal Tessé commenting on the effects of the Spanish blockade on the Rock just after 1704, it caused as much of a ripple as the swans do in Chantilly . 

It was par for the course - and there are still no birdies in sight. Hardly anything to do with the history of Gibraltar prior to that celebrated date of 1704 is still guaranteed to produce the odd yawn. For those who might nevertheless be interested here is a copy of the paper together with my comments where I couldn't resist doing so.



Norris has identified the main problem. Our general reliance on Arabic commentators - however reliable - is not enough. Gibraltar's history requires archaeology and this has never been readily available. Recent work on the Gate of Granada (see LINK) identifying it as of Nasrid origins and other work by local experts such a Kevin Lane and Clive Finlayson are the exception rather than the rule.



A lengthier more fanciful account of the building of Medinat-al-Fath written by me using Arab and other references is almost identical to the above version with one or two exceptions - which makes me suppose that Norris used more or less the same sources as I did. (see LINK

The main problem with both his account - and mine - is the serious lack of evidence for Almohad structures in Gibraltar. The accepted view that at the very least the Qasabah was the work of Abd al Mu'min is purely speculative and the generally over-the-top Moorish references tend to point towards mythology rather than  matter-of-fact history.  



The well-known final outline of the town - Qasabah, Villa Vieja and Barcina with la Turba to the south seem to have taken shape during this period. Nobody seems to know the Arabic names for these districts and as can be seen from his own map, Norris didn't either. But the little archaeology that is available points towards the creation of their various walls and gates during the Nasrid-Merinid period.  


( 1961 - N.T.Norris  )

But perhaps the most awkward difficulty in reconstructing what exactly happened during the building of Medinat-al-Fath is that it is hard to distinguish from the literature which part of the town was actually built and what was simply a statement of intent.




As Norris rightly states, the exact spot where Tariq landed will probably never be known - the evidence available to date is contradictory and is explored at length elsewhere. (see LINK

I would also suggest that once Abd al-Mun'min retired to Africa, the project probably came to a standstil. His son Abu Sa'id was far too engrossed in his own creations in his city of Granada to waste too much time on an awkward building site on a wind-swept Rock at the end of nowhere. 

As regards the so called 'Wall of the Arabs,' Norris suggests that this could have been either one of the main southern east-west lying walls of Gibraltar.  The truth is that if either had been part of the British defensive improvements of the 18th and 19th century we would have known the names of each individual mason responsible for the laying of each and every stone. As it is, the history of the two most imposing architectural structures on the Rock remains both confused and confusing. (See LINK

Norris compounds the uncertainty by quoting Kenyon who seems to have been of the opinion that Charles V wall was of Moorish construction. While dismissing the possibility that the wall could have been originally built by Tariq, Norris suggests that parts of its construction is reminiscent of the Almohad period - in other words it may have been built during the reign of Abd al Mu'min. 

He also includes the original foundation of Signal Hill - el Hacho - as part of this project although I can find no reference of this in any of the sources mentioned in his references or indeed elsewhere. In fact I can find no written evidence that the Almohads ever built a southern wall. Quite frankly I can see no reason why they should have bothered. The walls of the Qashaba with its castle and gate - Bab-al Fath - would surely have been more than enough protection.

Given that most modern historians suggest that neither of the two main southern walls were originally Moorish we are left with another alternative. Perhaps that elusive wall of the Arabs is  la Muralla del Corral de Fez which - although not mentioned by Norris - might be a possible candidate. 

As regards the much quoted windmill, I have long been of the opinion that this was not built on the highest part of the Rock - a highly implausible site for a windmill - but rather somewhere on Windmill Hill flats which would have appeared as high up on the Rock when viewed from the Tarfes Bajos, the area where the Corral de Fez and its possiby post-1333 community - and its wall - would have been located.



Moorish Inscriptions  (See LINK)


Knowledge of these well known but no longer extant inscriptions we owe - as Norris acknowledges - to both Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James, ( see above ) Francis Carter ( see LINK ) and Ignacio López de Ayala . ( see LINK

Having no understanding of Arabic I cannot give an opinion as to Norris' comments. However, I am aware of very new research which suggests that the interpretation by Leopoldo Torres Balbas - that the gate was dedicated to the Nasrid ruler of Granada, Yusuf 1 - is incorrect. Mohammed V is apparently a much more likely alternative taking the date of its creation even further into the present.




The Chart of showing Nasrid rulers of Granada including those mentioned in the above passage  ( Norris 1961 )


The importance of the inscriptions, as Norris suggests is that they offer a clue as regards dating  the structures on to which they were found. This date has moved over time from the early 8th Century to a more likely mid 14th.

Norris, however, fails to mention yet another interesting conundrum. According to both James and Carter the inscription was placed above the southern gate of the Qasabah. The problem is that there are two gates and both are facing south. And to add a further twist one of these gate is possibly Bab-al-Fath and would therefore be of Almohad rather than Nasrid origin.

So which one is it? Not at all easy to decide.

In 2001 the Spanish historian Ángel Sáez Rodríquez and others produced a paper which identified the south eastern gate as being that of Yussuf 1 - the new Mohammad V idea had not yet been proposed - and the South-western one as being Bab-al-Fath.


( 2001- Ángel Sáez Rodriquez )

In 2007 Sáez Rodríquez in his book Las defensas de Gibraltar claimed that this was a mistake and that Bab-al-Fath was in fact the south eastern gate and  Yusuf I the gate below it. He gave no evidence either for his original or his corrected version other than what appear to be two educated guesses. It means that we do not really know exactly where the inscription was originally found.



Al Isidri is the only author who has ever mentioned Marsa al Shaharah - haven of the Tree - which other non-Arab authors have give as Mersa Asajarah and have translated as Port of the Tree leaving us with all sorts of tantalising questions.

The letter quoted by Dozy as regards the Governor of Algecira's enigmatic orders to strengthen the fortifications of a place that didn't have any is odd to say the least. On the other hand I have never been able to trace the actual source of Dozy's reference - and it appears to be the only one.

We can go one better than Norris as regards the letter found and published by Étien Levi-Provençale in which Abd al Mu'min writes to his Almohad cronies in Granada. and starts the ball rolling as regards Medinat-al-Fath. It was actually written by somebody else on his behalf. You can read it here. ( see LINK )