The People of Gibraltar
BC - The Name of the Strait - or the Straits



The Rock from the Strait of Gibraltar  ( 1900s - John Fraser ) (See LINK

It is further evidence - if any were needed - of how carefully Gibraltarians guard what they consider to be their historical British heritage that many of them would get quite upset if the Strait of Gibraltar is referred to as the Straits. Although the use of either the singular or the plural version is perfectly legitimate I will try to stick to the singular to avoid unnecessary controversy. 

So what was this "Strait" known as during the days of the first millennium BC? The Iberian tribes must have had a name - or indeed various names for it - but I don't know what they might have been. What I do know is that the Phoenicians traded with both the Tartessians and Turdetani people (see LINK) and had settlements in the area close to the Strait.

The principal God of the Phoenicians was Melqart - or perhaps M'l-k'rt' - which means "King of the City". He was also the guardian God of the city of Tyre their home base in what is now Lebanon. The alternative name for Melqart was Baal Sur, the Lord of Tyre, and there is some evidence that their name for the Strait of Gibraltar may have been the Gates of Baal.

Whether it was or not there is certaily quite a lot of evidence that there was considerable traffic going through the Strait by Phoenicians and later by their kindred successors the Carthaginians and their Greek trading partners. The 4th century Greek writer Herodotus writing about an event which happened in the 7th century BC mentions the Strait indirectly - but does not give it a name.
As for Libya, (The continent of Africa) we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necchos (II) the Egyptian king  . . .  who  . . . sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean.  
The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean Sea, (the Red Sea) and so sailed into the southern ocean . . . and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Heracles, and made good their voyage home. Next to these Phoenicians the Carthaginians, according to their own accounts, made the voyage.
Mentioning the Pillars of Heracles instead of naming the Strait itself seems to have caught on and many subsequent writers follow the example set by Herodotus. 


Map of the World according to Strabo as drawn in the 19th century - but as far as I can make out Strabo never called the Strait Fretum ad Colonnas   ( 1814 - James Playfair )

Nevertheless the Strait was too important a geographical location not to have been named by both those who travelled through it or who made good money by trading with the people who did. And so it proved. However, the minute I found out that Friedrich August Ukert - a mid nineteenth German scholar - had already carried out an exhaustive research into the old names for the Strait I realised that it would be impossible for me to track down the sources for all of them. There were simply too many variants. Here, then, is his complete list together with one or two additions from other sources:

Fretum Herculeum
Fretum Herculaneum
Herackleios Porthmos
Herculis Via 
Fretum Gaditanum
Gaditanum Fretum
Europae Fretum
Fretum Tartessium
Tartessium Fretum
Fretum Iberum
Iberium Fretum
Hiberium Fretum
Fretum Hispanum
Hispanum Fretum
Fretum nostri maris et Oceani
Ostium Oceani
Maris Ostium
Limen Interni Maris
Fretum Septem
Septe Gaditanum
Septe

These last three names refer to the seven hills called Septem Fratres - today's Ceuta.

And yet one would have expected something like Fretum Calpe to have appeared on this long list - but it doesn't. Not only that but of all of them only the first four - Fretum Herculeum, Fretum Herculaneum, Herackleios Porthmos, Herculis Via has any connection whatsoever with the Rock of Gibraltar despuite the fact that it is one of the most imposing geographical entities along the entire Strait.


One way to avoid choosing between any of the above is of course is simply to call it "The Strait" - or "Fretum" in Latin - as shown on this map based on a reconstruction of the 1st century AD Roman Geographer Pomponius Mela  ( 1898 - Konrad MIller - detail  )

The Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century AD confirms the importance of Cadiz as against the Calpe in the following description:
The whole globe is divided into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Our description commences where the sun sets and at the Straits of Gades, where the Atlantic ocean, bursting in, is poured forth into the inland seas . . 

This early 2nd century BC map by the Greek Geographer Ptolomy as interpreted in the 16th century AD Italian scholar Jacobus Angelus - gives yet another name for the Strait which I read as Strictum Abilie - but I may be wrong

After the Moorish invasion of Iberia which began in 711 AD (see LINK) the names Fretum Herculaneun and Gaditanum probably persisted until the Rock itself became commonly known to the Spanish as Gibraltar. The Arabs, however, seem to have opted for inconsistency and had several names for the Strait. The 9th century AD Arab historian Abd el-Hakem is particularly confusing. Here is a quote from his History of the Conquest of Spain:
The governor of the straits between this district (Tangier) and Andalus (Spain) was a foreigner called Ilyan (Julian) (see LINK) Lord of Septa. He was also governor of a town called Alchadra (Algeciras) on the same side of the Straits of Andalus . . .Balj then met them, as they were coming down the Straits of Alchadra . . . and as the Straits of Gibraltar.

Possible Arabic script for the Strait of Gibraltar

Despite Abd el-Hakem 9th century versions the Arabs must have had a pre 711 AD name for the Strait. And it would appear that they did. According to an appendix in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain written by the 17th century Moorish writer Al Makkarí, (see LINK) :
The narrow sea thus emerging from between the two coasts was called Bahru-z-zokak (the narrow sea). Although the distance between the two shores is so small, as we have already observed, this strait is nevertheless very difficult to be passed, owing to the continual agitation of its waves, and the frightful whirlpools occasioned by the meeting of the two seas. 
 The Spanish historian Pascual de Gayangos in a footnote to his translation of Al Makkarí's history suggests that the Spaniards sometimes also adopted this name and called the strait el Mar de Zocac.



The Strait of Gibraltar - al zukak - Annoyingly Gibraltar does not appear on the map   ( Medieval - Unknown )

Nevertheless it seems pretty evident to me that the present Spanish name of el Estrecho de Gibraltar can only have been coined after the name "Gibraltar" - as against any varient of Zozak - had been generally adopted. The problem is when did this happen. 

During the late 13th and early 14th century the Strait became a battle ground between Castile and Islamic Morocco and Granada. The "Reconquista" had reached some sort of a hiatus after the fall of Seville and the submission of the Kingdom of Granada to that of Castile - not that one would have guessed from reading about the exploits of Alonso XI and his admiral Alfonso Jofre Tenorio. 

Whatever the case Gibraltar and its Strait were very much part of the battle ground. However, in the Cronicas which were written in the 14th century whereas Gibraltar is always referred to as Gibraltar the Straits seem to have been known both as that of Gibraltar and of Algeciras.
Et este Jufre Giraberte fue estar en el estrecho de Gibraltar en la guardia de la mar . . . . . . . . . . . . . Et rogóles que fuesen estar en el estrecho de Algeciras . . . . . . . . . . 
To complicate matters somewhat, Pedro Lopez de Ayala who wrote Las Cronicas de los Reyes de Castilla in the late 14th century, gives it another name which suggests that the term estrecho de Gibraltar was not yet in common use.
. . . é avian de pasar por el estrecho de Marruecos entre Gibraltar é Cepta . . . 

The Strait of Gibraltar named as Les Streittes de Marrok on a petition document written in French  (1439 )

By the very early 16th century, however, another Spanish historian - Florian de Ocampo - was using the phrase consistently in his Cronica General de España:
. . . desde la salida del estrecho de Gibraltar hasta la bica del rio Guadiana . . . . . porque viniendo desde Cádiz al estrecho de Gibraltar . . . . desde el estrecho de Gibraltar hasta la ciudad de Daimiat  . . .

El Estrecho de Gibraltar  - Portuguese  ( 1658 - Pedro Teixeira Albernas  ) (See LINK

Logically the English name of the Strait of Gibraltar must have been a straight translation of the Spanish. Tracing back to find out when it was first used has proved beyond my resources - but if forced to hazard a guess I would say that this would have been shortly after the Spaniards started calling it el Estrecho de Gibraltar which would have been some time during the late 14th century.


The Strait of Gibraltar  (1873 - Derroteros - J. Ruidavets y Tudury )


Fretum Gibraltar ( 18th century - Homans Kayferl - detail )


The Strait ( 1715 - Gabriel Bodenehr )