The People of Gibraltar
1309 – La Virgen de Europa - The Mosque

Abd al Mumin and Abu Yusuf Yakub
Marques of Lendinez and the Duke of Medina Sidonia 
Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon


In Gibraltar it seems there is rarely any real consensus as regards the naming of either people or places. The Shrine of Our Lady of Europe is certainly no exception. Throughout the literature it is referred to from time to time as either a church, hermitage, or sanctuary. The statue associated with it also appears under different guises - La Virgen de Europa, Nuestra Señora de Europa and even rather incongruously as Saint Europa. 

The Shrine is today a Catholic parish church found in the flats of Europa Point. It is one of several important Marian sanctuaries in Europe. As for its history – let’s take it from the beginning - although I am not entirely sure as to when that was.

Almost all those resources I have managed to uncover are all in agreement – the place was once a mosque. Nevertheless I have never as yet been able to find any proper evidence for this. 


An artistic impression of Gibraltar in 1492 showing a mosque in the southern area of the Rock ( 1981 – George Palao )

Alonso Hernández del Portillo writing in the early 17th century – the earliest reference I can find - had this to say about the Chapel:
Esta ermita a lo que parece es obra morisca; muéstrenlo unas bóvedas moriscas que tiene. Ahora está muy ampliada y engrandecida la iglesia casi al doble de lo que conocimos la mayor parte de los vecinos  de esta Ciudad. Tiene dentro de la iglesia una buena torre que si fue morisca donde los Alfaquíes se subían a hacer las ceremonias Mahometanas, ahora no lo parece; antes esta renovada a lo moderno. . . . 
. . . which suggests that it was indeed an “obra morisca” and that it could have been built at any time from 711 to 1462.


17th century Spanish model of the Rock – the building with a tower on the extreme left is almost certainly the the Shrine of Nuestra Señora de Europa

Unfortunately not everybody agrees as to when it became a Christian Chapel – for example a statement in a Newsletter of the Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society dated 2015 written by a well known Gibraltarian - Don Miguel Raphael Brufal de Melgarejo y Yule -  aka the Marques of Lendinez: 
On the 20th August 1462, the Spanish forces commanded by Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, recaptured the Rock of Gibraltar from the Moors. At the southern most end of the Rock a mosque was found that had been built around 1309. This was converted into a Christian Shrine in honour of Our Lady, Patroness of Europe.
One would imagine that the Don Miguel knew what he was on about – but the proposition that the place was originally built “around 1309” – or presumably before Ferdinand IV in the name of Christianity – and his own personal glory - captured Gibraltar in 1309, does not ring true. It fails to explain how those 15th century “Spanish forces” were given to understand that the mosque had been built more than a century and a half before their arrival. Worse, he gives no references.  But to move on.

On May 5th 2009 The Catholic Diocese of Gibraltar – who must surely know quite a bit about the history of its very own churches and Chapels on the Rock - celebrated “the 700th anniversary of the institution of the devotion to Our Lady of Europe in A.D. 1309.”
This year Gibraltar celebrates the 700th anniversary of the institution of the devotion to Our Lady of Europe in A.D. 1309. The celebration takes place on May 5th 2009 in the Diocese of Gibraltar. During the ‘Reconquista’, King Ferdinand IV, King of Castile, captured the Rock of Gibraltar, gave thanks to the Almighty for the conquest and dedicated the whole Continent of Europe to the Mother of Christ under the title of ‘Our Lady of Europe’. 
The 1309 date of course does not refer to the date in which the mosque was built but to that in which it was converted into a Christian Chapel. Taking these statements at face value – again there are no references given - then the most likely dates for the construction of the mosque prior to 1309 would have been at any time during which the town of Gibraltar itself was being founded. In other words from perhaps 1160 -1161 when the Almohad overlord Abd al Mumin was creating his Medinat al Fath right up to 1275-1292 under the Marinids and especially Abu Yusuf Yakub. 

The fact that the Vatican itself agreed to the celebration of a Jubilee year dating to 1309 - even to the extent of issuing a joint stamp with Gibraltar commemorating the event – makes it hard to believe that they got the date wrong. Surely the Vatican library must have original manuscripts documenting events that confirm the date. But these are not readily available to people like myself and to repeat – I have never been able to find any primary – or any other sources - as evidence. 


Joint Vatican/Gibraltar stamp commemorating the 700 Year Jubilee of the Shrine of Our Lady of Europa

Perhaps as some sort of back-up for the 1309 hypothesis, some articles on the internet and elsewhere include a picture of a rather archaic looking virgin holding a naked child in her arms. The implication is that this might be the original statue of the Virgin of Europa which would later be supplanted by the one introduced after 1462. 

Unfortunately the statue in question has long since been identified as a mid 16th century representation of Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles. It can be viewed by anybody so inclined to do so in the Convento Franciscano de San Antonio de Padua not far from Gibraltar in Jimena de la Fronters.


The original statue on the left and the same one fully attired and ready for display

In other words, Vatican or no Vatican there is hardly any consensus as to when exactly the building became a Christian Shrine. The present official site of the Gibraltar Tourist Board urges visitors to visit various places of heritage interest on the Rock including the Shrine:

The capture of Gibraltar by the Spaniards from the Moors dates from 1462. Then subsequent to his conquest the Christians won the battle against Islam's last stronghold in Europe in the Kingdom of Granada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia the champion of the Crusade; returned to Gibraltar. In thanksgiving the people of Gibraltar converted the mosque at Europa Point into a Christian Shrine in honour of the Mother of Christ, venerating her as Our Lady of Europe and placing the whole of Europe under her protection.

Apart from its somewhat original grammar, the passage contradicts the previous one in that one would have to wait at least another one and a half centuries to celebrate its 700th anniversary as a Christian Chapel. It also – although this is just an aside – also contradicts Don Miguel’s Heritage article as it gives the Duke of Medina Sidonia as responsible for the recapture of Gibraltar instead of Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon – an understandable contradiction as nobody seems to be quite clear as to which of the two was actually responsible.

In 2001 a Spanish speaker at the Instituto de Ingeniería in Madrid read a paper on the history of the Chapel which included the following: 
En 1372 Muhammad V de Granada, ocupa Gibraltar, último "marini" en el reino de Granada, y manda construir una mezquita en la llamada Punta de Europa en la parte más meridional. En 1.462 Fernando IV de Aragón toma la ciudad de Gibraltar. Más tarde, en 1.492, tendría lugar finalmente la rendición de Granada a los Reyes Católicos. La mezquita entonces se transforma en un Santuario cuya luz ayuda a orientarse a los navegantes . . . . . 
A new and very definite date – but again there are no references whatsoever. That Muhammed V was the Nasrid ruler Granada there is no doubt. However, the entire history of the Nasrids from 1362 – when Mohammed V overthrew Muhammed IV and when one Muhammed replaced or succeeded another one with frightening regularity right up to Mohammed XI – is an amateur historian’s nightmare. 

However I would say that the date given is open to debate. As far as I can make out in 1372 Gibraltar was controlled not by Granada but by Fez and was in effect a Marinid town. It was not until 1374 that control over Gibraltar passed on to the Nasrid dynasty.

Elsewhere local historian George Palao writing in 1981 was quite sure of the Chapel’s Moorish origins:
Thus, from the very earliest time there can be little doubt that a Muslim building or a mosque existed on the site of the Shrine of our Lady at Europa. 
Palao’s point of reference is E.R. Kenyon writing in 1911:
Opposite to the Artillery Guard Room on Europa Flats there stands a strange-looking little building which is one of the oldest on the Rock and one which in its history epitomizes the principal vicissitudes of Gibraltar. It is a fragment of an old Moorish building . . .
 . . . and Kenyon takes it from Colonel Thomas James’s work dated 1771:
At some small distance,- and nearly in the center of Europa plain, at right angles to the captain's guard-house, was the Spanish Chapel, called our lady of Europa;  it is the ruins of a Moorish structure, and there are two rooms still remaining, which are coved in the Moorish style  . . . 
But again no clues as to whether the place was built before 1309 or before 1462.

There are plenty of other references out there but most professional historians hedge their bets as regards dates and simply state that the Chapel “was once a Moorish mosque” leaving it up to the reader to guess when. Although not all of them are agreed that the place was primarily a mosque. The Spanish historian Francisco María Montero for example gives us his very own version:
Pasemos a los santuarios. El más antiguo y venerado de todos era el de la Virgen de Europa, situado en la parte occidental de la punta de este nombre. El edificio era morisco y tenía una buena torre, que sin duda había servido de fortaleza  los moros

Montero was not the only one who thought that the mosque might also have served as a fortress   ( 1712 – G. Van Keulen )

Kenyon thought that it might have had a tower which was used as a beacon whereas James rather ambiguously thought it had once been:
 . . . in all probability . . . .either a Moorish or a saint’s house; the retired situation perhaps invited them to raise this sanctuary, as it might be more agreeable to the solitary disposition of its first inhabitant . . . 

1309 – La Virgen de Europa – The Hermitage (See LINK
1309 – La Virgen de Europa – The Guardhouse (See LINK
1309 – La Virgen de Europa – The Anniversary (See LINK