The People of Gibraltar
2013 - The Nuns' Well - Los Vaños de los Agares.

George Palao and Tito Vallejo - Lionel Pérez and Freddie Gomez 
Fernando Pérez Pericón and Alonso Hernández del Portillo 
Thomas Fowke and the Duke of York 

When I lived in Gibraltar during the 1950s,  it never crossed  my mind to have a look at that enigmatic underground structure known as the Nuns' Well. In fact I didn't even know it existed.  Mind you I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was out of bounds to Gibraltarians in those days.

The Nuns' Well. The actual cistern lies underground. The crenelated structure shown in the photograph was built by the Royal engineers in 1988

The Nuns' Well was and still is an underground chamber located at Europa point. The oldest pictirial reference available is that on a sketch by the Dutch map maker, Anton Van den Wyngaerde dated 1567.  It seems to show a structure with 20 pillars not all of them supporting arches. (see LINK)

In the extreme bottom left under the title Banias moriscas is a sketch of what is almost certainly the Nuns' Well  
(1567 - Anton Van den Wyngaerde )

In 1608 the Spanish engineer Cristóbal de Rojas also includes it in his map of the Rock in rather less detail than Wyngaerde. He labelled it cisternas

Cisternas ( 1608 Cristóbal de Rojas )

The oldest written reference is by Pedro Barrantes Maldonado in his curious book, Diálogo, which was published in 1566 but refers to an event which occurred in 1540 in which Maldonado was present.
A la parte de los Tarfes y corral de Fez ninguna agua natural hay para beber, salvo la de un aljibe, que en aquella parte se hace, donde se recogen aguas llovedizas, el cual se hizo en tiempo de moros ó de gentiles, con veinte arcos y pilares debajo de tierra, cosa muy superba y notable; y desta agua se aprovechan los que tratan en aquella parte
The second oldest written reference, is that of Alonso Hernández del Portillo writing in the 1620s. (See LINK) It was, he wrote, an admirable building used as a cistern and that it was of "Moorish" or even earlier origin. Its shape was in the form of a parallelogram and the ceiling or roof was held up by 22 brick pillars.

The entrance was through a brick staircase and according to the author it must have been created by people with greater skill than he would have expected of the "Moors" as it had been hewn out of solid rock.  The walls were covered with bricks set in extremely strong mortar which was appropriate for a place which was meant to hold water.

It was a shame, he wrote, to see how time was taking its toll on the place. Even more of a shame was that repairs that should have been carried out had not. 1

About ten years later in 1636 the building surfaces once again in Fernando Pérez Pericón's  poem about,  the Rock. (See LINK) 2

La cueva de las Palomas,
La gruta de los Abades,
El corral de Fez frondoso
Los vaños de los Agares.

 'Los vaños de los Agares'  may or may not translate as the 'baths of the demon dukes that rule the eastern part of Hell' - but it is indeed a reference to the cistern even if it takes us no further forward.

The building marked as 30 translates as the Ruins of a beautiful water cistern known as the Moorish Baths. The word 'beautiful' is surprising.  However interesting the Well, I would hardly describe it as beautiful.  ( 1733 - Homann - detail )

A 1740 Spanish map also shows the structure and labels it - 'Ruins of a Moorish bath, an admirable water cistern   ( 1740 - Unknown - detail )

By 1756 a well known German map maker has subtly changed the name. It has become the 'ruins of a famous cistern known as the Moorish baths'.

During the middle of the 18th century  the Governor of Gibraltar, Lieutenant-General Thomas Fowke (see LINK) had the place cleaned and repaired in order to have a ready supply of water for his troops. I would guess that the alterations ordered by Fowke were mostly limited to making it  watertight, but it would be interesting to know just how much he altered the appearance of the place in so far as its arches, pillars and other structures are concerned.

The first British written description seems to be that of John Durant Breval who visited the Rock in the 1720s. (see LINK)
The great cistern or reservoir of water, (which some pretend served as a bathing-place for the Moorish Kings) is a square chamber under-ground, the arched roof of which is supported by three or four Rows of square pillars, much in the same manner (allowing for the difference in height and bigness) with the Piscina Mirabilis near Baize. 2a
 There is yet another reference by Robert Poole in his Beneficent Bee which was published in 1748:
. . . turning to the east we went to what is called the Nuns' Bathing-Bath. This is a place sunk in the ground paved at bottom with brick, it is about twenty feet square, and had formerly different partitions, perhaps for different sexes, with a building over it. 
The monastery was said to be placed at a small distance from it though now no appearance remains of any building having ever been erected. There is now but a small depth of water in the bath, which is said to be only when it falls from the heavens, and not from any spring therein, as I can learn; it is sometimes quite dry and used as a regaling room to dine in.
In 1771 Colonel Thomas James (see LINKgives a rather more detailed description. 
An old watch tower is on Europa Wall . . . . Near this tower is a centinel's box built on a wave-worn rock  . . . vulgarly known as Europa point. . . on this plain of Europa is a Moorish Bath, on the north of which, and up a steep part of the Rock is beef-steak cave . . . 
To the eastward of this building, and on the same rocky plain, is a Moorish bath sunk in the rock ; the length is seventy feet, and breadth forty-two ; the whole arched, which springs from twenty small square pillars of brick and ten imposts; most of them being entire, but the crowns of these arches in some places are fallen in, as is likewise the entrance in front. 
The floor has been paved, but there are very little traces now to be discovered. In winter, it generally has four feet water, which diminishes in proportion as the heat of the summer increases: it was repaired by order of General Fowke, whereby the water is preserved. 
This reservoir breeds the leech; and soldiers who have drank it, have complained to the physicians of their apprehension of a decay, as they had occasion often to spit blood; for the small animalculæ of the leech, having adhered under their tongues, there grew, and sucking for sustenance, caused the discharge of blood; which at first not knowing the cause of such a discharge, frightened some of the men not a little. 3
Francis Carter visiting  a year later, (see LINK) is also quite informative;
. . .  we find at Europa point a piece of Moorish antiquity worth mentioning. It is a reservoir sunk near eight feet in the stone, but a labour truly Herculean, seventy feet long and forty-two broad; it receives the rain from higher ground about it, and during winter is almost full; to preserve the water from injuries of the sun, it has an arched covering supported by ten brick pillars on each side in the Moorish style; the water is notwithstanding very bad and full of worms. 4
The description of the place by the late 18th century Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala (see LINK) is practically identical to that of Portillo. 5 He does however, introduce the idea that the construction may have been part of el Corral de Fez, an area of Gibraltar of which little is known. 6

As far as I can make out it was John Drinkwater Bethune of Great Siege fame who first came up with its present day name of the Nuns' Well -   It appears in his History of the Great Siege of Gibraltar which was first published in 1785.  Despite the new name, his description is very much in line with everybody else.
At Europa, opposite the guard-house, may be traced the remains of a building erected by the Moors, but used by the Spaniards as a chapel, and called Nuestra Senora del Europa.  Along the water's edge, without the fortification, are also several ruins of Moorish walls ; and towards Europa advance is a Moorish bath, called by the garrison, the Nuns-well. It is sunk eight feet deep in the rock, is 72 feet long, and 42 feet broad, and, to preserve the water, has an arched roof, supported by pillars. 7 
Local historian George Palao suggested that on one particular map it is described as 'A bathing place for ye nuns of Nostra Senora D: Europa'. I have searched. I cannot find it. In any case Robert Poole had already called it the Nun's Bathing-Bath in the ear;y 18th c.

During the appointment of Prince Edward, Duke of York as Governor. (See LINK), his determination to impose discipline on those unfortunate enough to be stationed on the Rock at the time, resulted in the closure of thirty pubs and the making of forty of the rest out of bounds to the Garrison, only allowing the sale of beer for the troops in three of them. Surprisingly, he then set up a brewery at Europa.

It  was known as the Brewery Yard and - although I cannot find a source that will confirm it - the impression given is that the water used for  making the beer came from the nearby Nuns' Well. The stuff they produced was euphemistically called Bristol Beer. 8

Plan of area. The Brewery was soon converted into a barracks after the Duke of Kent was recalled home  ( 1986 - Plan by the Royal Engineers  - from Tito Vallejo )

From this date onwards most histories restrict themselves to repeating some or all of the above sources - if they bother to mention these at all. However, in 1964, a local student, Mr. Lionel Perez carried out a complete survey of the site as part of his university thesis. Amazingly, it was the first proper survey ever to have been undertaken either before or after 1704. 9

Area above the Nuns' Well in the 1970s

In 1971 a certain Mr B. Drissi,  Inspector of Antiquities to the Government of Morocco and an expert on Moorish architecture, was invited to Gibraltar to give his considered opinion on the origins of the "Well". His conclusion was that the structure predated Gibraltar's Islamic occupation. But as far as I know he gave no indication as to whether it was a cistern, a bath -   or indeed something else entirely.

George Palao, who was instrumental in getting the authorities to ask the Moroccan expert to come and have a look, included an article on the Nuns' Well in one of his popular Gibraltar's heritage books. It touched on many of the points mentioned above including his own plans and drawing. 9

Nuns' Well (1976 - George Palao)

The Royal Engineers then decided to take an interest. In the mid 1980s yet another major survey took place producing several diagrams as well as proposals for opening up the place as a tourist site. 10

Plan produced by the survey carried out by the Royal Engineers ( 1986 )

R.E. Proposed plan (1986 )

R. E. Proposed plan  ( 1986 )

Neither of the plans shown above seem to have been put into practice although a somewhat similar building to the second was in fact built.

In 2008 another local historian Freddie Gomez, wrote in the local Vox newspaper that recent research had shown that the Nuns' Well did not fill up with water draining from the nearby Beefsteak Fault as had previously been thought. Most of it came either from the rain or from street flushing -  or from sea spray during strong levanter winds. 11

Other than some acrimonious complaints by local groups at the ineptness of local government attempts to improve the surrounding area, the above is the state of play at the time of writing. So what on earth is the Nuns' Well, what was it used for, when was it built and who built it.

The Arches - Tito Vallejo, a local historian, has suggested that the two types of arches found in the Nuns' Well are of Mudejar or Moorish design.

Semi-circular arch

Segmented arch

I am not an architect but I find it difficult to believe that the shape of the arches can offer any clues as to the when the Nun's Well was constructed. These arches have been described as either semi-circular or segmented ones.  Both were apparently 'invented' by the Romans. The first was perhaps 'the' original arch, the second used for the first time around the 1st C BC. As these styles can be found all over Spain on buildings known to have been built by either Romans, Visigoths, Moors or Christians there is really no way of dating the place from them.

An Ancient Jewish Mikveh - Vallejo does, however, offer another interesting theory. He suggests that the Nuns' Well may well have been  a bath, but that it was of Jewish rather than Moorish origin. In other words the place was a traditional Jewish Mikveh.

A traditional Jewish Mikveh

The main similarities between a mikveh and the Nuns' Well can be summarised as follows.

Running water as a source - Still water could not be used a Mikveh
Two indispensable chambers - Seeding basin and an immersion pool
Smaller chamber used as original collection area.
Possible immersion chamber seems deep enough for full immersion - a most for a Mikvah.

And finally, an indirect point in favour of Tito's theory. It is hard to put forward the theory that it is an Islamic bath - if the design of the one in the town is anything to go by. The Nuns' Well would need at least one other chamber to house the all important hot room.

The Moorish baths in Gibraltar

Also running against the Mikveh theory is the lack of a 'hashaka' hole and a separate basin to clean out the immersion basin. Much more important in my opinion is the lack of any source confirming a lengthy Jewish presence in the south of Gibraltar

Tito argues that during the first Jewish Diaspora and well before Tariq's little trip across the Straits of Gibraltar, (see LINK) it would not have been at all unusual for at least some of the Jewish people to have settled in Carteia or anywhere along the Bay within sight of the Rock. From there to moving on to somewhere on the Rock would have been but one short step.

15th Century Mikveh - Another possible Jewish construction date would be 1474 when the Duke of Medina Sidonia sold Gibraltar to a group of Jewish conversos from Cordova and from Seville led by Pedro de Herrera. The deal was that they would have full use and administrative rights to the Rock and in return would be obliged to bear the costs of maintaining the garrison of the town for two years. 12

In 1476, the Duke more or less reneged on the deal and expelled 4,350 Jews from the Rock - presumably the entire population. Could the Nuns' Well have dated from this period?

An Ancient Cistern - George Palao offers a different theory. The Well was actually a cistern built by an unknown culture - Roman, Visigothic or even earlier - and of which we know very little today. It was used - he suggested - to irrigate Europa flats so that it could be used for agricultural purposes.

Settlements in the South -  The main problem with pre-Islamic theories is that there is precious little evidence in the literature as to whether the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans or Visigoths ever set foot on Gibraltar - nor that the Jews did so prior to Tariq. As regards the Jews who settled in the 15th century it hardly seems possible that they would have built the structure within the two years they were actually in Gibraltar. The 'Well' is carved out of solid rock.

However, I have always found it difficult to believe that absolutely nobody living in Carteia or anywhere else along the Bay of Gibraltar over a period of well over a thousand years might not have thought it a good idea to explore that huge chunk of Rock right in front of them . They could hardly miss it. 

And it wasn't as if it was totally inaccessible. In fact it was relatively easy to get on to it either from the red sandy beach in the north east - the old mole area - or from Rosia - the new mole area. As regards living on it, the north may have been steep and relatively uninviting but the south - Windmill Hill and Europa flats are  . . . well pretty flat and easy to build on. There was nothing to stop people from settling there if they needed to or wanted to. And over a thousand years there must have been plenty of people who might have decided to give it a try.

Los Tarfes bajos, los Tarfes altos, la Torre de los Genoveses, the existence of windmills in - yes, Windmill Hill - the inexplicable 'Inquisition'  buildings,  Skinner's Moorish wall (see LINK)  near the so called town of Coral de Fez with its sea gate, the Puerta Morisca de Coral de Fez, all point to some sort of older community living in the southern part of the Rock. 

When the Merinid leader Abu l-hasan decided to strengthen Gibraltar's defences in 1333 (see LINK) he made sure that the sea walls would stretch in a continuous line from north of the water gate to Rosia with a gate at its southern extremity which came to be called the Puerta de Algeciras. It may have occupied the site of the above mentioned Puerta de Corral de Fez.

And it didn't  stop there. The wall continued right round to Europa point and beyond,  where the ruins of yet another tower can still be seen. 13  The point is - why on earth would Abu l-hasan - and his rebellious son and successor, Abu Inan - have bothered if there was hardly anybody living  in the south? 

The Spanish historian, Ignacio López de Ayala taking it from Portillo thought that there had once been a large settlement in the south complete with mosques, (plural) towers, water cisterns (again in plural) and old vineyards. There are several 17th century maps that seem to back him up by showing the odd unidentified ruin or building in the south. 

In other words there can be little doubt that there was an old settlement in Gibraltar's Europa area - mostly concentrated around the Torre del Tuerto and its mole. I actually think that the 'new mole' in its original incarnation was actually older than the 'Old Mole'  - and I suspect the Nuns' Well is simply part of that complex.

My own Theory - I am not sure I have one.
It does seem doubtful that its original purpose was as a reservoir of  drinking water.  The stuff was often brackish, was probably contaminated by local run-off water, and was full of leeches - hardly in line to compete with Aqua de Solares - and Gibraltar was - surprisingly for a modern reader - renown throughout the area for the quality of its water.

Given that, I would side with George Palao. Despite the seemingly superfluous two chambers and the lack of any exit hole to distribute the water, I would still opt for some sort of reservoir used for irrigation purposes - especially along the south-western side in an area known as los Tarfes Bajos during the Islamic era. 

As regards the date of its construction - the reservoir or 'aljibe' of the Castle of Jimena de la Frontera is extraordinarily similar to that of the Nuns' Well. The Spanish historian Hamo Sassoon has suggested that the one in Jimena may have been built by al-Hajj Ya'ish, one of the architects of Medinat al Fath (see LINK) and the man who built a windmill on the top of the Rock in 1160. 14 Could he also have been responsible for the one in Gibraltar?

The Castle of Jimena de la Frontera with the Rock in the far distance - The aljibe is not shown. It lies buried just to the right of the fortified wall on the left  ( 1868 - J.H. Mann ) 

A comparison between the reservoir at Jimena de la Frontera - on the right - and the Nuns Well  - both are almost identical in size  (Adapted from George Palao and Hamo Saasson )


1. Alonso Hernández del Portillo - Historia de Gibraltar - 1620s

Más adelante volviendo al occidente se ofrece otro edificio admirable de unas cisternas para recogimiento de agua, tal que osaría yo afirmar si fue obra de moros o más antigua que ellos. Esta hecho a forma de paralelogramo, que es un cuadrado imperfecto. Tiene de largo 78 pies, de latitud 48 y para sostener el terrado que lo cubre tiene 22 pilares de ladrillo.

Bájese a el por una escalera de ladrillo, obra que debió ser hecha por hombres más curiosos que son los moros, porque está cavada en peña viva. Tiene labrados las paredes y pavimento de ladrillo con fortísima argamasa, cual era menester para retener el agua que en aquel aljibe se recoge. Pero es dolor ver como todo lo ha consumido el tiempo que acaba todas las cosas, y más presto las que han menester de reparos y no se reparan.

2. Fernando Pérez Pericón - Descripción de la  . . Ciudad de Gibraltar - 1636

2a - John Durrant Breval - Remarks on Several Parts of Europe - 1726

3. Thomas James - History of the Herculean Straits - Vol 2 - 1771

4 - Francis Carter -  A Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga - 1772

5. Ignacio López de Ayala - Historia de Gibraltar - 1782

Admirable cisterna Corral de Fez Al levante de la virgen de Europa se ofrecía el admirable edificio de la cisterna, aljibe ó recogimiento de agua , tal i tan magnífico , i de tan Fez.  grandiosa arquitectura , que no es fácil adivinar si fue obra de moros ó más antigua que ellos. Es su forma irregular , de figura trapezoide ; larga de setenta i ocho pies ; lata ó ancha cuarenta i ocho, i cuarenta i dos ; i la altura es de ocho pies i medio. Para sostener el terrado que lo cubre tiene veinte i dos pilares de ladrillo, i debaxa á él por una escalera del mismo material.

Obra , cierto , que fue abierta i levantada por hombres de gran curiosidad ; porque está cavada en peña viva , i en todo aquel sitio no se halla otro suelo con espacio tan igual i tan profundo. Tiene labradas las paredes í pavimento de ladrillo , con fortísima argamasa , qual era menester para retener el agua que se desprende desde las alturas , i se recoge en el depósito. Conservase en éste casi todo el año ; pero son muchas las quiebras con que el tiempo lo destruye.

6. Ignacio López de Ayala - Historia de Gibraltar - 1782

Al norte de la virgen de Europa, i sobre la caleta del Laudero, corría un murillo viejo , i en él una puerta á la morisca, que introducía al sitio llamado corral de Fez ; i á lo que se puede entender hubo allí alguna población de moros de Fez , ó mercaderes que conducían mercaderías de África á los moros Españoles.

Si ya el sitio no fue más antiguo , i poblado por Tarik , pues se veían muchas paredes de piedra seca por aquellos contornos con los aljibes del Tarfe , cisternas para agua , mezquita con torre , las viñas viejas , con otras más particularidades ; i la cueva de las palomas , que parecía por la antiquísima obra que tenia , haber sido habitada , i donde se creía en el vulgo de Gibraltar que hubo tesoro.

7. John Drinkwater Bethune - History of the Great Siege etc - 1785

8. George  Hills - Rock of Contention - 1974

9. George Palao - Gibraltar; Our Heritage - 1979

10. Summary investigation by Royal Engineers prior to the refurbishment of the site - 1986

Nuns' Well consists of two large underground chambers. The well is thought to be a Moorish bath or cistern, however it could also be from an even earlier period of Gibraltar’s past. In 1753 the governor had the underground chambers cleaned and they were used to provide water for the soldiers. In 1802, the Duke of Kent arrived in Gibraltar, he set up a brewery at Europa called Brewery Yard, next to the Nuns' Well. The water from the chambers was used for brewery purposes. This brewery was later converted into Brewery Barracks.

11. Freddie Gomez - Geology: Ground and Surface Water Supply - Vox - 2008

12. Maurice Harvey - Gibraltar - A History - 2000

13. Al Makkari  - 1622 Translation - Vol 2

Abu l Hasan again applied himself further to strengthen Gibraltar, by causing a thick wall to be built at the foot of the Rock, surrounding it on all sides as the halo surrounds the crescent moon  . . .

14. Hamo Sassoon - Hacia la Datación del Castillo de Jimena  El Aljibe Central - Almoraima 29  - 2003

. . . sabemos que el arquitecto malagueño, al-Hafi Ya'is . . . alrededor del año 1159-1 160 empezó la planificación de Gibraltar; y que en los años 1170-1172 estuvo construyendo el acueducto de los Caños de Carmona. 

Teniendo en cuenta la presencia de al-Hay? Ya'is a solamente 35 km de Jimena durante algunos de los años entre 1160 y 1170, y el notable parecido entre el sistema de arcos y arquillos en el diseño de los Caños de Carmona y los mismos del aljibe en el Castillo de Jimena, parece casi seguro que el mismo arquitecto hubiera sido el autor de ambas construcciones. Y que haya hecho el aljibe en Jimena entre su planificación de Gibraltar, empezada en 1159, y su trabajo en los Caños de Carmona, acabado en 1172.