The People of Gibraltar
1771 - Thomas James - Herculean Straits - Two Inscriptions

The Meaning of the Inscriptions
The existence in Gibraltar of two medieval Moorish inscriptions was brought to light in the 18th century by the writings of Thomas James (see LINK) and of Francis Carter. (see LINK ) Neither of the inscriptions has survived. Translations of the longer of the two have been pored over endlessly by historians as it has always been assumed that a correct interpretation might tell us who was responsible for building the Moorish Castle as well as suggesting a date for the founding of the town of Gibraltar.

Copies of the inscriptions in the form of engravings were included by Thomas James in his History of the Herculean Straits which was published in 1771 but which refers to those years  between 1749 and 1755 when James was stationed in Gibraltar as an officer of the Royal Artillery.

According to James:
There are two Moorish inscriptions, one on the battlement near the mosque, and the other at the entrance of the upper cattle . . . This inscription is upon the outside of the battlement of the upper tower:

Engraving of the shorter inscription 'upon the outside of the battlement of the upper tower ' as it appears in the History of the Herculean Straits

The shorter inscription 'upon the outside of the battlement of the Upper Tower'' transcribed into readable Arabic script by Thomas James

Also according to James, he was told by a native speaker that the above Arabic is pronounced as follows:
Lilah al Asiyatu el Asya. Lilah el Boqui yatu el Boquiya.El Boquiatu, Lilah el Asiyatu el Asiya el Asiyatu el Asya.
and translates into English as:
To the God that pacifies, and of peace and to the God that lasts for ever, To the God that pacifies, and of peace, and to the God that lasts for ever
James describes the second inscription as follows:
This longer inscription is over the gate at the entrance of the upper cattle.

Engraving of the longer inscription 'over the gate at the entrance of the upper cattle' as it appears in the History of the Herculean Straits

The longer inscription 'over the gate at the entrance of the upper cattle' transcribed into readable Arabic script by Thomas James

which James suggests is pronounced as follows in Arabic :
El Nefru Vel Temyedo Vel Fetch el Mubin ly mulana, Aby Abdilahy, amir el Muselmin Mulana Aby Al Hajaj Ebn Yusef Amir el MuselminEbn mulana Aby Al Walid nafaru alah.
and translates into English as:
Prosperity and peace to our sovereign, and slave of God, king of the Moors, our sovereign Aby Al Hajaj, son of Joseph king of the Moors, son of our sovereign Aby Al Walid, whom God preserve.
Francis Carter in his Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga published in 1777 but referring to his visit to Gibraltar in 1772 also commented on these two inscriptions:

Of the shorter inscription he writes:
The few other buildings are quite in ruins; among those to be traced and worth our curiosity, is a little square building  to the eastward formerly a mosque, which would never have been known as a place of devotion, were it not for an Arabic dedication on the wall which imports in English:
To the God that pacifies and the Peace-maker, to the God eternal and that lasts forever, To the God that lasts forever, to the God that pacifies, and the Peace-maker.
The longer one he refers to as follows:
Over the South Gate of this castle which fronts the soldier's hospital, is an Arabick inscription that ascertains the exact period of its erection, and which, together with that on the wall of the mosque, have been already published by an officer of this Garrison; his translation of both very nearly agree with mine, which were given me in Spanish by a Barbary Jew, well versed in Arabic idiom, and confirm the correctness of that gentleman's copy. In English it is this:
Prosperity and peace to our sovereign and the slave of God, the supreme governor of the Moors, our sovereign Aby Abul Hajez, son of Jezed, (Jezid) supreme governor of the Moors, son of our soverign Aby al Walid, whom God preserve.
Irritatingly, Carter tells us that the above refers only to the first line of the inscription: The second line was quite defaced but he suggested that it 'undoubtedly' gave:
. . . . the year of the Hegira and the name of the Alcalde or architect who built the Castle.
Whatever lack of agreement between the authors as to their translations of the longer inscriptions Carter concluded that :
These events fix the erection of this castle to the years 739, 40, or 41 at latest; probably it was begun  while Abul Hajez was in Gibraltar . . and the inscription placed over the gate after the death of Abdulmalic . .
Carter's view was more or less accepted until 1948 when the Spanish architect and archaeologist, Leopoldo Torres Balbas came up with an alternative suggestion.
The sovereign referred to is without a doubt the Nasrid Yusuf I (1333-1354) of Granada; Abu 'l-Hajjaj, son of Abu 'Walid, son of Abu Sa'id Faraj. That "son of Jezed (Yazid) " which appears in the translation published by Carter, is perhaps a mistranslation of "of the tribe of Kazraj"  . . . .
It seemed an ideal interpretation as 1333 was the year in which the Marinid ruler Abu-l-hassan together with his son Abu Malik Abd al-Walid took Gibraltar back from Christian hands.  It would be the start of what is often referred by the Arab writers generally - and by Ibn Battuta (see LINK) in particular - as the largest building spree up to that date on the Rock, surpassing even that reputed to have been undertaken by the Almohad Caliph Abd al-Mu'min (see LINK) during the middle of the 12th century.

In 1961 in a paper on early Islamic settlement in Gibraltar, the British historian H. T. Norris (see LINK) claimed that Carter's translation of the longer inscription only differed from Thomas in that he named the sovereign in question as Aby Abdul Hajez rather than Aby Al Hajaj and offered an alternative interpretation of the longer inscription.
Victory and help from God to our sovereign Abu 'Abdallah, Amir al-Musilimin (Son of) our sovereign Abu'l Hajjaj Yusuf, Amir al Musilimin, (Son of) our sovereign Abu'l Walid, whom God preserve

Plan of the medieval town showing two south facing entrances into the Castle precinct - the Gatehouse appears as the Gate of the Qasabah -  the south western one is unnamed  ( 1961 - H.T.Norris - detail )

Norris backs his interpretation by referring to Professor D. S. Rice of the School of Oriental and African Studies who had drawn attention to the title of Amir al-muslimin which appears in the text. It was, he wrote, an Almoravid invention. Rice therefore dismissed the possibility of associating the script with the earlier Umayyad Caliphate. If one concludes that this style of writing persisted into the Almohad era then Rice's chronology would date the inscription as anywhere from the beginning of the 11th century to the beginning of the 13th.

Rice was also of the opinion that the shorter inscription was much older. For stylistic reasons he thought the script would probably be pre 11th century, but that a slightly later date was possible. Norris suggested that if this included the 12th century then the mosque where the inscription was found could have been part of the work carried out by the Almohad Abd al-Mu'min or his son Abu Sa'id.

In 2014, Kevin Lane et al, in their paper Myths, Moors and Holy Wars reassessed the history of Gibraltar and its Straits. Backed by new archaeological findings they suggested that the walls that surround  or once  surrounded the Castle were mostly constructed in the 13th and 14thcentury. Apropos, they backed up these findings by suggesting a new translation and interpretation of the longer inscription.
al-naṣr wa-l-tamyīz (?) wa-l-tamkīn / wa-l-fatḥ al-mubīn / li-mawlā-nā Abī ʿAbdallāh / amīr al-muslimīn / ibn Abī  l- Ḥaǧǧāǧ  Yūsuf / amīr al-muslimīn / ibn Abī  l-Walīd / naṣara-hullāh
which is now translated as:
Succour, honour, strength / and clear victory / for our lord Abū ʿAbdallāh / commander of the Muslims /son of Abū l- Ḥaǧǧāǧ  ibn Yūsuf / commander of the Muslims / son of Abū l-Walīd / may God grant him victory.
From this Kevin Lane et al conclude that:
This new translation effectively ascribes the gate to Muhammad V.  This makes perfect historical sense; given that this emir received Gibraltar back from the Marīnids in 1374 and that he also destroyed the fortifications of Algeciras, thereby re-fortifying Gibraltar as the only defended Muslim outpost on the bay 
In so far as the shorter inscription is concerned:
A calligraphic interpretation of this dedicatory inscription of (on?) a possible small mosque or shrine entrance, places it in the Almohad 12th century, which links it to the foundation of the town in 1160
In other words, an acceptance of Professor  Rice's interpretation of the  shorter  inscription.
And that, it would seem, is the state of play at present,

It might be worthwhile pointing out here that on the whole historians have spent far more time, ink and paper discussing the longer inscription than the shorter one, presumably because it has always been though that a correct identification of the various Arab leaders mentioned on it might give us the date of when it was written and a clue as to when the Castle was built and perhaps the date when the town was founded. 

Whether there is any real logic to this type of reasoniong I am not sure. As I see it both the town and the castle could have been built either earlier of later than the date in which the inscription was written.

The Rock from the Neutral Ground showing the Moorish Castle and a rather prominent pyramid domed Gatehouse middle left   ( 1785 - Roberts - detail )  (See LINK)

Where the Inscriptions were Found
It might have helped - if only from an archaeological point of view - if we knew exactly where James and Carter found the two inscriptions. But we don't.

As regards the shorter one:
Thomas says that he found it on "the outside of the battlement of the upper tower" Whereas Carter states that it was "on the wall of "a little square building to the eastward formerly a mosque"

As far as I can make out, nobody has ever been able to reconcile these two statements. The best guess is that there was a "little square mosque" somewhere near the western battlements of the castle and that this building survived at least until 1772 and was probably destroyed during the Great Siege. But I have never been able to find any written or archaeological evidence that might confirm this.

For the longer inscription:
Thomas  . . . . "Over the gate at the entrance of the upper cattle"
Carter . . . . . . "Over the South Gate of this castle which fronts the soldier's hospital"

These two seemingly innocuous statements have been discussed at length in the literature. The accepted interpretation is that the inscription was above one of the gates into the Qasabah. But which one?

A plan of the northern part of the town showing the walled castle precinct with the Gatehouse as a domed structure, and the unidentified south western one as a complex entrance  (1970s - George Palao)

The historian Ibn Sahib al-Sala is probably the most reliable source available as regards 12th century Gibraltar. Of hispano-muslim origins he was a supporter of the Almohad Caliphate - in fact he was a near contemporary of Abd Al Mu'min, the reputed founder of Madinat al Fath. In his book The Gift of the Imamate ( Al -Mann bi l-imama) he wrote the following:
Empezaron la construcción (de Madinat al Fath) en el sitio en que recayó el acuerdo, como el mejor  . . . . . . planearon. .  edificar en ella . . .una mezquita, un palacio para el  (Abd Al Mu'min) y otro para sus hijos, todo ello circundado por una muralla de hermosa construcción con una sola puerta a la que llamarían Bab-al-Futuh ( Puerta de la Victoria or Bab-al-Fath)
The mention of the mezquita is helpful but the author does not tell us where exactly it was built.  And yes it seems there was una sola puerta in the 12th century. Unfortunately by the mid 19th century there were - at least in theory - two gates into the castle precincts, one facing south east, and the other south west.  Carter does mention that the inscription was on a gate that faced south faced but the distinction can, of course, be applied to both gates.

As the Spanish historian Ángel J. Sáez Rodríguez mentions with some irritation in his Las Defensas de Gibraltar ( Siglos II-XVIII):
El problema se plantea porque la orientación del recinto hace que las dos puertas medievales estuvieran situadas al sur, una al sudeste (llamada Puerta de la Victoria) y otra al sudoeste ( de origen Nasarí) . . . .  De las dos solo permanece una en pie.
The one left standing is today's Gatehouse which Sáez identifies as Bab-al-Fath. However to add to the general confusion this gate was blocked up in the early 17th century and made use of as a gunpowder magazine.
 . . fue utilizada por el ejercito Británico desde las primeras décadas del siglo XVIII . . .  fue cubierta con una techumbre maciza apiramidada a prueba de bombas . .

The south eastern gate ( 10 ) identified as a powder magazine  
(1750 - Claude Dubosc - detail )

The Moorish Castle area during the Great Siege showing the Gatehouse with its pyramid top ( Late Spanish 18th century plan - With thanks to Tito Vallejo )

It was only as late as 1998 that the role of the Gatehouse as a proper gate rather than as a gunpowder magazine was brought to everybody's  attention by  the historian A. Torremocha Silva and others in their paper - Fortificaciones Islámicas en la orilla norte del Estrecho. Ironically, this means that although there were technically two gates during the mid 18th century, Carter and Thomas were probably only aware of one - the south western Nasrid gate.

I cannot read or understand Arabic, far less defaced, medieval versions of its script. I cannot therefore give a proper opinion on the evolution of the various translations of the longer inscription. However the move from earlier dates to newer ones   - from Yusuf I (1333-1354) to Muhammad V (1354-1359 and 1362-1391) and by others even to Muhammad VII (1392 -1408) - suggests that considerable guesswork is being indulged in by experts in an attempt to reconcile literary evidence with archaeological findings.

Despite those reservations mentioned above, I tend to agree that the inscriptions are inescapably linked with two fundamental questions concerning the history of Gibraltar - who exactly built the Moorish Castle and who can rightly claim to have been the founder of the town of Gibraltar. I doubt whether we are anywhere closer to answering either of these questions just yet.

As regards the matter of the gates, it is indeed unfortunate that two of the historians who probably know more about them than anybody else should have made a rather careless mistake. Saez and Torremocha managed to confuse la Puerta de la Victoria with the Nasrid Puerta de Yusuf I. Sáez actually produced a plan which identifies both gates incorrectly.

Plan that appears in the article Gibraltar Almohde y Meriní ( siglos XII-XVIV)  by Sáez Rodríguez and Torremocha Silva which shows the Puerta de la Victoria as A (it should be B) and Puerta de Yusuf I as B (it should be B)

Photograph included in the book Las Defensas de Gibraltar showing the Gatehouse correctly as as Bab-al-Fath. The author acknowledges in this book that the map shown above is incorrect

Perhaps even more annoyingly, the article published in 2014 under the title of Myths Moors and Holy Wars - mentioned above - adds to the general confusion. Backed by newly completed archaeological evidence at various sites in Gibraltar, the paper includes a detailed architectural study of what is referred to as the "E gate of the central fortress precinct" which they identify on a plan as being the one facing south east. In other words the gate usually thought of as having once been the site of Bab-al-Fath but which they identify as being that of Muhammed V.

Finally, I find it curious that the less controversial dating of the shorter inscription has not been given as much importance as the longer one.  There has been a modern tendency towards dismissing the importance of the 12th century Almohad connection with Gibraltar because of a serious lack of archaeological evidence. The lack of enthusiasm is understandable, but perhaps that short inscription about a God that lasts forever should make us reconsider.

See also: