The People of Gibraltar
BC - The Names of the Rock of Gibraltar

A schoolboy adventure story view of the ancient Rock of Gibraltar

The Tartessians : Whether these people actually ever existed or not is hard to tell, but they may have been the first post Bronze Age Iberians to inhabit the area of the so called Campo de Gibraltar. If they ever bothered to set foot in Gibraltar is also a moot point - but it seems unlikely as the Rock was perhaps - at least in those days - the most hostile environment for miles around. There were plenty of far more pleasant places to choose from.

The Rock as it might have appeared to somebody from Tartessos in the 10th century BC
(with apologised to Francis Frith ) (See LINK

Nor is it helpful that the Kingdom of Tartessos - which is where these fellows came from - also remains a mystery of the ancient world. In fact nobody seems to know exactly where it was. The Bible calls it Tarshish and the Greeks thought of it as a territory well beyond the Strait of Gibraltar and somewhere close to the River Guadalquivir. The 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus does make one or two interesting observations his History which may be worth quoting as they suggest that the Greeks must have often travelled through the Strait and must have been well aware of the Rock.

. . . the Phocaeans were the first of the Greeks who performed long voyages, and it was they who made the Greeks acquainted with . . . . Iberia, and the city of Tartessus. 
On their arrival at Tartessus, the king of the country, whose name was Arganthonius, took a liking to them. This monarch reigned over the Tartessians for eighty years, and lived to be a hundred and twenty years old. He regarded the Phocaeans with so much favour as, at first, to beg them to quit Ionia and settle in whatever part of his country they liked. Afterwards, finding that he could not prevail upon them to agree to this, and hearing the Mede was growing great in their neighbourhood, he gave them money to build a wall about their town. 

Mask thought to be that of Arganthonios

Arganthonios - which means "the silver one" in Greek - seems to be some sort of allegorical reference to the fact that the Tartessians were well known for their use of metals such as copper, bronze, iron, tin, silver and gold - the very reason why Greeks and others took the risk of sailing through the Strait to Cadiz. Herodotus makes an indirect reference to this in the following story:
 . . . a Samian vessel, under the command of a man named Colaeus, which, on its way to Egypt . . .  were carried out of their course by a gale of wind from the east. The storm not abating, they were driven past the Pillars of Hercules, and at last, by some special guiding providence, reached Tartessus.  
This trading town was in those days a virgin port, unfrequented by the merchants. The Samians, in consequence, made by the return voyage a profit greater than any Greeks before their day . . . .

Gaius Plinius Secundus aka Pliny the Elder

The Roman natural philosopher Pliny the elder writing in the 1st century AD rather unhelpfully identified Carteia - a town on the banks of the Guadarranque - as Tartessos, the principle city of the Tartessians, a mistake later compounded by the 16th century Spanish historian Florian  de Ocampo:
Y aun es cierto, que después pocos días comenzaron a mudar el apellido viejo destavilla, y en lugar del nombre de Carteya que primero tuvo, los Foceenses nuevamente venidos la comenzaron a llamar Tarteso
Modern historians consider Pliny's theory to be wrong. They place Tartessos further north and near the wrong side of the Guadalquivir which makes it rather unlikely that Gibraltar was a place they gave much thought to.  Whether this is so or not is open to question - what is not is the fact that we do not know what name they may have used to identify the Rock.

The Turdetani: The Tartessians seem to have faded out of history after suffering a heavy naval defeat against the Carthaginians in the 6th century BC. As a consequence their neighbours - the Turdetani - took over their territories and ended up occupying a large chunk of territory on the southern basin of the Guadalquivir right up to the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline. 

The Greek philosopher and historian Strabo, commenting on Homer's Odyssey in the 1st century BC suggests that the Turdetani lived around this area for a considerable length of time.:
. . . the expeditions of Hercules and the Phoenicians to this country were evidence to him of the wealth and luxury of the people. They fell so entirely under the dominion of the Phoenicians that at the present day almost all the cities of Turdetania and the neighbouring places are inhabited by them.


To those Turdetani who may have lived along the southern coast, Gibraltar will have appeared as imposing a piece of rock as it does today. They must have had a name for it - but yet again I doubt whether anybody knows what it was.

The Phoenicians: There is plenty of evidence that Turdetani established a substantial links with the Phoenicians - a trading people who came from Tyre - the Lebanon of today. According to Strabo the first Phoenician seamen were ordered by their oracles to establish trading towns on what was then considered to be the end of the western side of the known world. 

The story goes that when they arrived they anchored near the Rock and offered sacrifices to the Gods. As these were inauspicious they returned home. But they came back once again and this time managed to sail through the Strait .

A Phoenician galley in the bay near Kalpe

Their sacrifices - rather anticlimactically - were again inauspicious and they returned home yet again. Their third visit saw them travel through the Strait this time ending up in Gades - or Cadiz - where they are reputed to have made their first proper settlement in Iberia around the 10th century BC. 

All of which begs one particular question. What were all these sailors doing traipsing through the Strait and into what was supposed to have been uncharted territory. The answer of course is that even as early as the 9th century BC this area was anything but uncharted. From the point of view of this essay however, the interesting point is that most of these journeys were towards the southern coasts of Iberia. It must have been a commonplace for these intrepid people to steer their ships close to the unmistakable shape of the Rock of Gibraltar and they must have had a name for it - but what name?

Rufus Festus Avienus was a 4th century AD Latin writer and politician. His work - Ora Maritima - is a traveller's account of Western Europe. Much of Avienus' work is based on the Massaliote Periplus which was written by an anonymous Greek in the 6th century BC. 

The Periplus - now lost - was one of the earliest works to describe the trade links between the people of the Mediterranean and those that lived in more northern lands - by inference those that lay beyond the so-called Pillars of Heracles. Interestingly it gives us our first name for the Rock - Calpe.
The Pillars of Hercules we have heard are the extremities of one continent and the other. They are in actual fact two paired mountains - Ábila y Calpe.  
Calpe is on the Iberian side, Ábila on that of the maurusios (Mauretania). In the barbaric language of the Phoenicians Ábila means a tall mountain. . . on the other hand Calpe is the name given by the Greeks to something that has a hollow appearance and looks like a curved mountain.
This interpretation of the meaning of the word Calpe is the same as the one offered by many modern historians but is nevertheless open to dispute. It is possibly of Phoenician rather than of Greek origins and should probably be spelt with a K as Kalpe. 

Calpe and its hinterland according to Stabo

George Hills in his Rock of Contention offers the theory that it is derived from the Phoenician "kalph" - to hollow out - and backs it up with yet another quote by Strabo. There was on Calpe, he wrote:
. . . an extraordinarily marvellous hollow with its opening half way op facing west; and from that opening for people going in there is no difficulty of movement, for as far as one can see it is all a cavity.
. . . in other words, St Michael's Cave. It is not in my opinion a convincing argument. That St Michael's is a rather large cave is indisputable but that this might have been extrapolated by the ancients into the belief that the entire Rock was completely hollow does not ring true.

To return to Avienus, he was apparently not entirely happy with the Periplus and offered his readers an alternative source.
The Athenian Euctemon, however, says that there are no mountains . . . He recalls seeing close to the Libyan and European coastline two islands which are known as the Pillars of Hercules. . . .They are completely covered in forests and mariners find them very inhospitable. 
 "The Athenian Euctemon" belongs to the 4th century BC and whatever his fame as an astronomer, his geography sometimes left much to be desired. Nevertheless his 'islands' are not that ridiculous. The Greek philosopher and historian Strabo who wrote about the Pillars of Hercules in the last century BC had this to say about them: 
Here is situated Calpe, the mountain of the Iberians . . . Its circumference is not large, but it is so high and steep as to resemble an island in the distance . . .

It is unfortunate that the map shown above represents a section that was missing from an entire Roman world plan known as the Tabula Peutingeriana. It dates from the 13th century and was probably based on an even older one. The missing section was reconstructed in 1872 by a German historian, Konrad Miller who curiously included the Rock but failed to mention its name. Miller corrected his omission in a 1916 edition by labelling the mountains just opposite Abyla as Calpis. As regards the Pillars on the island  . . . (See LINK) 
Euctemon also confirms that there are temples and altars to Hercules on the islands and that  foreign ships often land on them to offer sacrifices to Hercules although they leave as soon as possible as it is considered inauspicious to do otherwise.
If any temples were ever built on the Rock the most likely place to have found them would have been in the south either on Windmill Hill or Europa flats where it might just have been possible to land material on the red sand beaches of the western side. Avenius continues:
He (Euctemon) tells us that the water close to the shore as well as the seas that surround them are very shallow as well as muddy water along the shoreline making it very hard for ships to download their cargoes. If somebody persists in trying to land somewhere near the temple then he should lighten his ship of all its cargo and point it towards the Isla de la Luna. Even by doing this he would only just about manage to land. . . . 

Phoenician galleys passing through the Strait near Gibraltar - Unfortunately the Cunnard line publicity artists printed a mirror image of the Rock by mistake.

The 17th century Gibraltarian historian Alonso Hernandez del Portillo (see LINK) was very open to the possibility that there may have been something of the sort on the Rock once upon a time:
En este Tarfe está una torre antiquísima dicha ahora de los Genoveses. No se sabe porque se le dio este nombre; a lo que de ella se pude conjeturar es que por estar esta torre en correspondencia de otra que está fuera de esta ciudad casi de la misma fabricación de ella en lo alto de la sierra de la Carbonera, la  debieron de hacer los Cartaginenses o Romanos para avisar a Carteya de las armadas que venían por la mar, porque de la ciudad de Carteya no se puede ver la mar fuera de la bahía y estrecho, y de estas torres se ve bien lejos haciendo señal a la dicha Carteya que de muchas partes de ella se podían bien ver ambas torres; esto es conjetura sin poder afirmar lo cierto. Tiene esta torre de los Genoveses al pie de ella un aljibe de agua antiquísimo, y con serlo tanto tiene todavía aquí. De la torre por su antigüedad esta  parte caída.
Carteya is of course Carteia and the "aljibe" or cistern referred to still exists and is known locally as the Nuns' Well. (See LINK) The "Torre de los Genoveses" also existed but has long since been destroyed.

The New Mole (see LINK) and surrounding area showing the "Torre de los Ginobeses"  ( 1608 - Cristobal Rojas - detail ) ( See LINK)

Another building once found on the southern plateau of the Rock has also been the source of much speculation as to its antiquity. It has long since been destroyed but Thomas James did leave us with a drawing in his Herculean Straights. (See LINK) After 1704 it became known as the "Inquisition" but neither its purpose nor its age has ever been determined.

The "Inquisition" building (1771 - Thomas James )

Local historian Dorothy Ellicott in Our Gibraltar gives us another point of view. Many a galley, she wrote:
 . . . must have stopped at Gorham's Cave on the eastern side of the Rock, where the profusion of broken pottery seems to show there was a trading post, to which jars and bowls were bought from distant parts of the Mediterranean. Good vessels were sold; broken ones left to litter the floor.

Dorothy Ellicott

Kalpe or Calpe may now have had a name and the odd temple but it was nearby Carteia that made most of the news 

Carteia: Other than Cadiz, the Phoenicians are also known to have established settlements along the Bay of Gibraltar- in particular the town of Carteia at its most northerly point. It lay about halfway between the modern cities of Algeciras and of the Rock itself overlooking the sea between the banks of the Palmones and the Guadarranque Rivers. It was called Kʿrt - or perhaps 'Qart' - which rather unoriginally means "city" in Phoenician. 

Gibraltar from Ruins of Kʿrt  or Carteia   ( 1771 - from Francis Carter ) (See LINK)

The Phoenicians as a Mediterranean trading power more or less disappeared when Tyre was conquered by Alexander the Great during the 4th century BC. They were succeeded by the Carthaginians whose capital city Carthage had been previously founded as a Phoenician trading post in the 9th Century BC.  After the fall of Phoenicia it was the presence of Carthage and their involvement with the Greeks that allowed Carteia to develop into a Carthaginian city of some importance.

The Punic Wars: During the third and second centuries BC the Punic Wars intervened. After the defeat of Carthage in the 3rd century BC  the Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca - Hannibal's father - crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and moved his army to Gades in an attempt to subjugate and regain control over Southern Iberia. 

Hamilcar Barca

Although mentioned by some, there is very little evidence that Hannibal himself ever landed his army at Carteia on his way to that famous trek to Rome. If he did, or even if they just passed by on their way to Gades, then one can only wonder at what his elephants made of their first view of the Rock - a foretaste perhaps of what they would face in the Alps.

Curiously Portillo thought - erroneously -  that the old district of the town of Gibraltar known as la Barcina (see LINK) took its name from the Barca family. 
De esta familia y linaje fue el famoso Aníbal, su padre, hermanos y tíos y todos sus deudos, y queriendo Amílcar Barcino . . . por mandato de Cartago, su republica, hacer una armada para descubrir las costas de África y Europa, se vinieron adonde es ahora  este sitio de la Barcina, viviendo ellos en Carteya, a fabricar navíos y apretar sus armadas.
The Romans: So what did the Romans do for us? The short answer is - not much. Shortly after the defeat of the Carthaginians, in the mid 2nd century BC Carteia became a Roman city and the first colony chosen by Rome for the settlement of the children of its legionnaires. Cumbersomely renamed as Colonia Libertinorum Carteia the Romans remained there for nearly 600 years, producing their own coinage and - more importantly - giving the old name for Gibraltar a touch of Latin class by calling it Mons Calpe.

The Vandals, Suebi, Alani and Visgoths: When the Rome Empire went into decline, the whole of Iberia came under the rule of several northern tribes known as the Vandals, the Suebi and the Alani. The former for reasons of which I am not too sure have had a very bad press. In fact they - as well as the Suebi and the Alani - were a reasonably civilised lot with tendency to perpetuate Roman mores and traditions rather than destroy them.  One etymology for the word Andalucía which is the Arab word for Iberia itself - Al Andalus - is that it is derived from Vandalusia - The land of the Vandals.

By the 5th century, however, yet another nomadic tribe from the north - the Visigoths - forced the previous incumbents out of Spain and into North Africa where they fought and pillaged their way across the continent even managing an excursion into Italy where they sacked Rome. 

Vandals and Visigoths moving into the Campo area of Gibraltar and beyond

It is more than likely that their fleets may have crossed over into Africa by making use of the port of Carteia, through the Bay and across the Strait of Gibraltar. As regards names, there is no record of whether they had any particular ones for the Rock or any of the surrounding towns but it seems likely that the old names of Calpe or Mons Calpe and Carteia continued to be in use.

Walia King of the Visigoths crossing the Strait in an attempt to invade North Africa - his fleet was scattered by a storm 

The Visigoths went on to create their own kingdom in Spain and Carteia became one of their cities. There is no evidence that the Vandals, Visigoths and other tribes ever used Gibraltar either as a base or as a lookout post. A small and rather enigmatic building found in the upper Rock just north of Phillip II Wall (see LINK) has been proposed as of Gothic origin which would have made it by far the oldest building on the Rock. But it seems highly unlikely that this is in fact the case - it is probably either of Spanish or British origin and far more modern.

The "Gothic Chapel" - also known locally as the "Fuente Arabe"  
( With thanks to Bart Van Thienen)

In the early 8th century, a Visigothic warlord called Count Julian (see LINK) the ruler of Septa - today's Ceuta - and with important links and influence on both sides of the strait is reputed to have had a hand in instigating and organising the beginning of the Moorish conquest of Spain - an event which may or may not have begun at Gibraltar. (See LINK

Another little history lesson from those clever people at the Prudential.

The Moors: The next invaders were indeed Muslims from the Maghreb. Musa bin Nusayr the Umayyad governor of Ifriqiya - North Africa -  sent one of his generals, Tariq ibn Ziyad across the Strait with a large army. It would be the beginning of the conquest of Spain. They landed on or nearby the Rock of Gibraltar hence the more or less accepted theory that the name "Gibraltar" is a corruption of Jebal Tariq which translates into the mountain of Tariq. 

That the Arab invaders must have had another name for the Rock before they invaded Spain is confirmed by Claudius James Rich in his 1818 Second Memoir on Babylon: 
 . . . Bab-z-zukak meaning "The Gate of the Way" (was) the original name for Gibraltar, Gibelu'Tarek - for mountain of Tarek, being the spot where the Arabian general Tarek first landed in his descent on Spain. 
When exactly the name of "Jebal Tariq" itself became common currency, however, is not known.  According to the British historian George Hills, the earliest extant record of the name in its original Arabic script is found in Abd el-Hakem's History of the Conquest of Spain which was published in 9th century:
After that Tarik went to llyan (Count Julian) who was in Septa (Ceuta) on the strait. The latter rejoicing at his coming, said, I will bring thee to Andalus. But there was a mountain called the mountain of Tarik ( Jebal Tariq ) between the two landing places, that is, between Septa and Andalus.

Jebal Tariq in Arabic script

Early 18th century map suggesting that the origin of the name of the Rock was "Gibel Tarif" rather than "Jebal Tariq" or its other possible spellings - it was a mistake that was often perpetuated in both the Spanish and English literature and was based on the mistaken idea that it was Tarif ibn Malik who had landed in Gibraltar in 711 AD  (Unknown)

Whatever its original or post 711 Arabic name the Rock was hardly affected by its transitory involvement as the stepping stone to the Moorish Conquest and remained a barren backwater for centuries. In fact it was the Moorish city of Al-Jazirah al-Khadra' - which was named after the nearby Isla Verde or Green Island - that prospered during this period as it became the Bay's prominent port.

During the mid 9th century the Campo area of Gibraltar had the dubious pleasure of a visit by the Viking warlords Björn Ironside and his brother Hastein. Pillaging their way into the Mediterranean they gave Gibraltar a miss - presumably on the grounds that there was nothing much on it to be pillaged - and concentrated their efforts on Al-Jazirah al-Khadra which they duly ransacked. As far as I know the Vikings never gave the Rock a specific name.

The Viking hoards giving Gibraltar a miss

By the 11the century and according to the anonymous author of the Ajbar Machmua it was still being referred to as the mountain of Tarik.
. . .  Desembarcaron en el monte de Tarik (Jebal Tariq - Gibraltar)  - llamado asi de su nombre
However, during the mid 12th century the first Almohad Emir - Abd al Mu'min (see LINK) - crossed the strait and built Gibraltar's first known town. The 17th century Moorish historian al Makkarí recorded this event as follows:
He ( Abd al-Mu'min ) landed on Jebal Tariq which from that day was called Jebal-al-Fath and ordered that a strong fortress should be erected on top of it. He traced out the building with his own hand . . . . . . He disembarked on to the Mountain of Victory where he stayed for a few months and constructed on it great palaces and buildings which still exist today . . (See LINK
The new town was called Medinat-al-fath - the City of Victory - and the name of the Rock itself was changed to Jebal-al-fath, the Mountain of Conquest. It would be the one and only time when the town and the Rock itself were known by different names.

This map might seem to disprove my last statement in that the town is identified albeit as Giberter - while the Rock is labeled Mons Gibilter. However this is taken from an early 2nd century BC map by the Greek Geographer Ptolomy as interpreted in the 16th century AD by the Italian scholar Jacobus Angelus. It must be taken with a large pinch of salt  (1501 )

By the 14th century, Islam had not yet wholeheartedly embraced the Jebel Tariq connection and the great medieval writer-traveller Ibn Battuta (see LINK) was still calling the Rock Jebal-al-fath:
The first part of Andalucía that I saw was the Mount of the Conquest. I walked round the mountain and saw the marvellous works executed on it by our master (see LINK) may God strengthen him.
Also according to George Hills, the first time that the present day name of 'Gibraltar' made its appearance is in a contemporary Spanish document dated 1310.  Hills gives no reference but he may have been referring to Ferdinand IVs letter of patent which was published the year after his successful - if short lived - capture of the Rock from the Moors and in which the word Gibraltar appears several times; 
Sepan quantos esta carta vieren como nos don Fernando por la gracia de Dios rey de Castiella, de Toledo, de León, de Galicia, de Sevilla, de Cordova , de Murcia, de Jahen, del Algarbe et señor de Molina , por faser bien et merced al concejo de Gibraltar por que el sea más rico é más poblado . . (see LINK

Monte Gibeltera - even the Italians were catching up   ( Possibly Late 15th century - detail - Unknown )

A French version  - Gibrlter  (1504 -1515 )

Another Italian variant - Giblittera  ( 1558 )

M. Gibaltar - Portuguese  ( 1572 - D. Homen - detail )

Gibralter - Dutch ( Late 17th century - Van Keulen - detail ) (See LINK

Despite the spelling mistakes from then on one might safely say that the Rock was almost always referred to in the non-Arabic world as "Gibraltar" as pronounced with an aspirated "G". As to when it acquired its English pronunciation  . . . that would be well beyond the research abilities of this particular commentator. Nevertheless it is worth pointing out that during the 16th century the Elizabethans actually called it Jubalterra, the start perhaps of the long journey towards its present day English name of Gibraltar 

Map of Gibraltar published shortly after its capture by Anglo Dutch forces in 1704. By now the English pronunciation of its name will have become a commonplace   ( 1705 - Colonel D'Harcourt )