The People of Gibraltar
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 21 – The Nun’s Well


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 know it existed. 

The actual cistern in lies underground. The crenellated structure shown in the photograph was built by the Royal Engineers in 1988 (2012)

The "well" is an underground chamber, perhaps of Moorish origin or older, located at Europa point. The oldest map reference available is that on a sketch by the Dutch Map maker, Anton Van den Wygaerde dated 1567. This version seems to show a structure with 20 pillars not all of them with supporting arches. 

Extreme bottom left under the title "Banias morisca" (?) – Moorish Baths (?) ( 1567 - Anton Van den Wyngaerde ) 

A 17th century Spanish engineer also includes it in his well-known map of the Bay in rather less detail than Wyngaerde. He labels it "cisternas".

Cisternas (1608 Cristóbal de Rojas)

The oldest written reference that I have been able to trace is the following:
Pedro Barrantes Maldonado – Diálogo – 1540
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 this one:
Alonso Hernández del Portillo - 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. Está 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 él 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. 
About ten years later in 1636 the building surfaces once again in:
Fernando Pérez Pericón's poem - Descripción de la . . Ciudad de Gibraltar.
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. 

Probably the first British written description can be found in the book Remarks on Several Parts of Europe:
John Durant Breval -1726 - P327
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. 
And a slightly later one:
Robert Poole – The Beneficent Bee - 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 whaen 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 Thomas James gives a rather more detailed description in his History of the Herculean Straits. Somebody visiting a year later also offers yet another informative description :
Francis Carter - A Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga -1772
. . . 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. 
The description of the place by the late 18th century Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala is practically identical to that of Portillo. He does however, introduce the idea that the construction may have been part of el Corral de Fez, an area of Gibraltar of which very little is know

During the early 19th century came the appointment of Prince Edward, Duke of York as Governor. His attempts to impose discipline on those unfortunate enough to be stationed on the Rock at the time included the closure of thirty pubs, making forty of the rest out of bounds, and only allowing the sale of beer for the troops in three of them. He then set up an army brewery at Europa. 

Duke of Kent (1802)

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 came from the nearby Nuns' Well. The stuff they produced was euphemistically called Bristol Beer.

The Brewery was converted into a barracks after the Duke of Kent was recalled home (1986 - Plan by the Royal Engineers – (With thanks to Tito Vallejo )

In 1964, a local student Lionel Perez, carried out a complete survey of the site as part of his university thesis. Amazingly it was the first ever to have been done. According to Local historian George Palao, 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. His somewhat surprising conclusion was that the structure predated Gibraltar's Moorish occupation. But as far as I know he gave no indication as to why he came to this conclusion or whether it was once used as a cistern, a bath - or indeed something else entirely.

Nuns' Well (1976 - George Palao )

The Royal Engineers then decided to take an interest in the place. 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.

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

Two proposals made by the R.E (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 local historian Freddie Gomez wrote an article in 2008 - Geology: Ground and Surface Water Supply – which appeared in the Vox newspaper. I suggested that recent research had shown that the Nuns' Well did not fill up with water draining from the nearby Beafsteak Fault as had previously been thought and that most of the water in it came either from rain, street flushing or from sea spay during strong levanter winds.

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.


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

Top – a Semi-circular arch – Bottom - a Segmented arch

I am not an architect but I find it hard to believe that the shape of the arches can offer any clues as to the when the Nun's Well was constructed. The arches used could be 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.

Ancient Jewish Mikveh
However, Vallejo does offer another interesting theory. He suggests that the Nuns' Well was 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 Mikve or Mikvah

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 Mikva
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.

Running against the Mikvah theory is the lack of a 'hashaka' hole and perhaps a separate basin to clean out the immersion basin. Nevertheless, Vallejo suggests that during the first Jewish Diaspora and well before Tarik's little trip across the Straits of Gibraltar, it would have 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 settling somewhere on the Rock would have been one short step. 

The truth is that I have always found it difficult to believe that absolutely nobody living anywhere else along the Bay – never mind Carteia - 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. Weren't they not at least curious?

And it wasn't as if Gibraltar was inaccessible. It was relatively easily to get to from the red sandy beach in the north east - the old mole area - or even 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 as the name of the latter implies - 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 both reasons. 

As regards Jewish arch construction, I think it was very eclectic and was influenced by just about every culture you can think of. In al-Andalus, they tended to copy the Moorish semi-circular type horse-shoe style with those distinctive side ornamentations. The example below is from the Ibn Shushan in Toledo, the oldest synagogue building in Europe. 

Synagogue Ibn Shushan in Toledo,

But my main problem with possibility of the Nuns, Well having ancient Jewish origins is that I can find absolutely no evidence anywhere of any sort of pre-Tarik or even pre-12th century settlement in the southern part of the Rock.

15th Century Mikva 
Another possible construction date would be 1474 when the Duke of Medina Sidonia actually sold Gibraltar to a group of Jewish conversos from Cordova and Seville led by Pedro de Herrera. The deal was that they would have full use of the Rock but would maintain the garrison of the town for two years. In 1476, the Duke more or less reneged on the deal and expelled 4,350 Jews from the Rock. 

Could the Nuns' Well have date from this period? In my opinion the answer is no. It hardly seems possible that they would have built the structure within the two years they were actually on the Rock. The place is carved out of solid rock.

Ancient Cistern 
This one comes from George Palau. The Well was a cistern built by an unknown culture - Roman, Visigothic or even earlier, 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. 

It does seem doubtful to me that the Well’s 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 Pellegrino - 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 during the Moorish era of the mid-14th century- especially along the south-eastern side in an area known as los Tarfes Bajos. 

Aljibe built During the Almohad Era – 1160
The reservoir or 'aljibe' of the Castle of Jimena de la Frontera is extraordinarily similar to that of the Nuns' Well. A modern Spanish historian has suggested that the one in Jimena may have been built by the same man who built that famous windmill on the top of the Rock in 1160.
Hamo Sassoon - Castillo de Jimena - El Aljibe Central - Almoraima 2 - 2003 . . .
. . . sabemos que el arquitecto malagueño, al-Hafi Ya'is (al-Hajj Ya'ish) . . . 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-Hafi 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. 

The aljibe on the left is the Nuns’ Well, the one on the right is the aljibe in the Castle of Carmona (Palao and Sasoon)

The Castle of Jimena de la Frontera with the Rock in the far distance – The aljibe lies buried just to the right of the fortified wall on the left (1868 - G.W. Wilson)

Could aal-Hajj Ya'ish have been responsible for the one in Gibraltar? Lo dudo. Personally, I feel that unless a proper archaeologist has another good look - and I can't understand why Gibraltar can't afford to do so - we cannot really use either arches or our imagination as clues to when it was built.

To read the booklet without any interruptions from me - click on the link below:

711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar - J.J. Alcantara

To read the rest of my commentary click on the appropriate link below:

711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 1 - The Visigoths and Islam
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 2 - Tarik and Gibraltar
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 3 - Tarik’s Mountain
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 4 - Tarik Invades
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 5 - Covadonga
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 6 - Vikings and Almoravids
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 7 - Yusuf Ibn Tashfin
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 8 - Abd al-Mu’min
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 9 - Madinat-al-Fath
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 10 - Moorish Wall, Aqueduct and Town
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 11 - Abd al-Mu’min Revisited
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 12 - The First Siege
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 13 - Christian Gibraltar and the Second Siege
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 14 - La Giralda and the Third Siege
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 15 - Abu al-hasan
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 16 - The Tower of Homage
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 17 - The Line Wall and the Shrine
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 18 - The Mosque, St Mary the Crowned and Rio Salado
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 19 - Siege of Algeciras and Ibn Battuta
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 20 - Southern Defences and Moorish Baths
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 21 - The Nuns’ Well
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 22 - The Gatehouse
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 23 - The 6th and 7th Sieges
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 24 - The 8th Siege – Castilian Gibraltar