Gibraltar: A Continent Gateway on the Iberian Peninsula


Gibraltar, aerial view

Gibraltar flagUK flagAt the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, bordered to the north by Spain, is a British Overseas Territory known as Gibraltar. It's an important route between Europe and Africa and the location of the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Through the ages, Gibraltar's unique position as a continental gateway has made it a special place.

In this article, we'll explore Gibraltar from historical and geographical perspectives and hopefully pique your interest in the fascinating territory.


Map of GIbraltar

The History of Gibraltar

50,000 years ago, Gibraltar was home to cave-dwelling Neanderthal and later, Homo sapiens. Artifacts found in caves date from 40,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago. The Phoenicians inhabited the area for several centuries starting around 950 BC, but there's no archaeological evidence of permanent settlements in the area during the ancient period. Gibraltar, then called Mons Calpe, was regarded as a place of religious and symbolic importance. Ancient Greeks and Romans worked it into their mythology as one of the Pillars of Hercules.

During the Middle Ages, Gibraltar was controlled by the Vandals briefly, then it became part of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania, a designation that lasted from 414 until 711 AD, at which point, the Moors moved in. An armed expedition led by Tariq ibn Ziyad entered the area from North Africa, and this triggered the Islamic conquest of a large portion of the Iberian Peninsula. Mons Calpe got a new name—Jabal Ṭāriq. It means "the Mount of Tariq." Over time, a corruption of the name Jabal Ṭāriq occurred, and we have the current name, Gibraltar.

A permanent settlement was created in 1160 by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu'min. Between 1274 and 1309, the settled area was contested and occupied by forces from Granada, Morocco, and Castile. In 1462, Gibraltar came under the control of Juan Alonso de Guzmán from the Emirate of Granada, and in 1501, it was given back to the Spanish Crown.

In the modern era, Gibraltar, due to its value as a trade route between Europe and Africa, and for its military value as a strategic chokepoint, was fought over and changed hands many times. In 1704, Gibraltar was captured on behalf of the Archduke Charles of Austria as part of his bid to become King of Spain. The campaign failed, and in 1713, Gibraltar was ceded to Britain.

Gibraltar was an important base for the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War of 1854–1856. Its strategic value grew after the opening of the Suez Canal. During WWII, Gibraltar's civilian population was evacuated, and the Rock was turned into a fortress and naval base.

In the 1950s, Spain renewed its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar, but in 1967, the residents of Gibraltar voted to remain under British sovereignty. Spain responded by closing the border with Gibraltar and severing all communication. In 1985, the border was reopened as Spain was about to become part of the European Community. Britain and Spain discussed shared sovereignty in the 2000s, but, again, the population of Gibraltar voted against it. At the beginning of 2020, the UK left the European Union, taking Gibraltar with it, but by the end of 2020, the UK and Spain had agreed to steps that would avoid a hard border with Spain.

Gibraltar's Geography

Gibraltar flag Gibraltar encompasses 2.6 sq mi and shares a land border with Spain that measures just three-quarters of a mile. There are two coasts, referred to as "sides." Most of the population, totaling a little over 34,000 people, lives on the West Side, while the East Side has the relatively small settlements of Sandy Bay and Catalan Bay.

The Strait of Gibraltar is the narrow strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Europe from Africa. It's only an 8-mile-wide gap at the Strait's narrowest point.

The terrain of Gibraltar is dominated by the 1,398 ft limestone ridge known as the Rock of Gibraltar. The territory has almost no natural resources but a diverse set of plants and animals. In fact, over 500 species of flowering plants grow there and it's the only place in Europe where you'll find the Gibraltar candytuft growing in the wild.

Most of Gibraltar's high-elevation land is designated a nature reserve and is home to nearly 250 monkeys, specifically, Barbary macaques—they're the only wild apes or monkeys found in Europe. The monkeys share the Rock with rabbits, foxes, and bats. The Bay of Gibraltar teams with dolphins and whales; the shores are frequented by migrating birds.

One fascinating feature of Gibraltar is St. Michael's Cave, a network of limestone caves in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. There are 150 caves inside the Rock of Gibraltar, but St. Michael's Cave receives the most attention, with almost 1,000,000 visitors per year.

We hope you enjoyed this brief look at an interesting section of the Iberian Peninsula. The territory known as Gibraltar has a fascinating history, and for geography buffs like us, this gateway between Europe and Africa holds special significance.

Be sure to check out Gibraltar in our UK: British Overseas Territories quiz and see if you can locate the Strait of Gibraltar on our Europe: Physical Features quiz!