Gibraltar Museum



The Mosque, the Baths and the Castle


The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.


When Prof Clive Finlayson took over the responsibility of running the Museum in 1991 it only occupied a small fraction of the building which houses the Museum today. It had been largely so, with some changes, since the Gibraltar Museum first opened its doors to the public on 24 July 1930. The reason for siting the Museum on this site was that it would incorporate an ancient monument within its premises. These were the 14th century Moorish Baths. It is not our purpose in this article to describe in any detail the architecture of the baths. Instead we will cover how the landscape of Gibraltar has changed and this part of Gibraltar is of particular interest since we have been able to excavate here since 1995. We have therefore had a great opportunity to understand how this part of Gibraltar, within the red sands district of La Turba has changed from its original state which was that of a system of mounds and dunes of red sand. The transformation took place after the re-capture of Gibraltar from the Spaniards by the Merinids in 1333. It is beautifully described by Ibn Marzuq in his Musnad as follows:

“and the red sand, on being occupied by so many buildings and such high constructions, appeared (from a distance) to be white.”


The first urban excavations ever to be carried out in Gibraltar were those in the premises of the Gibraltar Museum in 1995 when we took the opportunity of the development of the building’s southern wing. It was all done on a voluntary basis, archaeologist Paco Giles and his team coming for months several times a week at their own expense all the way from Jerez and El Puerto Santa María. They had great experience in this type of work and it helped us in understanding the ways of practical urban archaeology. We opened up two trenches, one in what is now the garden of the Museum, and which was at that time a very untidy garage which had belonged to the Tourist Office, and the other within the building close to where the cafeteria was situated. Let us start with the latter which turned out to be the more interesting.


The reason that we decided to excavate where we did was that we had taken a decision at an early stage of the planning that we would attempt to restore as much of the building as possible. In this we were lucky to be working with John Langdon as architect and Andrew Licudi as project manager. John was a trustee of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and had some very imaginative ideas on how to restore old buildings while Andrew had much previous experience of this kind of work from his days in Edinburgh. Anyway, we had carefully removed the plaster from the inside of the southernmost wall of the building when we realised that behind the years of paint and aggregations there was a wonderful double arch. It covered most of the wall and we recognised that its construction was not medieval Muslim. We suspected it to date to the Spanish period but we needed to confirm this so we decided to dig down along the side of the arch to try to find its base and thus perhaps determine its age if we could find dateable clues, such as ceramic. We never expected to find what we did. As we went down we realised that we needed to open up a wider area to make the sounding practical and, since we were in control of the development, we were happy to do this! We went through levels that were clearly “modern”, that is 19th Century onwards before we reached our first surprise. We began to find large amounts of charcoal. As we excavated we realised that the charcoal was not confined to an area but was evenly distributed across the whole floor. We began to suspect but our expectations were not confirmed fully until we went beyond this level into the next one. Below this charcoal level was 18th century ceramic. So the charcoal was sandwiched between the 18th and early 19th centuries. Such a uniform layer of charcoal could only mean one thing – a large fire and we were probably looking at a collapsed timber roof. We knew then that we were staring directly at the Great Siege of 1779-83! Drinkwater tells us that the Staff-Quarter in Bomb House Lane, opposite the site of today’s Museum, was hit by a shell which burst on it on the 18th September 1781, which killed Captain Burke, the Town Major. It was, after all, at that time right up against the sea wall prior to the extensive reclamation works which began to take place the following century. We had captured a moment frozen in time.


Below the 18th century we found a 17th century level, rich in Spanish ceramic of the time. On one side there was a small and complete water conduction system. Its water must have flowed from south-west to north-east, almost certainly from the aqueduct which would have run along Line Wall Road into the area of the Baths. The water channel, which was 17th century, breached the base of the arch which had led to all this excitement. So the arch was slightly older than the channel, clearly Spanish and probably 16th century. The sixteenth century levels were also rich in Spanish ceramic. Below we hit a very different level. It was clearly earlier and the ceramic was very unusual. Now we would clearly recognise it, after four years of finding it in other parts of the town, but then we were not at all familiar with it. It was Islamic and it belonged to the Merinid dynasty, in other words to the 14th century re-capture of Gibraltar and, therefore, contemporary with the Baths. The European territory which the Merinids controlled was quite limited so even archaeologists used to excavating medieval sites in Spain were not very familiar with this ceramic. We dug deeper and, before reaching the geological layers, we found an even older level of occupation. This surprised us because we had assumed from historical accounts that there would be no construction here before the Merinids. Yet below here there was earlier Muslim ceramic, belonging to the late 12th and 13th centuries, belonging to the Muwahhidun (Almohad) dynasty – we had found evidence of the very foundation of the Medinat, the City of Gibraltar of Al-Mumin! Clearly this part of Gibraltar must have been built up in the 14th century, as described by Ibn Marzuq, but at least some constructions existed in La Turba in the very beginning. Eventually, we did reach the geological levels, the parent limestone bedrock with a cover, of course, of red sand.


It will be useful to recall here that the first record of any significant fortification on Gibraltar is significantly after the 27th April 711, when Tarik ibn Zeyad landed on the Rock. There may have been a fortification dating to this time but we have no evidence of it. The first reference is in the 11th century after the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba and the fragmentation of the territory of al-Andalus into taifas (kingdoms). The king of the Seville taifa was al-Mutadid and, when he heard of the proximity of the Morabit (Almoravids) in North Africa, he wrote to the Governor of Algeciras ordering him to reinforce the fortifications of Gibraltar. Gibraltar features once again at the end of the 12th century when the Muwahiddun (Almohad) Caliph Abd al-Mumin wrote to the Granada and Seville Muwahiddun leaders expressing the desire to renew, populate and fortify the old city of Gibraltar. He sent two architects to meet with the representatives of Seville and Granada and put the works into effect. At this stage the Jebel Tarik was referred to as the Jebel al-Fath (the Mount of Victory). The intention was to create a well-fortified city in preparation of the planned Holy War to be waged on the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. The foundations of this city, named the Madinat al-Fath, were started on the 19th May 1160. The works included a grand mosque, a palace for the sovereign, others for his children and residences for the principal dignitaries. A water tank was made which was fed via channels from the Rock. Gardens were planted and the city could only be entered by a single gate – the Bab al-Futuh or Gate of Conquest. In addition al-Hayy Ya is, a famous engineer, built a windmill on the top of the Rock. In November of 1160, by which time the works were at an advanced stage, Al-Mumin crossed the Strait and held an assembly of the chiefs of Málaga, Ronda, Granada, Córdoba and Seville in the Madinat al-Fath. He returned to North Africa after two months and left his son Abu Said, Governor of Granada, in charge of the works. So at this early stage Gibraltar had a castle, city and a port and these is the earliest evidence that we have describing the transformation of the landscape. It is from this time that the museum level dates and we decided to name the new gardens outside as Al-Mumin’s Garden in honour of the founder of this first city. To date these are the only remains of this city to have been found anywhere in Gibraltar as all others date to the 14th century.


The sounding in the garden was very different. The first thing that we came across was a 19th century cobbled floor, perhaps a part of a patio. Below we never found Muslim levels but we did find a beautiful Spanish arch, which is visible today, which we considered may have been part of the structures related to the aqueduct on Line Wall. Inside the pit which we excavated we found broken ceramic which, when reconstructed took the form of a large ‘tinaja’ a vessel for holding freshwater. From its style we knew it was early 16th century and the area of origin somewhere between Grazalema and Ubrique in the Cádiz sierras. The aqueduct which we have referred to was the Spanish one. The Merinids had constructed an aqueduct in the 14th century which brought freshwater from the area of lower Witham’s to the town and as far as Grand Casemates Square from where the castle and the atarazana (and its ships) were supplied. This aqueduct had fallen into decay in Spanish times and it was they who in 1571 built a new one following the same line. The small structure with a conical roof which is on the eastern side of Rosia Road is the last surviving vent of this aqueduct had been abandoned by 1620 but which was subsequently repaired by the British. In the 18th century the aqueduct supplied water as far as the Parade (today’s John Mackintosh Square, or the Piazza). The original fountain was moved from its first location (in Fountain Ramp on the north-western corner of the Piazza) to where it can be seen today, in the boulevard just south of the Catholic Community Centre on Zoca Flank Battery.


We did our utmost to try and interpret the findings in the Museum with known historical sources. We had no information on the earliest settlement but we knew that the Baths had been constructed by the Merinids in the 14th century and the levels which we found had to be related to the Baths. Bravo’s (1627) plan showed a large house on this site, with grounds to its south where the present museum garden and the pool of the Bristol Hotel are situated. It showed elements of what appeared to be Muslim structures including a square tower at its north-eastern corner approximately in Bomb House Lane directly opposite the Deanery. The southern façade of the building shows a large archway which we have interpreted to be the archway that we found and which led to the excavations. According to Portillo this was the estate house (mayorazgo) of a Juan Serrano in the early 17th century. When the British took the Rock the majority of houses in the town had a single storey. This building was exceptional in having two and James comments that it was one of the best houses in Gibraltar at that time. Modifications and additions were made to the house from the 18th century onwards leading to its present layout. Within the Museum we found walls which were of 16th, 18th and 19th century construction. Appropriately, this building therefore provided us with an insight into the history of urban Gibraltar!


The scheme to make Main Street a pedestrian thoroughfare opened the next opportunity for excavation the following year. Encouraged by our success in the museum we jumped at the chance. We knew from Portillo’s account that the present Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned had formerly been the Great Mosque, the largest of those built by Abu’l Hasan in Gibraltar. Since Portillo was writing over 150 years after the Spanish capture we had no guarantee that there had ever been a mosque here although he did cite the courtyard of the orange trees, where there were still marbles which resembled those of the Córdoba Mosque, and also having seen the removal of Muslim structures where the alter of the Name of Jesus had been erected. The conversion into a church had been carried out on the instruction of the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella in 1502 and their Royal Coat of Arms are still visible in the small courtyard outside the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes. We had no plans either that would help us in any way, a similar situation to that which we faced when excavating in Grand Casemates Square. The earliest plan was, once again, Bravo’s of 1627. It showed us the then church with a grand gothic western entrance extending well into present-day Main Street. To its north there was a walled courtyard which we speculated could have been the remains of the courtyard of orange trees of the mosque, similar though smaller to the one in Córdoba in arrangement. The 1753 map gave us a plan view of what was by then called the Spanish Church. Again we could clearly see that the western entrance was much further west than today and the plan also indicated that the gothic pillars were semicircular in plan view. To the north the patio, in the form of a cloister, was clearly shown. We also knew from old prints and references that the Spanish Church had been badly destroyed during the Great Siege and that its eventual restoration had been achieved early in the 19th century with the Governor’s permission but with a compromise. In order to have a straight street the western end of the church was to be cut back to its present position, the land having been sold for the sum of £1,000, and the intricate Gothic façade was destroyed. The present clock-tower was erected in 1820 and the cap and crown were completed in 1874 and 1906 respectively.


With this limited information, and not really knowing whether there was anything resembling a mosque anywhere, we started excavating in Main Street west of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned where, from the 1753 plan we expected the old western entrance to the church to have been. During the first week we were only allowed to work in the southern corner, near the monument to the Royal Engineer, because the rest of the street’s surface had not yet been removed. What we found was very exciting but we needed to see the rest before we could place it in context. It was a well and it was full of ceramic, all of which was clearly 16th century and therefore Spanish. Most of this was later reconstructed and exhibited at the Museum. Inside we also found the remains of a human! Tantalisingly, immediately to the north there was a structure that looked like a wall but we had to wait…


The following week we started in earnest and our first objective was to trace the line of this wall. As we proceeded northwards we realised that the wall, which seemed to be a typical Muslim construction, using local limestone and red sand and lime mortar, had been breached by the younger Spanish well. That was excellent news as it confirmed the wall’s antiquity. This presented another problem, however. If this were an outer wall what would be the point of breaching it to make a well? That was answered for us by a map dated 1776 which the then Monsignor Charles Caruana, later Bishop of Gibraltar, produced one day. It showed this wall and in the position of the well the baptismal font had been situated! Hence the need to have a well there. Eventually we exposed the entire western wall, of Muslim construction but which had clearly been utilised by the Spanish as the perimeter to their church. The grand Gothic arches at the entrance were of Spanish vintage, with very different construction technique, and when we exposed their bases we were overwhelmed by the detail of the 1753 plan which showed them exactly as they were. It was even more stunning when we climbed to some of the terraces of nearby buildings to photograph the structure and saw it, so to speak, from the air. Throughout the length of the wall the red of the local sands was prevalent.  In some places it was very deep. Certainly the limestone bases of the pillars went much deeper than we had time to excavate, beyond four metres, and throughout the sand supply was not exhausted. The artefacts recovered in the excavated trench were not many but Merinid ceramic, as well as more 16th century material, was recovered. We found the remains of many humans who had been buried, as was the custom among Catholics even in the 18th century, within the precinct of the church. Most were clearly poor people as we only found one gold ring and a few glass ornaments. The bodies had been covered in lime as was the practice then and the area of the church within which they were buried was rotated, there being four such areas available. At the end of the excavation we returned the remains to Monsignor Caruana for re-burial within the Cathedral. Most other people who died in Gibraltar were buried in the red sands outside Southport Gate until Lord Tyrawley, Governor, stopped the practice in 1756 as the burial ground was so close to the town’s water supply. So the Protestant cemetery was moved to North Front and the Jews’ one to Jews’ Gate on the Upper Rock.


As so often happens time ran out before we could complete the excavation although we did protect the structures in the hope that we could subsequently finish the excavation and perhaps expose a part. In the last few days we found, just north of the Muslim wall a water channel which was running on a gradient towards where the courtyard of orange trees would have been and we thought then that it could have been a supply channel from the Line Wall aqueduct. Months later we were able to conduct another sounding outside the Cathedral bookshop. Here we found the remains of another medieval wall which ran from south-west to north-east. It was the base of a wall which appeared in an early 19th century print with a sentry guarding a side entrance to the Spanish Church. Behind the door which the sentry protected an open courtyard can be seen. It seems that we had excavated the outer wall of the courtyard of orange trees and to commemorate the site we proposed that orange trees should be planted there. It is a joy to walk past that spot in the spring when the scent of the orange blossom almost transports us back to the days of Abu’l Hasan.


Another matter has also been left in the air. The conventional view is that the first settlers of the Rock were Muslims and we have no doubt that this is true. Nevertheless, at the northern corner of the excavation we found two Roman roof tiles but we were out of time to continue the search.  This is very faint evidence, admittedly, but we were left wondering whether some of the wealthier Romans from Carteia had come to the red sands of Gibraltar and built villas there…


The evidence gathered from the excavations in the Museum and the Cathedral certainly has given us the impression that this part of the red sands housed important people. The Baths, which had traditionally been assumed to be public baths because of their size, follow the style of other private Muslim baths which are the propriety of important persons. Only down the road there was the mosque. Within the museum complex also there are other arches which may have been associated with a residence and we have the tower in Bravo’s plan. So perhaps James was right and this was the residence of an important person, perhaps even the governor himself.

From our point of view these excavations have confirmed the degree to which these areas of red sands, well south of the original castle and city, had been urbanised by the 14th century. To have important buildings such as these so close to the coast must have additionally required good defensive protection and Abu’l Hasan enclosed these areas with a fortified wall.

Then there is Gibraltar’s most important monument – its castle. The castle is, like all other Muslim structures that we have studied, the product of the Merinid strengthening of Gibraltar after 1333. Its construction, reputedly on the site of an older and smaller tower, was undertaken between 1342 and 1344. A number of authors have claimed earlier dates for the castle and James illustrated in his book an inscription which existed in his day in the Gatehouse and which he attributed to the 8th century. This was, however, disproved by the Islamic historian Leopoldo Torres Balbas who showed that the inscription actually referred to the Nasrid Yusuf I. The vaults within the Calahorra (Tower of Homage) were also considered to resemble those built in the reign of this monarch in other castles. It seems, therefore, that these may represent alterations done once the Nasrids of Granada had taken over Gibraltar from the Merinids in 1374. We may one day be able to confirm whether there are any pre-14th century structures in the castle but there is nothing visible today which suggests that this is so. The remains of the medieval castle of Gibraltar are the Calahorra, subsequently called the Tower of Homage as it appears that it was here that tribute was paid to the governor. It was also called the white tower at one time as it had been whitewashed around 1600 and the remains of this coloration can still be seen in places. The southern flank wall of the castle is largely intact although repaired on a number of subsequent occasions but much of it fell within the limits of the civil prison until recently and very little could therefore be done to study it at the time. Also within the prison keep were the two blind arches which could be older than the rest of the castle but which also require to be studied.


These, in all likelihood, were part of the Giralda, a barbican which protected the tower and which may have continued along the cliff edge upwards towards the site of the old Willis’s Battery where King Alfonso XI built a tower and shot his catapults onto the castle. The site of this tower, and of the Giralda, have been confused and taken to be the North Bastion (Baluarte de San Pablo), much lower down the Rock.  It is clear, however, that the pre-Merinid castle consisted of a tower and the barbican which in combination with the cliffs formed a small citadel. The strengthening and enlarging of the castle in the 14th century extended the perimeter by adding a sea-wall which went from the atarazana at Grand Casemates Square, eventually reaching Europa Point. The process may have taken 17 years and the fortifications were nearing completion when King Alfonso XI once again laid siege in 1349. Once these lower areas had been secured, the town was able to grow on the lower slopes on the red sands and the natural environments, including the coastal ones, were significantly altered. The building of Charles V Wall in the late 16th century attempted to enclose the castle and town as a more conventional citadel.


The Gatehouse has been derelict for many years and deserves a better fate. It is a classical entrance to a medieval Muslim castle with two towers controlling the gate and a U-shaped vaulted passageway behind designed to slow down the advancing enemy while attacking them from above. The conical roof is 18th century and attributed to Portuguese workers when the Gatehouse was converted by the British into a magazine. Much of the castle itself, the Qasbah or Alcazaba, lies buried under the 1960s Moorish Castle Estate. It is sad to think how much was lost when this estate was built. This is the very part of the castle which would have had the governor’s palace and where Portillo tells us there were gardens with fruit trees, vines and vegetables as well as a forest and good hunting! Wyngaerde’s and Bravo’s sketches clearly show this part of the walled castle as an open area with trees. It is ironic to think that it may have been the very precinct of the castle, along with a few scattered gardens, that may have been the refuge of the native vegetation of the Rock when so much else was left barren…