Geo-Joint: Gibraltar

Even if you’re not sure where it is, you’ve heard of the name or seen it on an insurance logo. The Rock of Gibraltar has an iconic status as something solid and prominent, which it definitely is. And you may know that it lies at the very western end of the Mediterranean Sea, on the (duh) Strait of Gibraltar. Along with Mt. Acha in Ceuta across the strait, it is one of the mythic Pillars of Hercules. The rock sits on a peninsula at nearly the southernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula on what would be Spanish land, except it’s run as a British Overseas Territory.

The rock itself, which rises almost 1,400 feet above the sea, is mostly limestone from marine deposits laid down during the Jurassic period. Sitting near the African and Eurasian plate boundary, the big block got uplifted and rotated. Surrounding seas chewed away the land around it, which is relatively flat. The peninsula it’s on is oriented north-south, and while the high rocky ridge is not at the very southern end, and the peninsula is not at the very mouth of the Mediterranean, its high ground has long been a key defensive outpost guarding against ships entering from the Atlantic.

The first occupants of Gibraltar, 100,000 years ago, were Neanderthals who lived in the limestone caves eroded into the rock. Over time they were followed by visiting Phoenicians and Romans, and then Moors, who actually established a permanent presence. In more modern times, France, Spain and Britain tussled over control, but Britain took the rock by force from Spain in 1704, and it was ceded to them officially in 1713. Many attempts were made to retake it by seige, but none were successful. The strategic value of Gibraltar was evident during World War II, and the Axis powers had plans to take it but could not. Part of the reason was that a system of caves begun in the 1700s was expanded by the British until there were over 30 miles of them. 16,000 men lived inside the Rock and had protection from which to fire artillery at invaders.

Gibraltar is only about 2.5 square miles, and inhabited by 30,000 people who are a mix of Europeans and North Africans. They aren’t all British but are definitely adamant about hanging on to rule by the British as opposed to the Spanish. They voted to keep the status quo in 2002 by 98%, supporting a system that is largely self-governing. Despite its tiny size, it is a prosperous locale. The enclave is a free port, which bolsters their shipping trade, and there is a lot of offshore banking as well as a big tourist market.

Tourists are drawn, of course, to the magnificent and famous rock, which features the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. The reserve is home to some of Gibraltar’s most unusual citizens, a population of Barbary macaques. Numbering somewhere between 200 and 300 individuals, these monkeys are the only simian inhabitants of Europe, and quite important to Gibraltar’s tourist economy. They are carefully monitored by veterinarians who not only keep track of their numbers and minister to their health needs, but also provide food to supplement their natural diet. However, centuries of familiarity with humans have made them fearless, and run-ins with unwary tourists have resulted in hundreds of hospital visits over the years. Recently the problem became large enough that 120 of the monkeys were exported off the rock in order to lessen population pressures.

Another quirky aspect of Gibraltar is its airport. It runs east-west across the narrow peninsula and in fact about half of its length is built on fill in the bay. What makes it almost frighteningly unusual (besides the fact that there is water at both ends) is that there is a full urban boulevard running right across the middle of it! Of course, care is taken to stop traffic when a flight is due in or about to leave, but the roadway must be closely inspected at all times for litter or the odd muffler or spark plug that might have come loose from passing traffic. Considering that there are only around 30 flights per week, it’s not a mad scramble to get across the tarmac by car or foot, but one has to be ready to yield to incoming 747s.

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