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Gibraltar Northern Defences: Journey through 1,000 Years of History

Chris Gomez · Photos: Techniq & Fran Montes

Explore: The Gibraltar Northern Defences. Journey through 1,000 Years of History

Hiking through the Northern Defences from Casemates Square, you soon realise that you are walking through a castle that has been frozen in time. The site, known as the ‘Jungle’, once filled with litter and rubble that reached up to your waistline, has now been cleared and beautified to reveal 1,000 years of Gibraltar strategic history.

Headed by the Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar and historian, Dr. Joseph Garcia, 5,000 tonnes of rubbish have been removed over 5 strenuous years to reveal the full extent of the Gibraltar Northern Defences.

Excavation of Northern Wall

For context, 5,000 tonnes are the equivalent of 10 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

From the Moorish and Spanish occupation, to the British occupation through to World War II, the Gibraltar Northern Defences have been built, rebuilt, refortified and have served protect the Rock from massive sieges for over a millennium – and soon it will become one of Gibraltar’s most photogenic and impressive historical landmark for tourists and locals.

Gibraltar Northern Defences

“I am delighted to have been able to lead politically on this project for the Government”, Dr. Garcia Reach; “It is important to me as a historian as well. We need to bear in mind that this network of fortifications is a world class jewel. The batteries, tunnels and defensive positions were fundamental in keeping Gibraltar British by holding off the combined, and separate forces of France and Spain.”

Carl Viagas, the Project Director for Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar took us on a tour through the enchanted winding pathways, stone walls that still bear the scars and burns of cannon fire and pitch-black tunnels of the defences.

Gibraltar Northern Defences Tunnels

Carl explained that these walls have evolved alongside the evolution of warfare and weaponry, from thinner walls that provided protection against arrows to thicker walls designed to withstand heavy artillery fire.

“What’s remarkable is that, throughout this 1,000-year period, only the technology has changed, the lines of defence have remained exactly the same, what they got right 1,000 years ago is what continued to work to this day.”

Tunnels of the Northern Defences

He told us, “With the passage of time, many places of historical significance have their strategic value dwindle … but for 1,000 years Gibraltar has always been the same outpost since the invasion of Al Andaluz in the 8th century, to the Reconquista efforts to push out the infidels from Spain, to Operation Torch, when the allied forces used Gibraltar to spring board into North Africa and defeat the Nazi forces there in WWII.”

Gibraltar Northen Defences

The project is also helping us understand other aspects of Gibraltar’s history. For example, Carl pointed out a bunker that was built quickly, using a heavy steel door for a roof, topped with concrete dating back to WWII. Several other makeshift defences built on top of these walls from this period tell the story of Gibraltar’s emergency strategies to defend against a planned invasion by Nazi Germany,

‘Operation Felix’ in 1940

Carl has a clear vision for the future of this project; “I push for the idea of conservation of heritage sites, but not in the traditional sense. My idea is to use buildings, to adapt them and add another chapter to its history – I think this is more valuable than to just sealing them off.”

“The Gibraltar Northern Defences are a fantastic case where we can do that – there is a tremendous amount of history, but just using it for historical tours is not enough, we need to engage with younger audiences and see what potential we have here for improvement.”

“We’re looking at things from zip lines, to rock climbing, restaurants, laser tag in the tunnels… this site has the potential for all this.”

The Latest Discovery

Carl Viagas & Chris Gomez Gibraltar

During our tour, Carl took me through one of the latest and significant finds; a defensive wall spanning over 100 metres which his team believes to date back as early as 1627. It had been marked on old, hand drawn maps of the area many times, however it hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years since.

The wall was discovered via a carved MOD benchmark symbol on a nearby wall, which Carl said would have been nearly impossible to find; “If I can’t see a 100 metre wall, how the hell could I find the benchmark? Maybe it was the lighting that lead me to it, but there it was.”

During the tour, the higher end of the wall had been cleared, and for the first time, a mount of cement and rocks was seen at the top-end of this wall. Carl explains that this could be a quick wall fix, or it could be blocking something – the area itself is suggested to be where a bastion was built. Time will soon tell what lies behind this mysterious mound.

Gibraltar Northern Defences: Journey through 1,000 Years of History

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