Defending the Rock: The Walls and Fortifications of Gibraltar

Moorish Castle, Gibraltar
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People have fought over the occupation of Gibraltar for centuries. In the last two millennia the Moors, the Spanish and the British have all had a foothold on the Rock, lured by its strategic location at the entrance to (or exit from) the Mediterranean. Defending the peninsula was always a priority, so it is not surprising that it should be riddled with walls and other fortifications.

Moorish Castle, Gibraltar
The fortifications of Gibraltar date from different periods – here the 12th century Moorish Castle and a 18th century British battery

Moorish Fortifications of Gibraltar

The Moors held Gibraltar almost continuously from 711 AD until the Spanish conquered the Rock in 1492. Most of their effort went into protecting the northern part of the peninsula, the narrow strip of land between Gibraltar and Spain. To this end they constructed the Northern Walls and what is now known as the Moorish Castle. Built in the 12th century, the Moorish Castle was a massive fortress running down the side of the rock all the way to what is now Casemates Square.

Moorish Castle, Gibraltar
The keep of the Moorish Castle has a commanding view of the town and the sea

The keep of the fortress (also known as the “Tower of Homage”) had a commanding view of the town below and of the northern border. Today you can visit and climb up to the top of the keep. You’ll get the same view as the Rock’s early defenders, and you can appreciate what a good vantage point this was.

To the north you can also walk through the Landport Gate, for many centuries the only way into the town of Gibraltar by land (all the other entrances were from the sea). The current Landport Gate dates from 1729, but earlier gates on the same site go back at least to the 15th century and probably earlier.

Landport Gate, Gibraltar
The Landport Gate was once the only way into the town of Gibraltar

Spanish Defences

The Spanish defences concentrated more on the sea, particularly after an attack by Moorish pirates in the 16th century. The Emperor Charles V built a wall from the southern end of the town almost to the top of the rock, and his successor Philip II of Spain made a second wall very close to this one. You can still see the Charles V wall snaking up the hill, and in some places you can walk along or through it.

Charles V Wall, Gibraltar
The Charles V Wall goes almost to the top of the Rock

The Spanish also created new bastions and sea walls on the western side of the peninsula. These were to defend the town on the lower slopes of the Rock where virtually all of Gibraltar’s population lived. The eastern side was considered impregnable, being a sheer rockface with little or no land at its base.

Rock of Gibraltar
The east face of the Rock still looks forbidding today!
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British Fortifications and the Line Wall

The British occupied Gibraltar following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. More so than their Moorish and Spanish predecessors, they were vulnerable to attack from all directions. They set about strengthening the existing defences, extending and reinforcing the walls and fortifications. Bastions and batteries were created on the northern land border, and they built clifftop fortifications and artillery lines to guard against any attack from the east.

Line Wall, Gibraltar
The Line Wall incorporates structures from different periods

The Line Wall was built along the western coast in the 1770s. This incorporated earlier structures and included bastions and gates giving access from the sea. Gibraltar’s defences were extended in the 19th and 20th centuries, with new installations and structures such as the Parson’s Lodge fortress at the naval harbour of Rosia Bay.

Parson's Lodge, Gibraltar
The Parson’s Lodge, at Rosia Bay, was used as a battery

Exploring Gibraltar’s Defences

The last significant military action in Gibraltar was during the Second World War. Since that time urban development has encroached upon the walls but recent efforts have been made to preserve and protect the fortifications. You will see walls, bastions and batteries everywhere, all marked with their military names. Walk down Line Wall Road and you will see long stretches of the old walls. Look out for the King’s Bastion: it is now a leisure centre but parts of the original bastion remain.

King's Bastion, Gibraltar
Pinnable image of an old entrance to the King’s Bastion

As the Line Wall was a sea defence you might be surprised to see land on both sides. The reason is that almost all the land between the wall and the sea was reclaimed during the 20th century. In fact much of it, including Ocean Village where I stayed this time, wasn’t even there when I first visited Gibraltar in the 1970s! Today this new land is full of shops, apartments and leisure areas, as well as facilities for yacht-owners. For the first time in Gibraltar’s history it is welcoming visitors rather than trying to keep them away.

Ragged Staff Gates, Gibraltar
The Ragged Staff Gates once opened up to the sea

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9 thoughts on “Defending the Rock: The Walls and Fortifications of Gibraltar”

  1. What a fascinating exploration. I’ve never visited Gibralter, but it’s fortifications look amazing and oh so interesting. I love historical sites, and coming from England this is something I probably should know more about, but don’t. The Rock as it was known always featured in sort of background history, but never to the fore.

  2. What wonderful living history. I have yet to visit Gibraltar but l think l would love to visit now. Don’t laugh, but l pictured monkeys at every turn because that seems to be what people talk about. I prefer the history, thank you very much :-).

  3. We visited Gibraltar when our cruise ship was diverted from the port it was heading. Turned out to be one of the best stops of the trip. We keep saying a day wasn’t enough. . .we must return for more!

    1. Hi Stuart, you’re absolutely right and I thought twice about including Gibraltar under Spain. But I decided to be consistent with what I’ve done elsewhere in this blog – for instance, putting San Marino and the Vatican City under Italy and the Isle of Man under the UK. Not strictly correct but it’s a principle that’s followed by guidebook publishers such as Lonely Planet. Given that 90% of visitors to Gibraltar travel across the border from Spain it seemed more helpful to my readers to categorise it as such.

  4. Carolina Colborn

    We passed by the Rock when we took a trip from Malaga to Tangier, Morocco. Oh, how I wished we had gotten into a tour to the island of Gibraltar. What history of the fortifications, the walls and the Castle. Even the macaque monkeys!

  5. I didn’t really think about the strategic location of Gibraltar because I have yet to visit, but I love history and after reading your article I would love to explore it as well as the attractions there!!

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I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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