Lighthouses everywhere are dramatic sights, but few are so inspiringly placed as the Europa Point Lighthouse, on the southern tip of Gibraltar. To the north is the Rock of Gibraltar, a heap of limestone rising 1,398 feet above the Mediterranean; to the south, the mountains of North Africa, 15 miles away; and below, the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the world’s great sea lanes, through which a quarter of the world’s shipping passes.
The tower, a white cone with a red band rising 161 feet above the water, lords silently over one of the earth’s great crossroads. Here, two continents nearly touch; here, a sea and an ocean meet. Year after year, migrating birds in their millions converge on this place, seeking the shortest passage between Europe and Africa.
Here also is a crossroads of history and of civilizations. The British have ruled this tiny sliver of Iberia since 1704. In 711, the Moorish conquest of Spain began here, when Tariq, governor of Tangier, led 7,000 Berbers across the Strait. He named the promontory Jebel Tarik, or Tarik’s Mountain, from which comes “Gibraltar.”
For the Romans, Gibraltar was the ne plus ultra, the “no more beyond.” For the Greeks, the Rock was one of the Pillars of Hercules, the end of the known world. In caves deep within the mountain, Phoenician mariners made offerings to their gods before venturing into the Atlantic.
Operational since 1841, the lighthouse is a bit of history itself. Because of the economic importance of the Strait, the beacon, even in these days of radar and satellite navigation, is far from a relic. Automated since 1994, the lighthouse has no keeper, but an attendant, Terry Jesty, a former keeper who lives beside the lighthouse.
In 1985, when Jesty arrived, he and two colleagues manned the lighthouse. Now the lighthouse computer beeps Jesty if it needs him. He’s on call 24/7, but the system is efficient, and there’s not much for him to do.
“We’re an extinct breed,” Jesty said. “Things change.”
I asked Jesty about another change some say is inevitable: transfer of the Rock to Spain.
“That’ll never happen,” Jesty said.
Indeed, the links of this lighthouse to Britain are strong. Adelaide, widow of King William III, visited the unfinished tower in 1838, leaving a plaque there. Today, the lighthouse is one of the jewels of Trinity House — the only one that corporation operates outside the United Kingdom.
I met Jesty on a windy spring evening, when the migrations were at their peak. As we spoke, birds of prey such as booted eagles and sparrow hawks were swooping northward into Europe, receiving for a welcome the harassment of the gulls. The dying sun stained the lighthouse pink. Across the Strait, I saw the lights of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast.
Geology and history shaped the Strait of Gibraltar and the communities surrounding it, making them unique. For more than a century and a half, the Europa Point Lighthouse has stood solid amid the churning of the waters, and of time.
Craig Brelsford is a writer and editor living in Europe.
This story appeared in the
July 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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