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The Pillars of Hercules (28 February 2022)

The Pillars of Hercules

Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick


The western end of the Mediterranean Sea exits to the Atlantic Ocean through straits formed by the Iberian Peninsula to the north and Morocco to the south.  In antiquity, prominent features of these land masses bounding the straits were called the Pillars of Hercules, or, in Greek, of Herakles.  They were named after the Greek demi-god, called Hercules by the Romans, who was known for his significant acts, known as the Twelve Labours of Herakles. His Tenth Labour was to bring the Cattle of Geryon from the far west back to Greece.  Thus, his furthest travels are associated with the region of the Pillars.

In Greek, they were called ‘the Heraklean Pillars’. They are currently known as the Strait, or Straits, of Gibraltar in English and in Spanish translation.  The European pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar, but the African one is disputed, and candidates are either Monte Hacho in Ceuta, the Spanish city on the north African coast, and Jebel Musa in Morocco.

From the end of the second millennium BC, this region was well known to the Phoenicians, who, as traders, sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules, both, to the south, along the north African coast, and, to the north, along the coasts of Spain and Portugal.  Based in cities, such as Sidon and Tyre, in the area of modern Lebanon, they established a number of colonies and trading posts throughout the Mediterranean Sea, including along the coast on both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar.

The Phoenicians served as intermediaries of trade of various commodities.  The famous Tyrian purple, made from the murex shell, was traded from Phoenicia, but also produced in Morocco.  Specific objects of trade from this region were silver from Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula, and tin trade from Galicia in Spain by the Atlantic coast, or from Brittany in France and Cornwall in England through the Rhône Valley to Massilia, modern Marseilles.

The Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean near the coast of Morocco are significant geographical features and parts of modern Spanish territory, which were well known to Phoenician traders in antiquity.

To the west of the strait on the Spanish coast of the Atlantic Ocean is Cadiz, ancient Gades, which was founded by the Phoenicians in the twelfth century BC.  The Phoenician name for the city was Gadir or Agadir, meaning ‘the wall’ or ‘the stronghold’.  Its geographical nature made it ideal as an important port, and it later became an important city during the Roman Empire.  Archaeological remains from the Phoenician period include a temple of Melqart, who was conflated with Herakles/Hercules by the Greeks and Romans.  Finds include anthropoid sarcophagi imported from near Sidon in Phoenicia and bronze votive statues of Melqart-Hercules.

In Greek mythology, the Gardens of the Hesperides were placed beyond the Herakleian Pillars near the Atlas Mountains on the edge of Ocean to the far west of the world.  Their name is derived from ‘Hesperos’, the Greek word meaning ‘evening’, and they are thus in the direction of the sunset, in the west.  Hesperides, the nymphs of the evening and of the light of sunsets, were normally three in number, and guarded the golden apples in the Gardens, which were sacred to the goddess Hera.

Phoenician trade was very closely linked to Greek trade throughout the Mediterranean Sea.  Greek colonisation took place in the region of Spain, particularly from the Greek cities of Ionia, such as Phocaea, on the coast of present day western Turkey.  An example is the Phocaean colony, Emporion, modern Empúries, on the Mediterranean coast of north-eastern Spain.  Another is Hemeroskopion, on the east coast of Spain, which was founded by Massiliot Greeks, from Massilia, modern Marseilles, in southern France, which was itself a Phocaean colony.  Lebanon also had Greek trading posts and colonies during this period.

Carthage, meaning ‘New City’, was a Phoenician colony in present day Tunisia, whose traditional foundation date is 814 BC.  This colony far outgrew in importance the Phoenician cities which founded it.  The Carthaginian Empire expanded in the region of the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco until the fourth century BC, and occupied southern Spain.  The most significant colony was ‘Carthage’, founded in 227 and named after Carthage, which was called ‘Carthago Nova’ by the Romans, and is present day Cartagena, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  In the Second Punic War (218-01), it was from this city in 218 that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, began his march across the Alps and into Italy in his unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Roman Empire.

The north of Algeria and Morocco was called Mauretania by the Romans, and was a vassal kingdom of Rome until it was annexed in AD 44.  Jugurtha (c.160-104 BC) was king of Numidia, which neighboured Mauretania to the east, and was a major figure in the Jugurthine War (112-106), which was fought against Rome.  It was the subject of the literary work, Bellum Jugurthinum, ‘The Jugurthine War’, by the Roman historian, Sallust (86-c.35).

Following the conquest of the Carthaginian Empire in the third and second centuries BC, and the incorporation of Mauretania and Numidia into their empire, the Romans occupied Spain, Portugal and north Africa for many centuries and significant remains exist from this period in these regions.  In Spain, the Roman site of Mérida has many significant buildings which are visible, including a theatre, aqueduct, bridge and the Temple of Diana.  These date to the period after the city’s foundation in 25 BC.  Segovia has a Roman aqueduct, dated to the late first or early second century AD, which is a significant sight in the modern city.  The town of Vic in the region of Osana, Catalonia, has a well preserved Roman temple, dated to the early second century AD.

In northern Morocco, extensive Roman remains exist at Volubilis, and many of the buildings and the plan of the city are visible.  These include the Basilica, the Arch of Caracalla, who reigned AD 188-217, the Capitoline Temple and a number of houses with mosaics.

Thus, Spain, Portugal and Morocco share with Lebanon the heritage of being part of the Roman Empire, and have significant remains from the period.  In Lebanon, the temples at Baalbek are examples of this.

The region is linked to Lebanon not only by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, but also by the Arab culture of Morocco, Spain and Portugal.  Morocco is known for its mediaeval Arab architecture from the seventh century AD. Known as Moorish architecture, this style is also found in the architecture of Spain, Portugal, Algeria and Tunisia.

In Fez, the University of al-Qarawiyyin has a very large mosque, which was founded in the ninth century and has been built over many centuries, with significant construction taking place in the tenth century.  It is a major example of Islamic architecture.  Its walls are stuccoed and painted white.  Its prayer hall takes up most of its area and there is a courtyard and square minaret, whose form is followed by minarets in Morocco and Spain.

Royal Palace at Fez is a significant building, which was commenced in the thirteenth century, but mainly built in the last 400 years.  It has many structures and gardens, and its most visible parts are its main entrances and mechouars, that is, the administrative courtyards.

Marrakesh has significant mosques dated to the twelfth century AD, such as the Koutoubia Mosque, Ben Youssef Mosque and the Kasbah Mosque, and the fourteenth century Ben Salah Mosque.  They are constructed of pink stone, have a square construction with roofs of many gables, and a courtyard, and they all have characteristic tall square minarets.  They have geometric decoration on the exterior, which includes the decorative use of blue and white tiles.

An example of non-religious architecture is the fortified village of Aït Benhaddou on the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh.  It is significant for the earthen clay architecture of the seventeenth century buildings on a site, which has had similar buildings since the eleventh century.  The buildings are tall structures with towers and small houses, some of which have geometric decoration on their upper parts.  An important structure is the fortified building, called the kasbah.

The Arab domination of Spain and Portugal, which commenced in 711, and lasted until 1492, at times occupied virtually the entire Iberian Peninsula, and, for a short period, part of southern France.  The region, during the Islamic period, is known as Al-Andalus, which gives its name to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain.  During this period, a significant Jewish population also lived in Spain, which was either expelled or converted at the time of the reconquest.  The influence of the Islamic period is still apparent in Islamic influence on western mathematics and science, both of which flourished in the region, and significant architectural remains.  

In the north of Spain, at Zaragosa, the Aljafería Palace, dated to the eleventh century, is the only Moorish structure in Spain which is dated to that period, and one of the best preserved ones from the Arab period in Spain.  The elaborate style of the arches and decoration differs from later Moorish buildings in Spain.  In 1593, under the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, it had substantial additions to make it a military fortress. 

In the south of Spain, in the region of Andalusia, significant influence remains of the period of Arab domination.  It includes the large Mosque-Cathedral at Cordoba, whose construction began in 785.  Almost the entire mosque remains, including the courtyard.  It was converted into a cathedral after the Christian reconquest in 1236, and largely retained its Moorish form, until, in the sixteenth century, a renaissance style Roman Catholic cathedral was built in the middle of what was the prayer hall.  The prayer hall has many semi-circular arches, with purple and white decoration, and columns.  Next to the Courtyard of the Orange Trees, the bell tower at the side of the building, which was built between 1593 and 1617, incorporates part of the original tall square minaret, which was damaged by natural forces collapsed in 1589.   

Another important building is the Alhambra, which is the palace and fortress at Granada, whose construction began in 1238.  This includes colonnaded halls with many semi-circular arches and columns, significant vaulting and ceiling decoration, Moorish style courtyards and gardens.  Its most important features are the Mexuar, the Comares Palace, the Palace of the Lions, and the Partal Palace.  It also has significant additions by Spanish kings in renaissance style, which were built after the reconquest.  This included the palace built by Charles V, which was commenced in 1527.

A further example is the Giralda, the bell tower of the cathedral of Seville, which was the minaret of the mosque, commenced in 1184.  The mosque itself has been entirely replaced by the gothic style cathedral, which was constructed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the minaret is intact, although its topmost part was built in the fifteenth century.  It is again of the tall square style of the Moorish architecture of Spain and Morocco, and was built to imitate the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh.  

The Moorish architecture of Spain, Portugal and Morocco contrasts with the Islamic architecture of Lebanon and its neighbouring countries.  Two main differences are the use of the dome in mosques in Lebanon and its vicinity, which was due to the influence of the design of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, on Islamic architecture, and the thin cylindrical minarets with a pointed top.  By contrast, western mosques in the Moorish style have a square form and tall broad square minarets.  Furthermore, the geometric decoration of Moorish architecture is in stark contrast to the images used in Roman Catholic architecture, which in Spain was often built in the midst of the former.

Next to the Straits on the Spanish side is Gibraltar, which became a possession of the United Kingdom in 1713 as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht, towards the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), which was a major European war at the time.  It remains a British territory to this day, despite its status being disputed by Spain.  It remained an important base for the Royal Navy for many years.  Its strategic importance is based on its position at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.

Its name comes from the Rock of Gibraltar and is a corruption of its Arabic name, Jabal Ṭāriq, that is, 'Mount of Tariq', which is likely to be named after Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, the Moorish military leader, who lived in the eighth century AD.  He was the Berber Umayyad commander who led the Arab conquest of Spain and Portugal in 711-18.

Morocco, to the south of the straits, has its largest city, Casablanca, which is the chief port and the major business centre of the country, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.  On the coast to the north is the capital, Rabat, and, in the centre of the country, is Marrakesh, whose important mediaeval Arabic architecture is discussed above.  To the north opposite Spain, the city of Tangier on the Atlantic Ocean gives its name to the fruit the tangerine, which is a variety of mandarin

The Atlas Mountains are a major geographical feature in the north of the country near the Mediterranean Sea and stretch eastwards into Algeria and Tunisia.  Cedars grow in these mountains, which are the same variety as the cedars of Lebanon.

Lebanon also shares the influence of the French colonial period with this region.  The French Protectorate of Morocco(1912-56) led to similar changes in administration, the use of the French language and French influence in the architecture of the region. 

The Spanish Protectorate in Morocco existed during the same years and occupied a small piece of territory on the northern coast of Morocco next to the Mediterranean Sea, and another small piece of territory at the south of the country.

By contrast to the Arab culture of Morocco, Spain and Portugal, after the reconquest from the Arab occupation, became regions of Spanish and Portuguese culture, with Spain having regional cultures, in the north-east, in Catalonia, and, in the north, in Galicia and the Basque country.  The capital of Spain is Madrid, in the centre of the country, and that of Portugal is Lisbon, which is on the Atlantic coast.

In Spain, the Costa del Sol, or the ‘Sun Coast’, stretches along the southern coast of Andalusia beside the Mediterranean Sea.  It is an important international tourist destination which developed during the course of the twentieth century.  The most significant towns are Malaga, Torremolinos and Marbella.  A significant British expatriate community lives in the region.

In Morocco, tourism is the largest industry after the phosphate industry.  It is centred around the country’s coastal resorts and heritage, and has the advantage of the country’s proximity to Spain.  This allows many short visits from Spain to tourist sites in Morocco.  Cruise ships visit Tangier and Casablanca, and the beaches along the coast are popular.

The region of the Pillars of Hercules was thus important in Phoenician trading and colonisation, as a major international sea route during every historical period, and as a crossing between Europe and Africa, which was an important location for historical and cultural influences in both directions.  The geographical areas on either side were at various times inhabited by Arabs, and thus share Arab culture with north Africa and the Levant, including Lebanon.