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Gibraltar's Medieval Shipyard

Given it’s strategic location, in the area of the Strait, Gibraltar has always been very closely linked to maritime industries. It is for this reason that the atarazana (shipyard) was built in medieval times for the construction and repair of galleys. The word comes from the classical Arabic: dāru ṣṣinā‘ah meaning “house of manufacturing.”

In the 1990s, an archaeological excavation was carried out in what Grand Casemates Square, taking advantage of ground works as part of a major project to pedestrianize the entire square and Main Street. The area excavated was within the formerly walled part of the castle known as La Barcina (which probably also takes its name from the same Arabic root) and revealed a series of structures which, after having studied them, could only be interpreted as the medieval shipyard of Gibraltar.

Historical accounts from this part of the city do not appear until the 16th century, when the work of Alonso Hernández del Portillo, a native of Gibraltar, describes it as an area with irrigated market gardens. Luis Bravo de Acuña, in his plan of the city dated 1627, depicts a series of buildings, from which one stands out among the others due to its large size and in particular its length. The open square we have today is a result of the destruction caused by the 18th century sieges. As one of the most heavily bombarded areas, most buildings had been either completely destroyed or intentionally demolished leaving the square with the appearance it has today.

The archaeological sequence that was recorded during the excavation covered a period from the 14th to the 19th centuries, and it was in the oldest levels that some structures which, due to their characteristics, left no doubt that they belonged to what was once Gibraltar’s medieval shipyard. The archaeological data indicate that they were Merinid in origin, with modifications in the later Christian period.

In his account of his travels, Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, described how Abu al-Hasan “built a shipyard where there had not been any, and a great wall surrounding the red mound”.

This infographic depicts an approximation of what the shipyard may have looked like. It is not an archaeological reconstruction as some parts of the building are subject to interpretation and could therefore differ.

It consisted of a building approximately 40m long, with a 4m wide entrance. We found a series of pillars built from sandstone ashlars and red brick. which we have interpreted as being the main supports for the roof, which could have been a barrel vault, and the bricked areas as the openings required to allow light in. The extreme end of the building was constructed from a lime mortar and limestone, and from Bravo de Acuña’s plan, we can see that it would have been topped with a gable roof.

An interesting fact: the building was designed to straddle the natural coastline, with part of it being designed to be in the water, and the rest of the building constructed on the beach; well before any reclamation, it is a long way away from where the coastline is today. This is as a result of the silting up of the area.

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