LONDON LETTER: A serene sentinel on turbulent waters

ALTHOUGH I’m no atheist, I am not the most prolific churchgoer around.

But there are some stories that are so deeply spiritual that I get goosebumps.

For example, I’m currently writing a sequel to my novel Bloodhorn, and although it’s mainly set in Africa, a major scene takes place in Gibraltar.

No spoiler alerts – but the reason I chose Gibraltar is due to its almost mystical significance.
Only 7.7 sea miles divides Europe from Saharan Africa, and the fact that such a narrow cleft separates vastly different cultures, religions, languages and traditions is mind-boggling.

Mythology has Hercules opening the straits of Gibraltar by tearing down two pillars blocking the Atlantic – said to be Gibraltar and Jebel Musa in Morocco. However, the geological reason is even more dramatic.

Five million years ago the Mediterranean was a desert, a vast evaporated lake.

Then the icecaps thawed and floods stronger than a bazillion nuclear bombs cracked the ocean barriers.

It started with a drip, then a stream, then a river…until the sea came roaring in.

It must have been a sight to behold – a towering tsunami racing across the land faster than a racehorse.

The tip of Gibraltar is known as Europa Point, and it was originally the site of a mosque.

But when the Spaniards re-captured the Rock from the Moors in 1462, they converted it into a church that became known as The Shrine of Our Lady of Europe.

Inside was a statue of Mary and baby Jesus. Only a metre tall and carved in wood, it was revered as a Holy Grail by sailors praying for a safe voyage through the stormy straits.

Ships saluted as they passed and mariners came ashore with gifts, including oil for the Shrine’s lamps.

So in effect, it was not only a holy place, it was Gibraltar’s first lighthouse.

Then in 1540, a notorious Barbary pirate called Hali Hamat attacked Gibraltar. The pirates sacked the sacred Shrine and stole everything.

Well, everything except the statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. Somehow it survived.

The pirates were soon routed, the church restored and the holy statue returned to its rightful place.

The church was again looted when the British conquered Gibraltar during The Spanish War in 1704.

The British were Protestants and not interested in Catholic Shrines. They snapped the head off the statue and threw the shattered remains into the sea below.

Indestructible

But once again, the statue of Mary and Jesus proved indestructible. As it was made of wood, it floated and the swirling currents swept it into the Bay of Gibraltar, where it was found by a Spanish fisherman.

Miraculously, both the head and body were floating together, incredible when one considers the storms that had tossed the flotsam around.

Like most people of the time, the fisherman was deeply religious and handed the waterlogged debris to the Catholic Church.

As the statue could not be returned to British-ruled Gibraltar, the remains were placed in the Chapel of St Bernard in Algeciras.

Over the years, the statue was lovingly restored, and finally returned to Gibraltar in 1864.

However, the British army owned the site of the Shrine and used it for strategic military purposes.

So nuns kept the statue of Mary and Jesus at the Loreto Convent on Gibraltar’s Main Street, waiting for better days.

After the Second World War, Britain started withdrawing its military installations and brought in wrecking balls to demolish the Shrine.

Call it divine intervention – call it what you want – but that did not happen. Instead, at the last minute the army ceded it back to the Church.

On 28 September 1962, for the first time in 258 years, priests celebrated Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe.

The Church was packed as an emotional congregation watched the ancient statue of Mary and Jesus return home.

That tiny figurine at the gates of Europe has survived attacks for five centuries.

Yet it remains eternal; a serene sentinel on turbulent waters dividing two continents. Nearby is a mosque, neighbours in harmony.

Make of that what you will.

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