Gibraltar: Jews Gate Cemetery

Why did you visit?

The cemetery was a stumble-upon. When I planned my trip to Estepona, Spain, my Dad insisted that I day-trip to Gibraltar since it is so close by. So, I did. I rode the local bus down to La Linea de la Concepcion, and walked across the border into Gibraltar. The bus provides service for locals who are trying to get to work, or school, or shops. I experienced a slice of local life.

Gibraltar is small. It is in four parts: the airport, the area where people live and shop, the Rock, and the shipping port. New buildings under construction everywhere you looked in the area where people live and shop. And the locals made sure that you knew that you were not in Spain.

Did you go to the top of the Rock?

Of course. I rode the cable car up and hiked down. The paved roads are full of mini vans full of tourists on guided tours. And the hiking trails have fallen into serious disrepair. And the macaques. They were only up at the very top. I was glad to get away from them. I had been warned about them before going – so I had packed my snack food (an apple and dark chocolate) in heavy quart size zip-seal baggies, so that I wouldn’t smell of food. Didn’t want to attract the monkeys.

I walked along the ridge at the top to take photos of the view. I tried to get to the highest point – not sure I succeeded, but I certainly got great views (and photos). It was one of those days with thick heavy clouds – so you were walking through them at the top. And of course, they made for great photos. I was hoping for such a day – and felt delighted to get it – but I left wondering if this happens more often than not.

When you get to Gibraltar, if you nip into the tourist information office, you can pick up a map of what to see up on the Rock. Other than going to the top, I skipped everything on the list. I had intended to see the things on the list. But they typically required a ticket (I was on a severe budget on this trip), and they were typically crowded. Lines for tickets; people everywhere. So I decided to not bother. I’ve never regretted that choice, either.

I was shocked at the poor maintenance of the hiking paths and railings. Down in town, Gibraltar was building new buildings everywhere. Life looked great and shiny. But up on the rock, it was quite shabby. A number of the old military fortification at the top, were gated off, and closed. There were signs indicating that they had been open in the past and charged a small admission. That was disappointing.

So I hiked down from the top. Despite the poor condition of the hiking trails, I gave them a try as I wanted to get off the roads with all the mini vans shuttling tourists up and down. I ended up hiking down with two women that I ran into shortly after I started down. They were nice, spoke excellent English, and we had a nice hike back down.

The Jews Gate Cemetery is near the bottom, at the south end, across the street from the Pillars of Hercules. I had no clue that it was there. I was just walking down the path and there it was. I felt disappointed by the Pillars of Hercules; I knew the original Pillars had been destroyed so long ago that there are only drawings speculating what they had looked like. So I ventured into the cemetery. It was obviously Jewish because everything is in Hebrew.

What was most interesting?

The cemetery was compelling. I felt pulled in to visit it. I also felt uncertain because I did not have good knowledge about Judaism. I have since spent time studying and learning the basics of Jewish history, religious beliefs, and Hebrew (alphabet and some vocabulary). I tried to read the Torah in Hebrew and studied English translations of commentaries by Rambam (Maimonides), Ramban (Nachmanides), and Ramak (Cordovero). I dabbled with a translation of the Genesis portion of the Zohar (and it’s endless footnotes).

When you enter the cemetery there is a sink and goblet for hand-washing with a sign in Hebrew. When I visited, I had no clue what this was about. Now I can sort of read the sign (I took pictures of it) – it is mostly prayers. And I learned the hand-washing ritual – which you are supposed to do when you leave the cemetery – to be clean once again.

As an aside, my trip to Estepona was my first trip to Spain. And I kept stumbling over Jewish history. There is a statue of Maimonides in Cordoba. On my two subsequent trips to Spain, I have started actively looking for remains of their history.

What was most unexpected?

In the Jews Gate Cemetery there is a raised walkway. I’ve spent some time studying Buddhism and Indian culture. In that culture, stepping over somebody is considered extremely rude. So I felt a little strange walking over dead bodies, literally. I figured, if the Jewish culture isn’t bothered by this, then I shouldn’t be bothered, either. It is a nice solution to a real problem. The graves are jammed in so tight, with no space to walk around them at all. So lifting visitors above created that missing space.

The cemetery was quiet. I was literally the only [living] person there. It is on a slope, so the raised walkway went up and down steps as it progressed. It also had branches off the main route to allow access to much of the cemetery. And it had pretty good views, despite being near the bottom of the Rock.

I wondered about families who might visit. How they like the raised walkway? Do they want to get off it and sit beside there loved one’s graves? Or have the descendants of the people buried there all moved away, chased off by strife and hatred? There were no flowers on any graves. I saw secateurs, a broom, and a rake propped against trees indicating upkeep. The place was tidy in general. Many grave stones had been broken by forces of nature – growing trees, and rain carving dirt out from under them.

It made for a short, peaceful walk, in stark contrast to all else in Gibraltar. Everywhere else in Gibraltar was filled with people, noise, movement, and energy. Here the world had stopped and everybody was hidden.