Saint Michael's Cave is a series, or network of caves made of limestone, which are found on the Rock of Gibraltar. St Michaels Cave is located on what is called the Upper Rock, inside the Upper Rock Nature Reserve of Gibraltar and sites at a height of well over 300 metres above sea level.
The name St Michaels comes from a grotto, or cave of a similar nature which is located in Monte Gargano, in Apulia Italy, and it is where the Archangel Michael is said to have shown himself.
The first real mention and description of the caves came to us from Pomponius Mela a geographer from Algeciras who described Gibraltar as: “A mountain with wonderful concavities, which has its western side almost opened by a large cave which may be penetrated far into the interior.”
Homer, the poet also wrote of the Caverns, and artifacts that have been found inside the caverns tell us that it was known to Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians in ancient times.
The Cathedral Cave, part of St Michaels cave was at one time thought to be bottomless, and was long spoken of in the legends of Gibraltar.
It was believed that the cave was one end of a passage of a subterranean nature that moves more than fifteen miles long and passes through under the strait of Gibraltar, and further legend says that the Barbary Apes, or Gibraltar Monkeys entered Gibraltar from Morocco from this passage long ago.
The Rock of Gibraltar has long been considered to be one of the pillars of Hercules, and this too adds to the mystique and legend, and since it hosted the cave, the caverns themselves were thought to be the Gates to Hades, or Hell, an entryway to the Underworld where the dead rested.
St Michaels cave was created by the slow seepage of rainwater through the rock, which turned into a carbonic acid solution that actually dissolved the rocks of the cave. The process made the tiny cracks of the geological faults of Gibraltar grow into very long passages and deep caverns over the thousands of years of its formation. It has also resulted in amazing stalactites and stalagmites being formed in the caverns by permitting the accumulation of bits of the dissolved rock that drips in much the same way as a candle will build up wax along its sides as the melted wax builds up.
A Neolithic bowl has also in recent years been discovered. In the latter part of 1974, proof that the cave was known to and used by prehistoric men was made clear with the finding of art on the cave walls, showing an ibex drawn there that was traced to the Solutrean period (dating the cave art to about 15-20 thousand years ago), but later, two Neanderthal skulls that were found in Gibraltar tell us that this cave could have been discovered and used as early as 40,000 BC.
Later history of the caverns saw the scene of a few tragedies as well. Officers of the military installations would seek out some adventure by exploring the caverns, and at some point prior to 1840, a Colonel Mitchell in the company of a second officer who wished to explore the caverns interiors were lost, and never found nor heard from again.
This disappearance led to some very extensive explorations but no evidence of them was ever found, nor were the pair ever seen or heard from again. It does tend to make one conjecture if they grew tired of military service and found another way out, or if in fact there are crevasses within the system where a man can be lost.
Additional explorations were then carried out some hundred years later, about 1936 – 1938, when a scientific expedition took place in the caverns with a view to finding those remains. Each and every aspect of the cave system that was known at the time was explored, but no remains of humans from the time span in which they disappeared was ever found.
The Victorian era saw the caverns used for parties, weddings, picnics and even such events as duels. The interior of the caves would be brightly lit and decorated and it is said that soldiers would stand on stalagmites with torches to light a path for distinguished visitors to the caverns.
The first actual officiated excavation of the caverns by archaeologists took place in 1867, overseen by the governor of the military prisons, Captain Brome, who found stone axes, arrow heads, jewelry, and a very extensive collection of pottery. Having used prisoners to accomplish this, Brome's excavation in the end cost him his job.
Other uses of the cave have been conjectured as well. It seems possible that it was used by the Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad who led the Umayyad conquest in 711 AD.
Additionally, not long after the capture of Gibraltar by the English-Dutch forces in the early 1700's, Spanish soldiers numbering more than 500 successfully hid themselves in the cave overnight before making an unsuccessful surprise attack on the British.
World War Two saw the cave prepped in case it was required for use as a military hospital, which in the end was thankfully not necessary.
Recently discovered, is the lower St Michael's Cave. Additional deeper descending chambers that end in a mini underground lake. Special guided tours can be arranged to view this part of the caves.
Today, St Michaels Cave houses an auditorium, (in the largest chamber, called Cathedral Cave) which has wonderful acoustics, and is now set up with a concrete stage and seating for about 400 people. It has hosted fantastic light shows, ballet, drama, Miss Gibraltar beauty pageants, philharmonic orchestras and even rock bands.
The caves are one of the top attractions for tourists to Gibraltar today, receiving more than a million visitors per year, who can view displays which tell them of the caverns formation and long, colourful history. You can reach St Michaels caves by cable car (and a short walk), by foot or by taxi.
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