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Of Thresholds and Pathways in the Strait of Gibraltar

I walk in the water of the Guadalmessi stream the last few meters of its course as it meets the sea, my bare feet carefully treading on meticulously polished pebbles. The tide is low, revealing a plateau of limestone rock shelves in long geometrical rows running parallel to the shore. Guadalmessi valley, hidden between the folds of the hills, runs right down to the waterfront, creating an intimate beach on the shores of the Strait of Gibraltar. Jabel Musa, the mountain of Moses, dominates the frame. Here on the edge of the European continent, in this liminal landscape, the valley opens up to private views of Morocco on the other side of the waters that confluence here. The inflow of the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea and the outflow of the more saline waters of the Med into the Atlantic Ocean; a rising and falling of intermingling currents. The African coastline is visible from so many angles along the coast, the blue-grey mountain lines revealing nothing of the scented, colorful, laid-back life that goes on in the streets of Tangier. But from here, from this sheltered cove, I try to feel the connection between the two landmasses. If Jabel Musa had a voice I could imagine it’s low base beat reverberating throughout the Guadalmessi valley, that by the nature of its topography lends itself to concentrate and receive the awesome presence of this Moroccan mountain.

A story is told in the Sufi tradition about Musa, the prophet Moses, who was sent to look for the place of the confluence of two seas to find the man who was more knowledgeable in God’s ways than himself. Moses set off to the West to find this great man and become his pupil. When he reached the stretch of water between Africa and Europe he came to a big rock where El Khader was sitting on the water’s edge. He joined him and they both sat observing a sea bird flying low and picking up water with its beak. As one drop fell, El Khader said to Moses, ‘My wisdom and yours together are but a drop in the waters and seas of Divine wisdom. If you want to be my pupil, you must watch me but not question my ways. They will reveal that which is beyond comprehension. ‘

I ponder this story, as I stand in full view of the mountain that is also known in other myth- telling traditions to be one of the Pillars of Hercules. We read in the works of Greek and Roman writers like Posidonio and Strabo, Pomponio Mela and Plini, variations on the story of Hercules which take place in this geographical location. They invariably speak of the hero splitting the landmasses of Europe and Africa, leaving behind a pillar on each side. The pillars are imagined as real columns, mountains, islands or other visible topographical phenomena. Authors place them anywhere along the coast of the Strait, from the city of Cadiz to Gibraltar on the European side or in Ceuta, or Jabel Musa on the African side. Wherever they may be found or not found, they live strongly in the identity of the Strait and of the Andalusian people. For example, they are reflected in the coat of arms of the city of Cadiz, as well as the coat of arms of Andalucia; both depict Hercules standing between two lions and two pillars. Non-tierra plus ultra – no land beyond here was inscribed on the pillars in the times of the Greeks, the end of the known world to sea-faring Mediterranean cultures. In the passage from East to West, this area was seen as a threshold in the late Bronze Age. Nowadays, the pillars on the coats of arms bear the sign plus ultra from the Latin meaning beyond, bearing reference to the Spanish expeditions venturing out to new worlds from these very waters, from Cadiz, in the 15th century.

Red Tuna pass through the Strait from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea to spawn in spring. The movement of this species has been exploited using the famous Almadraba, a specialised tuna fishing technique introduced by the Phoenicians in the late Bronze Age and practiced till this day. This East/West migration line lives strongly in the culture of this area. Fin whales also use this passage as they migrate to the warmer Mediterranean to feed in the summer.

It is early spring now. Soon the flow of migratory birds flying North from Africa on their path to Northern Europe will grace our skies. They cross here at the shortest point across the waters, picking the thermals and making use of the land features to follow a North / South line. Barn Swallows, Black Kites, Storks and Griffin Vultures are among the first to cross the 14 km between the two landmasses, heralding the beginning of this grand flyover. Later on in the spring, Honey Buzzards and Bee-eaters among many others in small or large flocks, follow invisible routes back to the North, only to make their way back South in the autumn.

Today no bird would be crossing, as Levante is blowing strong. Incessant gusts from the East blow through the acebuche and lentisco, the wild olive and mastic trees that flourish here, and around the few houses dotted in the valley which leads down to the beach. This time of year it is likely to blow for only a day or two, but in the summer, Levante can stay for days and even weeks, till we are all wind-stricken, delirious with the intense air motion which thrashes anything in its path. Aventado, or aventa-o in the local accent, is the condition of being driven to one’s edge as a result of the wind. Levante is a regular conversation topic with infinite local expertise about how to sense its approach before any visible signs appear. One thing everyone agrees upon is that, thanks to Levante, we have an unspoiled coastline, uncluttered by beaches heaving with tourists, rows of hotels and fancy restaurants. The coast of Cadiz, so very different from the neighbouring Mediterranean coast of Malaga, has remained raw and somewhat old-fashioned.

Flurries of spray occasionally sting my cheeks as the wind agitates the surface of the sea. The North/South and East/West thoroughfares that cross each other here in this part of the world fascinate me. The Strait, with its natural boundaries, perceived frontiers, pathways, thresholds, and gateways, fires my imagination. I contemplate the confluence of waters where Moses meets El Khader as the metaphor of a meeting place between the material and ethereal worlds. I imagine the mythical Hercules crossing the waters in the golden cup he received from Helios. As these stories are told and retold they echo aspects of this area’s geographical thresholds, and reveal the beautiful interweaving of landscape, people and culture.

Our next trip along the Strait of Gibraltar, both on the Spanish and the Moroccan sides, will take place in between the 28th November till the 4th December. Click here for more details.

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