Since ancient times Gibraltar has been a revered guardian of the known World. Said to have been hewn by Hercules himself on his way to the island of Erytheia to complete his famed 12 labours. Hercules used his God-like strength to break through the Atlas Mountains instead of climbing over them. Thus, he created what would be known as the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ – Jebel Musa and Gibraltar. The Romans called Gibraltar ‘Mons Calpe’ – ‘The Hollow Mountain’
Pomponius Mela, one of the earliest writers on geography who lived around the beginning of the Christian era, described Mons Calpe 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.
St Michael’s Cave has become synonymous with Gibraltar’s extensive cave network. Some 200 meters deep it was long believed to be bottomless, leading some historians to theorise that the Greeks believed it to be an entrance to Hades, their mythological underworld. According to Alonso Hernández del Portillo, the first known historian of Gibraltar, the cave’s name is derived from a similar grotto in Monte Gargano near the Sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo in Apulia, Italy, where the archangel Michael is said to have appeared.
The cave has been a party to many uses over the centuries. The British utilised it during the Great Siege of Gibraltar to protect citizens during bombardment by Spanish and French ships. In WWII it had been used as an ammunition store and as an emergency hospital. In the Victorian era it played host to parties and picnics.
‘...it is often lit up with blue lights and torches for the entertainment of distin- guished foreigners, or for picnic parties... A military band plays a choice selec- tion of music down in the “first hall” of the cave, whilst the guests flit about here and there... The scene as we look down into the deep cavern, is like one in fairy-land...’
– Flora Calpensis, 1880 Reminiscences of Gibraltar
To this day the ‘First Hall’ is still used as an auditorium for events and concerts with a seating capacity of 400. Expeditions have been launched to explore the many caves around Gibraltar,including those of the St Michael’s cave complex.
Leonora’s Cave is an inner part of the St Michael’s Cave karstic system and is in one of the four main systems of the cave. It was explored during the 19th Century by Captain Fredrick Brome who was Governor of the Military Prison. He named this cave after Leonora, his wife.
In 1942 Lower St Michael’s Cave was discovered accidently by the Royal Engineers while driving a tunnel into the lower reaches to provide a secondary exit to the upper cave. A cavern was exposed, with several chambers, which may have been sealed for 20,000 years. The cavern is extraordinarily beautiful, glimmering with white, grey and red stalactite columns, resembling a cathedral with pulpit, chan- cel and organ pipes.
This exceptionally alluring cavern is remarkable for three reasons: the size of the main chambers, the profusion and variety of calcite formations and last, but not least a lake of crystal-clear water, nearly forty meters long estimated to hold 200,000 litres.