Home » Season 2 » The Pillars of Herakles: At the Bridge Between Europe and Africa

The Pillars of Herakles: At the Bridge Between Europe and Africa

By Stephen Hebert, Religion Faculty

For his tenth labor, the lion-skin-wearing, club-wielding, Greek hero Herakles fetches a bunch of cattle belonging to Geryon, a monster living on an island beyond the far western end of the Mediterranean. Geryon is a fearsome creature, so fearsome that centuries later, Dante Alighieri will depict him in the Inferno as a flying manticore who embodies fraud. In order to reach this great mythical beast, Herakles must go beyond the edge of the known world, past where “Europe meets Libya,” in the words of Apollodorus. To get there, Herakles splits a mountain in two, creating a strait between Europe and Africa now known as the Strait of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, you can see the two “pillars” that Herakles made from this one mountain, where Herakles single-handledly separated Europe from Africa. To the north lies the Rock of Gibraltar, the European pillar; to the south, Monte Hacho in Ceuta, the African pillar in a small Spanish territory completely on African soil.

I visited Ceuta on August 12th, 2014. It is a fascinating place. The city looks and feels like a typical Spanish city, as if the Arab-influenced Morocco, only a few moments away by car ride, were on the other side of the sea. As soon as you cross over into Ceuta, the difference is striking: white cab drivers, signs in Spanish, the exponential increase in the availability of churros.

This is the push between Africa and Europe. The Strait of Gibraltar is only some twenty miles across, but venturing through passport control—where I was able to get through in only a matter of minutes while many Moroccans waited for several hours—one experiences a completely different culture in this tiny little European enclave on mainland Africa. The two keep each other at arm’s length, a centuries-old distinction, perhaps a holdover from the Reconquista and the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain under the guise of Christian piety during the Spanish Inquisition.

Not only do we experience a different culture in Ceuta, but also a separation between the Moroccan and the Spaniard created by an economy founded upon the smuggling of goods from Europe into Morocco. While I had begun my day in cosmopolitan Tangier after an evening of fine food and delightful conversation, in Ceuta I drove through a “marketplace”—a fenced-off set of storage units housing various products from Europe and the U.S. (from Nike to Gatorade)—in which I saw elderly women lifting their djellabas all the way to their necks so that goods could be taped to their bodies. If you can carry it on your person, then you can take it over. On the way out of the city, men and women stood in long lines with large parcels of goods strapped to their bodies so that they could get them across the border and into Morocco where they could sell them for a tidy profit.

Walking through the plaza in the center of Ceuta, we came upon a group of a couple dozen refugees who had fled the conflict in Syria, made their way across North Africa and were now camping in makeshift tents in the middle of Ceuta and hoping to make their way across the Mediterranean into Europe. When I asked the patriarch of the group why they wanted to get to Europe, he told me that they were searching for jobs; they apparently were not privy to the reality of unemployment in much of Spain. One of the refugees told me that he felt like Ceuta was more of a prison than Syria. Meanwhile, a few miles away, in Morocco, King Mohammed VI had recently granted amnesty to refugees coming from sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, these Syrians were not interested in a life in Morocco and the freedoms they might be afforded there; the allure of Europe enticed them, pulling them in.

All of this forces me to return to that myth of Herakles. In the most well-known version of the myth, Herakles opens the rift between Europe and Africa, but another version also exists. In this alternate version, Herakles does not push the pillars apart. Instead, he pulls them together, bringing distant Europe closer to Africa.

This pull between the two is undeniable. Yes, the smuggling situation looks difficult and one-sided, but in reality both sides are benefitting. My guide for the day, a local Moroccan woman named Ikram, tells me of the importance of the goods for the local Moroccan economy. In this area of Morocco, there is little industry other than tourism—the beaches are beautiful and a favorite vacation spot for King Mohammed VI and his family. Bringing goods over the border provides an economic benefit for both sides. The Spaniards are able to sell their wares, and the Moroccans are able to distribute them in their own country; an industry is born.

In reality, Morocco and Europe have been tied together for millennia. Morocco is rife with settlements from various periods of classical European history. For example, Volubilis, a set of ruins between Fez and Rabat. Originally built by Phoenicians in the 3rd century BCE, the city now bears the mark of Rome; in fact, Volubilis marked the western edge of the Roman Empire for centuries.

These ancient sites, however, are only a shadow of the modern Morocco: an Islamic monarchy that supports the coexistence of peoples of different faiths and nationalities. A century ago, in Tangier, Moroccan state funds supported the construction of St. Andrew’s Church, an Anglican Church in the heart of the city. The interior of the church features visual acknowledgments of its heritage: traditional Christian iconography mixed with stars of David and verses of the Qur’an written out in Arabic calligraphy. In Fez, the current Moroccan government has funded the restoration of Jewish synagogues. In one of them, a young Muslim woman serves as a tour guide, telling me about the history of the synagogue and taking me down into the basement so that I can see the mikveh used for ritual immersions. Almost every Moroccan city has a synagogue or two. You know you are near one because you have entered into the mellah, the Jewish section of town where suddenly the architecture has changed and the signs are no longer in Arabic but in Hebrew.

The push and pull between the two continents exists simultaneously—economics, religion, art, and culture flow between the two. One side of the Mediterranean counts Islam as its most important heritage, while the other side looks to Christianity. The flavor of Morocco, however, is that of a border town—a place caught in between two cultures, a bridge between two worlds.

Grabbing hold of these two giant pillars, did Herakles push the two continents apart or did he pull them back together? The answer is simply: “Yes.”


Stephen Hebert teaches in the Religion Department and serves as Assistant Chaplain. He lives in Coolidge House with his wife, Natalie, and son, Gus. When not teaching, he is probably reading, playing golf, or strumming on a guitar. Stephen is a graduate of both the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University, where he specialized in religion and classical literature.

unnamedCompleted in 1993, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the largest mosque in Africa.

unnamed-2This view from Henri Matisse’s hotel room in Le Grand Hotel de Villa France shows the Bay of Tangier in the background and the courtyard around St. Andrew’s Church in the foreground.

unnamed-3Syrian refugees seek to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to find economic freedom and security in Europe. In the meantime, they have setup a temporary tent city in the center of Ceuta where they have lived for six months.

unnamed-4This 17th century synagogue in Tangier has been partially restored by the Moroccan government.

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