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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Where Has All The Water Gone?


Historical Information

Hello history buffs and welcome to September! I would also like to extend a personal welcome to our new contributor (and old friend) Kirk W Huffman, who for the last three weeks has been sharing his fascinating anthropological perspective on the significance of water in traditional Ibicenco society. Today, I would like to pick up on an interesting point that Kirk has mentioned several times and add a few historical notes to the subject.

In his discussion of water, Kirk regularly reminds us that Ibiza has not always been as dry as it is now, and that, in fact, it was quite lush in years gone by. This comparative lushness is one of the surprising facts that begins to emerge as one looks through old documents written about the island. Even when there are no written references, place names often give important clues as to the former wetness of an area. Without going into too much detail, let us take a look at some of the indications that point to a wet and fecund Ibiza that once shimmered like an emerald in the sea.

Sant Llorenç

One eye-opening account is Abad y Lasierra's description of Sant Llorenç, part of which I reproduced during our discussion of that village. The bishop noted that, "In the interior of the island there is a pleasant and fertile territory, bathed by streams, called Balafia." From these words, one can deduce that the area was fed by several small tributaries and that its agricultural yield was quite high.

Sant Agustí

Sant Augstí was also an area of considerable water flow. During last week's discussion of the village, I failed to mention that the area's original topomyn was 'Vedrà dels Ribes' which refers to the many rivulets that ran through the terrain. The largest of these watercourses was, of course, the mountain stream that flowed down the slopes of s'Atalaya into the sea. While the torrent is now dry, the place name 'Port des Torrent' is a reminder the once abundant aqueous affluence.

Santa Gertrudis

The village of Santa Gertrudis was founded in 1785 on a spot known as 'sa Fontassa' (roughly 'the Fountainhead'), a naturally occurring wellspring that nourished the surrounding farmlands and orchards. The area was still well endowed with water sources a century later when the Archduke Luis Salvador rode through the village on his way to Sant Miquel. The nobleman recorded his passage thusly: "Going over the plain (just outside of Santa Gertrudis) one had to cross a stream and, a bit further on, a little bridge that went over another stream, beside which was located the Spring of 'sa Pedra'. This took us to a place full of brooklets where one could still see signs of damage from the previous hard rains." This testimony confirms that the island did not then suffer from the unrelieved drought that today has become such an urgent ecological issue.

Sant Mateu

For this village I have no chronicles to quote from - not because they do not exist, only because I have not done my homework - but there is ample reason to believe that this area suffered from an excess of water rather than from its lack. Our clue is in the original place name, 'Albarca', an Arabic word meaning 'great water deposit'. Historians feel that this denomination refers not to any particular structure designed for this purpose, but to the fact that, as a flatland, the area was habitually flooded during periods of heavy rain.
Santa Eulària

The full name of this town is Santa Eulària des Riu, i.e. 'Santa Eulalia of the River' owing to the small but constant river that ran through it from antiquity until the early part of the 20th century. That is was a major waterway (the only full-fledged river in the Balearic Islands) is borne out by the Roman bridge that spans the now dry river bed.

Sant Miquel

If we go back to the 333 years of Moorish rule in Ibiza (902-1235), the same picture of a stream-fed land emerges. One has only to consider the many water mills that date back to this period to surmise that affluents flowed with enough force to generate the hydraulic power necessary for the Moors' sophisticated irrigation systems. Several of these mills dot the now dry stream bed that once flowed from the village of Sant Miquel down to the sea.

Do Your Own Research!

For a really interesting read, I cannot resist recommending the book Tales of Mel by Rafael Sainz. He relates many aspects of Ibicenco history, culture and daily life in a thoroughly engaging style. Naturally, he makes ample mention of the island's wells, springs and streams throughout the centuries One of his most interesting comments in this respect is that long before the Phoenicians set up a colony in Ibiza, they used to stop on the island in order to replenish their fresh water supply. Sainz maintains that not only did Ibiza's springs flow sweetly and liberally, but that they were conveniently located along most of the coastline.

Prehistoric Times

Actually, the farther back in time we travel the wetter we find the island to be. In his excellent work, Ibiza, An Undiscovered Paradise, Hans Griffhorn explains that, during the last Ice Age, torrential rains created sweet water lakes out of the island's valleys as well as carving the Santa Eulalia River. The now dry lakes have become the fertile plains of Santa Eulària, Sant Llorenç and Sant Mateu.


Well, folks, that's all for today. If we went back any further on the timeline, we would end up in Atlantis! Next week we will carry on with what I had promised for this week, the fiesta of Jesús.

Have a good week!

Emily Kaufman