The Palmeral, a World Heritage Proposal

The Palmeral: Statement of Significance

The Palmeral of Elche is a unique cultural landscape of outstanding universal value and significance.

The Palmeral of Elche is the core area, oriented towards intensive horticulture, of an irrigation system established by the founders of the Islamic city of Elche a thousand years ago.

The expansion of Islam from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, throughout the belt of arid lands that encircles the southern borders of the Old World, made possible the synthesis of a revolutionary culture of water, thanks to the fusion of the millennial Persian, Arab and Saharan agrarian traditions.

The peasants of Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, were thus able to maximize the profitability of the scarce waters of the almost desert lands of Elche through the rational planting and management of date palms, according to age-old Near Eastern principles.

In Elche, symmetrically planted palm trees define the boundaries of the irrigated plots, all along the ditches distributing the waters of the Vinalopó river, forming a living screen that reduced excessive exposure to sun and winds, thus also reducing evaporation. This micro climate helped associated crops to grow in the palm-enclosed fields called horts (huertos ), producing a well-defined agrarian landscape, called ?Palmeral? in Elche, and ?Oasis? in the rest of the world.

As a result, in lands where simple irrigation procedures might only have produced an insufficient cereal crop, intensive multilevel agriculture (from treetop to ground level: date palms, fruit trees and vegetables) was instituted, stimulating palm-related crafts and freeing nearby land for the grazing of sheep. The Palmeral, Elche?s oasis, represents an extraordinary example of sustainability in the agrarian development of fragile ecosystems.

The fortune of Al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, commonly identified with monuments such as the Alhambra palace of Granada or the Mosque of Córdoba, was built on the revolutionary agrarian foundations that the Palmeral represents. No landscape similar to the Palmeral of Elche can be found in Europe, apart from some smaller palm groves in Southeastern Spain. It is no accident that its parallels are to be found in the desert strip that connects Iran to the Maghreb.

The high yields of the Andalusian irrigated agrarian landscapes caused the medieval Christian conquerors to make their best efforts to preserve them, if not to enlarge them. And it was through the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries of the Modern Era, descendants of those Christian conquerors of the Middle Ages, that the millennial culture of water of Arab, Iranian and Saharan origins reached the New World.

All along the XIX century, the technical refinement of the Muslim irrigation systems of Eastern Spain caught the attention of the British and French authorities concerned with the economic development of their African and Asian colonies. A legion of engineers and geographers came to Valencian lands to learn how our traditional hydraulic systems worked: François-Jacques Jaubert de Passa, Maurice Aymard, Jean Brunhes among the French; and J. P. Roberts, Colin Scott Moncrieff, F. W. Schonnemann and Clements R. Markham, among the British.

The Palmeral of Elche, the core area of an Andalusian irrigation system adapted to water scarcity, is an extraordinary representative of Valencian huerta landscapes, a type of cultural landscape that, despite its regional locale, embodies a deep and rich history of cultural practices.

It is in this context where the Palmeral of Elche acquires its unique cultural character, as well as its unquestionable universal value.

Comparative Analysis

No doubt, better-preserved and even bigger palmerales can be found in the Iranian Plateau, the Arabian peninsula or North Africa.

Economic changes started transforming the Palmeral of Elche almost a century ago. From then on, it has been affected by urban growth and the introduction of new infrastructural elements like the railroad.

Jaime Brotons

Nevertheless, the people of Elche have always been aware of the importance of their peculiar "forest" or "sea of palm trees", as the Palmeral is popularly perceived.

As a result (and by different means) urban growth was concentrated on the southern bank of the Vinalopó river, where palm groves were few and widely scattered; while on the opposite bank, where massed palm plantations appeared as a large and compact unit, most new land use was accomplished without destroying existing palm trees.

Popular commitment to guaranteeing the continuity of the palm trees as the defining characteristic of the traditional Elche's landscape makes the Palmeral still recognizable, even in the areas affected by historical transformations.

Nowadays, the people of Elche have gone one step beyond. A heightened level of awareness of the historical and ecological importance of the Palmeral is leading the public authorities not only to protect the palm trees, but also to maintain or return the palm plantations to their original agrarian roots.

Thus, the Palmeral of Elche offers profitable lessons on how to harmonize economic development and increase social welfare by preserving a superb and unique cultural landscape.

These are valuable lessons for the future preservation of our common World Heritage.

Authenticity of the Site

Two levels of authenticity can be distinguished concerning the Palmeral of Elche:

Jaime Brotons

Structural authenticity

Because of popular commitment to the preservation of the date palms, the basic features of the traditional landscape have been transmitted into the contemporaneous landscape of Elche. Thus, it can be stated that all the remaining palm plantations (whether urban or rural, if untouched or reconverted into new urban uses) still display 100% of the original structure of the Arab land-allotment and irrigation system.

Jaime Brotons

Jaime Brotons

Functional authenticity

Inserted in the rural district of Elche, the Campo de Elche (Camp d?Elx in Valencian language), where land is still devoted to agrarian uses, the dispersed Palmeral enjoys both structural and functional authenticity.

The date palm groves continue to complement the growth of other irrigated cultures through the multilevel approach. These associated crops are both traditional (cereals, vegetables or fruit trees) or recently introduced (flowers and ornamental species); either way, the dispersed Palmeral still fulfills its original agronomic functions.

Jaime Brotons

On the contrary, only some urban palm plantations have preserved their original function, most having been converted into new urban uses.

But the global balance speaks in favor of the Palmeral, both urban and dispersed, because the entire set preserves approximately 70% of its functional authenticity.

Proposed Classification for the Palmeral

According to the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, the Palmeral of Elche meets the following criteria for its inscription in UNESCO?s World Heritage List:

Jaime Brotons

The Palmeral is a Continuing Organic Cultural Landscape

The Palmeral is an irrigation landscape of Andalusian origin in which both traditional components and recent adaptations can be observed. Its evolution over time can be perceived in the changing uses of land (from traditional agricultural uses to modern urban ones) and the changing face of agriculture (traditional species being cultivated along with new ones).

The Palmeral is also a Cultural Site

Any irrigation landscape is always the product of the work of man in nature. As a combined work of man and nature, the Palmeral is a genuine cultural site.

Six reasons in favor of the Palmeral

As a property nominated to UNESCO?s World Heritage List, the Palmeral:

Jaime Brotons

Represents a masterpiece of human creative genius

The Palmeral represents the genius of Mankind in the mastery of water; a genius that made it possible to turn deserts into gardens throughout the World, displaying a kind of technological wisdom that still offers extraordinary and profitable lessons of sustainability in agricultural development.

Michel Ferry

Exhibits an important interchange of human values with regard to developments in technology

The Palmeral embodies the westward historical movement of technological improvements in water management and agricultural techniques that caused the medieval Arab agricultural revolution, and helped the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries to colonize the arid regions of the New World.

Mezquita de Cordoba

Bears a unique testimony to a civilization which has disappeared

The Palmeral is a living testimony of a bygone civilization: Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. Just as the Alhambra and the Mosque of Cordoba recall the glory of the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus, the Palmeral represents the strenuous efforts of generations of anonymous peasants who, with the work of their bare hands, turned a desert into Paradise. The cultural splendor of Al-Andalus is inconceivable without considering the hard and artful work of the Andalusian peasantry.

Michel Ferry

Is an outstanding example of a type of landscape that illustrates a significant stage in human history

The Palmeral of Elche is a kind of agrarian landscape deliberately transferred by the expanding Islam from its Homeland. Yemenite elements have been found in the constitution of the traditional irrigation system that nourishes the date palm plantations. In this sense, it illustrates one of the many positive impacts of the rise of Islam in World history.

Jaime Brotons

Is an outstanding example of a traditional human land-use which is representative of a bygone culture that has overcome all the historical challenges

The Andalusian Palmeral of Elche, which represents an exemplary aspect of the Islamic pattern of landscape setting, has withstood historical challenges of enormous significance, like the Christian Conquest in the XIII century, the Expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609, and the modern Industrial and Urban Revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, due to the perfection of its design as a productive space.

Jaime Brotons

Is directly associated with living traditions of outstanding universal significance

The millennial existence of the Palmeral caused the development of a rich and diverse palm culture and craftsmanship that was fostered after the Christian conquest of Elche because of its connections with Christian traditions such as the Palm Sunday.

Through the palm culture of Elche, the Palmeral is also associated to the Misteri; a drama of the Virgin Mary?s Assumption dating back uninterruptedly over five hundred years. The Misteri of Elche is the only sacred drama performed in the interior of a church that survived the prohibition of such celebrations issued by the Council of Trent (1542-1563).

Moreover, the Palmeral of Elche:

  • As described above, it meets the test of authenticity in design, material, workmanship and setting in its distinctive character and components.

  • As described below, it has both legal protection and management mechanisms adequate to ensure its conservation.