Past, Present and Future of the Palmeral

Date Palms in Ancient Elche

The palm tree was known in Ilici, the Elche of the Antiquity. Its ruins constitute the archaeological site of La Alcudia, famous because of the discovery there, a century ago, of the fascinating bust of an Iberian maiden, the Dama of Elche. Centuries before Christ, Iberians used palm leaves in complex rituals, as valuable ceramic depictions dug up in the site make evident. Plinius the Elder and Columela pointed out the presence of the date palms in Southeast Hispania, as well as the use of its fruit, dates. Fossilized date seeds of circa 2,800 B.C. were unearthed in Los Tiestos Cave (Jumilla, Murcia), within 35 miles of Elche.

El Árbol de la Vida.
Museo de La Alcudia, Elche

The use of date palms as supporting agent of agriculture through the formation of artificial oasis was well known in Roman North Africa. Nevertheless, we do not know whether the Iberians or their historical successors, the Romans and Visigoths, made the transition from exploiting natural stands of palms to the cultivation of artificially planted palm groves.

Monasterio de la Trinidad, Petra.

The Muslim Origin of the Palmeral (I)

In between VII and VIII centuries A. D., the expansion of Islam propitiated a revolutionary fusion of the Persian, Arab and Saharan agrarian techniques. The Arab and Berber groups that settled in the Iberian Peninsula after year 711 brought with them new crops (rice, cotton, citrus, eggplant, artichoke, sugarcane, etc.) and a wide spectrum of irrigation techniques, specially well-suited to environmental conditions of severe water scarcity. Ancestral knowledge that, already in Antiquity, allowed the flourishing of extraordinary desert civilizations, like Petra of the Nabatean Arabs.

The rational management of water was further refined during the classical Islamic period. The setting of big huertas, irrigation landscapes, fostered the growth of villages and cities. In cities like Valencia, the water of the irrigation canals nourished fields, gave energy to hydraulic mills, and served complex sanitation networks, unknown in Christian Europe. New cities, like Baghdad or Basra in the Muslim East, or Murcia in the far West, grew thanks to the establishment of complex irrigation systems in their environs. Two major Western Islamic cities in particular owe their origins to their location in large artificial oases: Marrakesh, founded in 1062 by the Almoravid leader Yusuf Ibn Tashfin, and Elche, founded towards the end of the X century by the Caliphate of Cordoba. Two sister cities that shared centuries of common history under Almoravid and Almohad sovereignty.

The Muslim Origin of the Palmeral (II)

We can assert categorically that Elche?s big oasis, the Palmeral, was established by the Muslim founders of the current city, a distance of more than two kilometers from the Ancient Ilici. Not in vain, the Acequia Mayor (the Major Irrigation Ditch), which irrigates the Palmeral through its many branch canals with Arabic or Arabized names, runs beneath the surface of the Islamic nucleus of the city of Elche, as it was described in mid-XII century by the geographer Al-Idrisi: ?Elche is a village built in a plain crossed by a ditch derived from the river. This ditch passes under its walls, and the inhabitants make use of it, because it serves the baths and runs by markets and streets. The waters of the aforesaid river are salty. For drinking, the inhabitants must bring rainwater from other places, that they store in tanks?.

Irrigation results indispensable for the practice of agriculture in Elche. With less than 300 mm of rainwater per year, only species with great resistance to aridity, like the olive tree, can grow without artificial watering. The surface waters available for irrigation are also scarce and of poor quality: the Vinalopó river has an average flow of only 0?3 m3 per second, and its water is salty. The Muslim founders of Elche designed the Palmeral so as to obtain the maximum benefit from so slight a hydraulic endowment. Palm trees thrive on saline water, and their rationale cultivation allowed the growing of associated crops of equal tolerance, like pomegranate trees, or alfalfa. The characteristic geometric regularity of irrigated field systems facilitated the management of the Vinalopó?s water by irrigators and irrigation officials. Water was so scarce that it was allotted by precisely timed units, with surplus units in as little as half-hour shares bought and sold at public auction. The marketability of the surplus water was carried out by mobile partidores (devices for the proportional distribution of water among various sluice gates) that share the water of the Acequia Mayor. In 1970, the American historian Thomas F. Glick discerned a Yemenite configuration in the traditional water distribution system (or rather, Yemenite mediated by the experience of the Saharan oases).

Al-Andalus and the Palmeral

The illuminators of the Cantigas de Santa María manuscript, masterpiece of the Castilian literature written by the king that, as heir to the trone (infante) seized Elche from Islam, Alphonse X the Sage of Castile, represent the Muslim capital as a city of date palms.
In a passage striking for its evocation of an Arabian landscape, the medieval Muslim geographer, Ibn Said, noted that it was a common opinion that Elche resembled ?the city of the Prophet?, Madinat al-Nabi, referring to the famous Saudi Arabian city, founded on the edge of an oasis by Muhammad after his expulsion from Mecca, in what came to be called the Hegira, starting point of the Muslim Era. Elche?s Palmeral is, thus, an artificial landscape whose design reflects the values and objectives of the human group who created. It is a landscape, that is, that reflects a particular culture.

"Fotográfia" Michel Ferry.

The Palmeral (which according to another medieval author, Ibn al-Yasa, produced the best dates in Al-Andalus), is a living and unique testimony of the revolutionary hydraulic culture developed by Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. Moreover, the Palmeral embodies the silent effort of generations of peasants; men and women whose genius and laboriousness turned deserts into orchards, thus generating the material richness that supported the extraordinary splendor of Andalusian culture.

I.E.S. La Torreta, Elche

The Palmeral, from Islam to Christendom,XIII-XVII c.

Because of its economic value, the great Andalusian oasis of Elche was able to withstand the impact of the Christian conquest and other historical facts of enormous transcendence, like the expulsion of the Morisco people (1609), the last descendants of the Muslim founders of Elche and its oasis.

Un ramo aúreo descendiente del cielo

In fact, the new Christian settlers worked eagerly for the improvement of the Palmeral's yield, introducing substantial improvements in the Acequia Mayor?s irrigation system, like the construction of the current dam, in between 1632 and 1640. Moreover, in association with Christian religious practices, Elche developed a rich artisan industry based on the white palm. The city soon become known as ?The Western Jerusalem?. The white palm?s symbolism has its maximum example in the Misteri or Festa d?Elx, a medieval drama of the Holy Virgin?s Assumption in which a great white palm embodies the mystic connection between the Virgin, the Apostles, the celestial chorus, and the rest of the actors.

Jaime Brotons

The Palmeral at its Height, XVIII-XIX c.

The Palmeral vividly impressed the enlightened travelers of the XVIII century, as well as the artists, geographers and engineers that visited it in the following century, at the time when the palm groves reached their maximum extension. More than 200.000 palm trees were then growing in Elche?s territory, counting both the Urban and the Dispersed Palmerals. The botanist Cavanilles (1797) left us a wonderful account of the great impact that the contemplation of Elche?s huge oasis had on the traveler: ?it is tiring to look at endless untilled land, aridity, desolation, and hills that go on to the point of exhaustion; but when one leaves the last gorge and the environs of Elche come to view, with that forest of olive trees preceded by cultivated fields; when, in the center of the olive trees, that multitude of lofty palm trees can be seen, hiding buildings and portions of the towers and steeples of the most populous village of the Kingdom, the surprise is so great, the sensation so sweet, that the spectator desires nothing more than to immerse himself in its value, its beauty, its products and inhabitants, all deserving to be described with exactitude?.

Museo Escolar Agricola de Puçol

The Menace of Progress, XIX-XX c.

The transit between XIX and XX centuries marked a dramatic change in the fate of the Palmeral. The impact of the industrial and urban revolutions menaced its historical survival. The railroad, inaugurated in 1884, split the great peri-urban Palmeral in two, and fostered the installation of Elche?s incipient shoe industry in the surrounding palm groves.

Museo Escolar Agricola de Puçol

New neighborhoods grew up in the palm tree huertos, as living areas for the workers attracted by industry?s demand for labor. The Palmeral?s fate seemed to be sealed, all the more so when one realizes that oasis agriculture lost a great deal of its raison d?être because of appearance, in between 1915 and 1923, of new irrigation companies (?Nuevos Riegos El Progreso? and ?Riegos de Levante?). These companies increased irrigation in Elche using the surplus flow of the Segura river, together with water pumped up from the Vega Baja?s old drainage ditches (azarbes). From 1979 on, the people of Elche has also access to water newly diverted from the Tagus River increasing the flow of the Segura.

Jaime Brotons

The Defense of the Palmeral by the People of Elche

Fortunately, the people of Elche knew how to react. Already in the 1920s, informed voices were heard in defense of the Palmeral. The municipal archivist, Pedro Ibarra y Ruiz, was at their head. Thanks to their perseverance, the Palmeral?s value was fully recognized both at local and national level. The Second Republic passed legislation in defense of the Palmeral in 1933, and General Franco?s regime declared it a ?Historical Garden? in 1943. In between the 1920s and the 1980s, Elche?s City Council developed a set of detailed norms aiming at more efficient protection of the Palmeral.

Jaime Brotons

As a result, urban growth was concentrated on the right bank of the Vinalopó, far from the palm groves. Intrusions in the Palmeral, now infrequent, had to respect the palm trees and the structure of the irrigated field system. Consequently, the Palmeral can still be recognized even in areas where arable land was adapted to new functions, like gardens, schools or lodging facilities. Nowadays, the Palmeral enjoys maximum protection, under provisions of the law passed in 1986 by the Generalitat Valenciana, for the Regulation of the Tutelage of the Palmeral of Elche, and of the 1997 General Urban Plan approved by the City Council.

Jaime Brotons

The Urban Palmeral Today

On the eve of the Third Millennium, the Palmeral?s future is ensured. The credit belongs to the people of Elche, whose early complaints reoriented the process of modernization and economic development to real sustainable development ante litteram. Elche has known how to preserve the great mass of the Urban Palmeral, the most endangered one, where 61.454 palm trees where recounted in 1997, through the conformity of the huerto?s uses to the requirements of modern society, and through the application of a very imaginative public management policy, that contemplates the public acquisition of palm plantations, makes financial grants to private owners, exchanges protected huertos for lots in other areas for urbanization, and oversees the reforestation and overall maintenance of the peri-urban huertos, where the Patronato del Palmeral?s workers carry out those maintenance tasks formerly performed by private farmes.

Jaime Brotons

The Phoenix Station was established in 1991, as a research center for the development of resistant and economically profitable varieties of date palms. Nowadays, public management of the Urban Palmeral is oriented towards the return of the palm groves to their original agrarian functions, frequently as nurseries for the cultivation of young palm trees of different species.

Jaime Brotons

The Dispersed Palmeral Today

The Palmeral dispersed on the Campo de Elche, preserved from the risks of industrialization and modern urbanism, maintains its original structure and agrarian functions. Despite the improvements introduced in the irrigation network, water is still scarce in Elche. This has prevented the extension of commercial large-scale monocultures, and has promoted continuity of the traditional oasis landscape.

Jaime Brotons

The polyculture tradition has made the Campo de Elche one of the most beautiful Spanish irrigation landscapes. There traditional dry and irrigated crops grow up juxtaposed with modern ornamental horticulture: fig, carob, olive and almond trees intermix with pomegranate, lemon and orange trees; wheat and cotton mature among roses and double carnations. It is a magic landscape that changes with the seasons and the succession of harvests; a landscape in which palm trees are the most visible element of continuity, 119.684 having been recounted there in 1997. And, moreover, a landscape that would still seem quite familiar to the Muslim people that, a thousand years ago, built Elche and its Palmeral.

Jaime Brotons

The Palmeral's Future

Destiny decreed that the fate of the Palmeral?s nomination to UNESCO?s World Heritage List would be decided in the shade of the palm trees of Marrakesh.

There was, of course, a time in which Elche and Marrakech belonged to the same State (first Almoravid, then Almohad), extending on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. Nowadays, Elche and Marrakesh share a common historical heritage, made material in the permanence of their traditional and distinctive cultural landscape, the Oasis or Palmeral.

Francisco Picó

The Palmeral?s nomination, epitome of the Arab Agricultural Revolution (A. Watson), demonstrates one of the many positive contributions of Islam to World?s history. The millennial oasis agriculture represented by the Palmeral offers valuable and tested lessons on sustainability in agrarian development. Mankind cannot suffer its disappearance in the name of misleading kinds of progress.

Jaime Brotons

Elche, a place in which a traditional oasis landscape has overcome the challenge of modernity, has learned this lesson and wants to offer its experience in the service of the preservation of the extraordinary oasis landscapes thoughout the Muslim World. Water landscapes that, without any kind of doubt, belong to our common World Heritage.