An Oasis for a City: The Palmeral and the Traditional Irrigation in Elche

Luis Pablo Martinez

The Complexity of Traditional Irrigation

Traditional hydraulic technology was versatile. Each traditional hydraulic system was, in its singularity, a particular solution adapted to the specific requirements of each agrarian ecosystem. Most of the differences between hydraulic systems were caused by the relative abundance of water. Those differences were prominent in the material design. For instance, in extremely arid areas, hydraulic systems would present regulatory water tanks all along the trajectory; an item hardly to be found in systems placed in regions with an abundance of water. Differences were also reflected in less tangible, institutional regulations. Characteristically, irrigation systems fed by regular and abundant waters were ruled by simple volumetric proportionality, while those placed in less favored areas distributed their scarce water according to strict timing superposed on the common principle of proportionality.

I.E.S. La Torreta, Elche

In the first case, water ran continuously and simultaneously through all the system ditches, and peasants were free to use or not use the passing waters as they pleased. The proportional access to water was determined by the geographical distribution and the section of the ditches. The customary rules of this simple proportional system usually contemplated timed distribution of water as a mechanism to overcome climatic emergencies, as happened in the Huerta of Valencia. In normal conditions, water ran continuously through all the main ditches of the Huerta. In time of emergency, strict turns of access measured in time, substituted for free and proportional access to water.

In the second case, which could be defined as systems in perpetual emergency, peasants willing to irrigate has always to wait till their customarily established time arrived. Not before it came. Not after it had gone. This was the case of Elche, where it rains less than 300 mm per year.

The Imprint of Aridity on Elche's Traditional Irrigation

Elche's traditional irrigation system, that or the Acequia Mayor, illustrates a kind of combined physical and managerial design of irrigation systems adapted to conditions of severe scarcity of water. The whole hydraulic system of Elche was governed according to the principle of timed distribution of water, an unequivocal symptom of its scarcity. The main source for its study is the Reglamento para el régimen y gobierno de la comunidad de propietarios de las aguas de la acequia major del pantano de Elche (1912), the book that copies the customary regulations for the government of the waters of the Acequia Mayor as they were fixed in 1791. According to the Reglamento, the water of the system was to be divided as follows:

  • Acequia Mayor 9 parts (9 "tallas")
  • Acequia de Marchena 2 parts (9 "tallas")
  • Inhabitants of Elche 1 part (1 "talla")

So one part was reserved for public uses, while the other eleven parts were applied for irrigation. The water for irrigation was divided in the following way:

  • Water of "Huertos" 600 "hilos"
  • Water of "Dula" 75 "hilos"
  • Water of "Marchena" 138 "hilos"

"Huertos" and "Dula" correspond to the lands irrigated by the Acequia Mayor at the northern bank of the Vinalopó river. Marchena is the name of a main branch of the Acequia Mayor that crossed it to irrigate land in the southern bank.

Museo Escolar Agricola de Puçol

We have to concentrate on how the waters of Huertos and Dula were distributed because they nourished the bulk of the Palmeral, current Urban Palmeral, located at the northern side of the river Vinalopó. Marchena got a smaller Palmeral, disappeared well before 1956 because of the expansion of the city of Elche.

Since it is considered that each hilo corresponded to a period of 12 hours, it is easy to realize that the managerial design of the hydraulic system of Elche clearly favored the establishment of an area of intensive irrigation: that of Huertos, which had the right to enjoy 7.200 hours of water, while the lands placed in the Dula area had access to only 900 hours.

These managerial prescriptions can be employed for the study of the original system because they contain a strong medieval nucleus. The Christian conquerors inherited the hydraulic system from the Muslims, and the Castilian Infante Don Manuel, lord of Elche, explicitly established in 1270 that his new vassals had to manage the irrigation system as it was customarily done "in Moorish times":

"Otrosí, les otorgo que el agua con que se regavan las acarías... que la ayan assí como la solien aver los moros en el so tiempo".

"Moreover, I grant them [the new settlers] that the water with which the villages were irrigated... continue as the Moorish used to have it in their time."

Museo Escolar Agricola de Puçol

The only significant innovation introduced in the following centuries came by marginal accretion, which was made possible by the input of new water resources in the system. Don Manuel granted his Ilicitan vassals "the waters of Villena", a village at the northwest of Elche. In managerial terms, the water of the system increased from 8 tallas (6 for the Acequia Mayor and 2 for the Acequia de Marchena) to 11 tallas (9 for the Acequia Mayor, and 2 for the Acequia de Marchena). Although "the water from Villena" passed later to the hands of the villages of Sax and Elda, the 11 tallas were kept as the theoretical amount of available water, and even increased to 12 (one more talla for the villagers). The construction of the 17th century great reservoir dam which replaced the original simple diversion dam explains this, since it allowed a better exploitation of the limited and irregular flow of the river Vinalopó.

Anyway, most of the extra waters were applied after the Christian conquest to the marginal enlargement of the irrigated areas, i.e., the Dula lands. All the literature notes the close connection between the concession of the Villena waters and the creation of new southern dulas fed by the Acequia Mayor (increased by 3 tallas) applied to the villages of Beniboch, Rabajalí, Daymés and Boniol: the four villages Don Manuel reserved as his personal domain. Probably, the historical increments of the input of water in the system had a limited marginal effect because they did not mean a radical melioration. The proof is given by the continuity of the scarcity-adapted managerial system, based upon the distinction between Huertos and Dula water, along with other peculiarities.

The Rationale of the Oasis: The Palmeral as an Irrigated Cluster of Huertos

In Spanish, huerto (masculine) means the place in which intensive practices of irrigated agriculture are developed, while huerta (feminine) refers to the whole irrigated area. The word huerta is singular in its very nature, while huerto is plural (each huerta contains many huertos, but no huerto can contain any huertas).

In huertos, garden agriculture known as "horticulture" is practiced. Valuable vegetables and fruit trees are raised in the huertos, and this is the reason why they usually appear enclosed by walls or other kind of barriers.

The Huertos area of the irrigation system of Elche is popularly known as the Palmeral because palm trees are widely present. Date palms fulfill agronomic and economic purposes here.

Intensive horticulture in Elche was favored by flanking all huerto edges with aligned date palms (a double alignment when the edge was a ditch). Date palms tolerate salty waters and give a wide variety of goods: dates (the fruit), wood (the trunk) and fiber (from the leaves).

With their artificial alignment, palm trees generate a very valuable micro climate. Their screen effect preserves the huerto?s vegetables and fruit trees from excessive exposure to sun and wind, and lowers the evaporation of the scarce, precious water.

Parcels in the Palmeral surprise by their regularity. The regular and squared shape of the huertos maximizes the efficiency of water distribution. After a comparative analysis of 36 irrigated areas in the arid Iranian Plateau, Michael E. Bonine concluded that "since the... water is used in time shares, calculations of how long to water each specific plot are crucial. The more regular –rectangular– and similar in size, the easier it is to calculate the length of time needed for watering individual fields."

But the fact that most of the huertos of Elche are clustered in a large, single peri-urban area (the Huertos, with capital letter) still has to be explained. It is an important point, since on it depends the very idea of the Palmeral as an area popularly perceived as "a sea of palm trees".

It is fairly clear that the cluster of huertos emerged first as a result of the original managerial design of the system. Clustering the huertos in a single area simplified the unequal distribution of water among intensive and non-intensive irrigation areas, the Huertos and Dula lands. In fact, as will be seen, Huertos and Dula waters circulated through separated ditches.

But it seems that another distinctive managerial note of the Palmeral promoted the concentration of the huertos: each day, the hours of water corresponding to the huertos were sold at public auction.

It has to be considered that horticulture implies simultaneous cultivation of a variety of species, each one with its own growing rate and specific demands of water. In the irrigation systems favored by a relative abundance of water, the practice of horticulture was just a question of opening the sluice as many times as required.

In Elche, as in other systems located in arid regions, the discretional opening of the sluices was simply a mirage, and no fixed plot-by-plot calendar and geographical allocation could resolve the problem of having water in different parts of the system at the critical moments. The solution came by making water a negotiable good.

On the contrary, water rights were attached to land in well-supplied irrigation systems, while in poorly-supplied ones the access to water could be sold separately.

In this context, the physical concentration of huertos makes more sense, (1) because no confusion caused by Huertos water circulating among Dula lands and vice versa can exist, and (2) because huertos sharing the same ditches allowed water to circulate easily and quickly to reach the most needy crops. The creation of a big, distinctive Huertos area increased the efficiency of the system.

Thus, the Palmeral is clearly a functional section of an hydraulic system designed originally for the practice of intensive agriculture under conditions of extreme aridity.

Irrigation's Toponymy and Archaeology of Elche's Landscape

One of the methodological principles guiding this research is that toponymic information becomes particularly relevant from a historical point of view when it corroborates, or is corroborated by, concurrent historical sources (no matter if a written record, a managerial rule or a peculiarity of the landscape).

The fact that the ditches that still today nourish El Palmeral carry Arab or Arabized names is a proof of the Arab origins of the Palmeral since we know that it is a functional area of a hydraulic system of Yemenite design dated from around the year 1000 AD.

In this context, toponyms represent the living memory of the Muslim founders and users of the Palmeral and the whole hydraulic system.

All the ditches are branches derived from the Acequia Mayor. The following list copies their names ordered from upstream to downstream positions along the Acequia Mayor, and their application to Huertos or Dula irrigation according to the status quo described by Baltasar Ortiz de Mendoza in his Claridad de la acequia de la Villa de Elche (1589).

Dulas are specified because of the relevance of their strict territorial adscription.

(A) Means Arab or Arabized toponym.

(L) Means pure Latin toponym, in the sense of surviving pre-Arab toponym.

(V) Means Valencian toponym, posterior to Elche's Christian conquest.

  1. Albinella(A)Huertos
  2. Marchena (A)(irrigates the opposite river bank)
  3. Carrell(A)Dula (3 dulas: Barranco, Higuera Roja, and Pedregal)
  4. Asnell(A)Huertos
  5. Albelló(A)Huertos
  6. Anoy(A)Huertos
  7. Real(A)*Huertos
  8. Vila(V)Huertos
  9. Candalix(A)Dula (2 dulas: Puente de la Barrera or Benimonder, and Partidor Nuevo or Benisarco)
  10. Horts(V)Huertos
  11. Alinjasa (A)Huertos
  12. Abet(A)Huertos
  13. Matrof(A)Huertos
  14. Alcanà(A)Huertos
  15. Nafís(A)Huertos
  16. Atufà(A)Huertos
  17. Cuñera(A)Dula
  18. Sahoni(A)Huertos
  19. Aladia(A)Huertos
  20. Franch(V)Huertos in the first section, then Dula down to Beniboch
  21. Alausa(A)Huertos
  22. Alborrocat(A)Huertos
  23. Anacla(A)Huertos
  24. Palombar(L)Huertos
  • From Palombar started three new ditches, considered by Baltasar Ortiz de Mendoza as forming the 25th ditch:




  • Finally, at the Partidor de la Almeida, downstream from the mill of Ressemblanch, which is located at the very end of the Acequia Mayor, began the dulas of Rabajalí, Daymés and Boniol.

 Ortiz de Mendoza's description reflects the functional structure of the post-conquest medieval system that defined by Don Manuel.

When, making use of that information, the Huertos and Dula ditches are colored in different tones, an interesting image emerges: the organization of the productive irrigated landscape in two concentric rings, as R. Azuar had indicated.

It has been explained that this arrangement has a strong technical component (to increase the efficient use of the scarce available water).

But its peculiar geographical display, with the Huertos/Palmeral area as the inner ring, closer to the city, points out again the influence of the city and the urban requirements in the design of the system. Granting the lands immediate to the city with a surplus allocation of water allowed the location of the labor-intensive and market-oriented farming production close to the center of consumption and concentration of labor force; and, as a collateral effect, it allowed the development there of non-agrarian uses of water in public baths, sanitation facilities, hydraulic mills, etc.

Molino Real y Molino de Ressemblanch

In fact, the peri-urban Palmeral had the largest concentration of hydraulic engines; so many that the zone was called after them as the "Huertos y Molinos" area. Moreover, the position of two mills of Muslim origin, the Real mill (documented in 1306, evocative of a Muslim "real", a big rural property) and Ressemblanch's mill (the radical "Ress" could correspond to the figure of a Muslim ra'is), located on the Acequia Mayor, upstream and downstream the Huertos area, point out the border with the Dula lands.

The disposition of the arable lands in concentric rings of decreasing intensity from center to periphery, so typical of pre-industrial agriculture (Slicher van Bath), was a dominant feature of Elche's landscape, as it was already noted to the end of the XVIII c. by the botanist Cavanilles.

A landscape effect that, far from casual, has its cause in the physical and institutional arrangement of the irrigation system designed by the Andalusian founders of the city of Elche, a thousand years ago.