An Oasis for a City: The Palmeral and the Traditional Irrigation in Elche
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.
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:
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:
"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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
(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.
Ortiz de Mendoza's description reflects the functional structure of the post-conquest medieval system that defined by Don Manuel.