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History of Ibiza and Formentera

A complete history of Ibiza from prehistoric times to the present day.


Recent archaeological diggings prove that the first settlements on Ibiza and Formentera date back to over 3000 years ago. A grave was found on Formentera which dates back to 1600 years B.C. Cave paintings at Ses Fontanelles (north from San Antonio - 800 years B.C.) and bronze axes and discs found near San Juan and San Agustin (700 years B.C.) provide further evidence of these early settlements.

The Carthaginians

In the year 654 B.C. the Carthaginians discovered Ibiza and founded Ibiza Town, making this one of the earliest towns in Europe. The christened the town Ibossim, quite similar to its present day name. Another name for Ibiza which has survived until now comes from the Greeks, who came to Ibiza during the time of the Carthaginians: they called the two islands of Ibiza and Formentera, the Pitiusas - which means the pine-covered island.

The history of Formentera

The Carthaginian people originated in Phoenicia, and became known as the Carthaginians after the founding of the city of Carthage (geographically located in the Tunisia of today). Whilst the Romans called them in Latin, the Punic folk.

The Carthaginians were merchants and traders, and Ibiza became a very important trading centre. Even in those days, Ibiza boasted a large harbour and strong city walls - (although the walls we can see today were built much, much later). The most important of the goods traded was 'White Gold' - Salt. The Salinas which were constructed by the Carthaginians are still used to day to win salt from sea water, by a process of evaporation.

Ibiza also played an important role in the Carthaginian culture as their largest burial grounds. Historians assume that the dead were buried here because there were no wild animals to dig them out again. The burial grounds at Puig des Molins in Ibiza Town is home to the world's largest collection of punic artefacts - most of which have been discovered in graves. A case of the dead being buried with utensils and objects to help them on the way in the next life.

Amongst the Gods of the Carthaginians, the Goddess Tanit enjoys particular fame. She is the Mother of the Gods, the Goddess of the Earth and of fertility. You can see her image on many of the ceramic pots made on Ibiza today.

The Romans

'Carthage must be destroyed'. It was this battle cry which accompanied the Romans into the Punic Wars. They succeeded, and eventually, in 123 B.C., conquered the Balearic Islands. Not even Hannibal could prevent this, when he marched across the Alps with his elephants 100 years previously to invade and conquer Rome, (which, as you may know, he didn't quite manage). This legendary general is supposed to have been born on the island of Conejera just off the coast of San Antonio.

The Romans called Ibiza, Ebusus. The island was not however made part of the Roman Empire. It retained its independence as a confederation town. Evidence of the Roman occupation can still be seen by the gates at the entrance to Dalt Vila (the Old Town), where there are two copies of Roman statues; and in Santa Eulalia, where the old Roman bridge crosses the now dried-up river at the entrance to the town. This bridge has recently been restored.

After the Romans, between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D. there are large gaps in the chronological history of the Pitiusan Islands. Remember that this is the time of the Goths and Visigoths in Europe - a dark ages where there is little historical record. During this time, Ibiza was invaded and conquered by such folk as the Vandals, the Barbarians and the Byzantines. Ibiza enjoyed a certain independence under the Byzantine Empire. Improvements to her irrigation system and the share-cropping system are due to Byzantine influence. One of the few relics of this epoch is the underground Chapel at Santa Inés.

The Arabs

The Arabs came in the 9th century A.D. and stayed for almost 500 years. They called the island Yebisah. The arabic influence can still be felt strongly today in many customs, such as the construction of the houses, traditional costumes and musical instruments, and of course in the island dialect 'Ibicenco'.

On the hill in Ibiza Town, they built a large mosque (on the ruins of a temple dedicated to the God Mercury) and fortified the city walls. The remains of these walls and some of the watchtowers can still be seen today. Ibiza experienced a period of economic growth under Arab rule. The Salt fields, agriculture and fishing were the main sources of income.

The Catalans

Ibiza was conquered by the Catalans on the 8th August, 1235. Legend says that the the strongly fortified citadel was only eventually captured through treachery: Ibiza Town was considered at that time to be unconquerable due to its city walls and fortuitous geographical location. However, the ruling Sheik and his brother quarrelled over a mistress from his harem, whereupon the brother revealed the secret underground entrance to the Town, to the besieging Catalan forces. You can still see this secret passage in the Calle de San Ciriaco in Dalt Vila. Unfortunately you can't crawl through it, as it is fenced off to the public!

The churches

The Catalans tore down the Arab mosque, and built the present day Cathedral on its foundations. The villages of the island were renamed after Christian Saints, and many churches were constructed: the oldest of which are in Santa Eulalia, San Antonio, San Miguel and Sant Jordi. Most of the rest of the island's churches were built in the 18th century.

The medieval festival is held every year on the second Friday in May. Come and see how we lived in Ibiza 1000 years ago!

The pirates

The ruling Catalans (from mainland Spain) rather neglected the islands during the following centuries, which were marked by plundering and marauding by pirates. In order to defend themselves, the villagers built the defensive churches with extra fortified walls, where the village would shelter in the event of an attack. These churches often had cannons on their roofs! In the 16th century, the Italian architect Calvi completed the construction of the walls of Ibiza Town - the same walls we see today.

The pirate towers lining the coast were built a bit later. Some of them can still be seen today. Originally, each of these towers was within sight of the next one. In the event of an invasion or sighting of a pirate ship, the tower would light a warning fire, which could be seen by the next tower, which in turn lit its own fire, and so on, until the the entire island was aware of the danger, and was able to seek safety in the churches. A primitive but very effective early warning system.

Ibiza today is perhaps not so different. People from many races and countries descend upon the island each year, take what they want and depart. The locals have been used to this type of behaviour for thousands of years. No wonder that the islanders are famous for their tolerance!

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