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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Jordi
Fiesta Day Celebrated 23rd April

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome history buffs! This week we have another fiesta on our agenda, that of Sant Jordi, i.e. St. George. Congratulations are in order, then, for our English readers as well as for the inhabitants of Sant Jordi Township, both of whom share the patronage of this charismatic saint. The name was originally introduced on Ibiza via Catalonia, now a region of Spain but once an empire in its own right. Since the early days of Christianity, the Catalans have also held St. George as their protector, and it was through their auspices that the name was given to one of the island's early churches.

As one of the four original settlements founded by the Catalonians, the village of Sant Jordi dates back to the lawless medieval period when life was mean and lean. The establishment of the village in 1305 places it in a time when Crusaders, pirates, pillagers and knight errants brazenly strove to impress their martial supremacy on the quivering masses, for better or for worse. Political instability was the law of the land as governments desperately, and often unsuccessfully, tried to impose some degree of civil order.

A Higher Order of Conflict

The underlying ethos of the era was the perpetual fight between Good and Evil, a struggle that found symbolic expression in St. George's miraculous victory over the dragon. The holy warrior's success in overcoming such a deadly foe - possible only through divine intervention - earned him a stellar niche in medieval ideology. It was only fitting, therefore, that after Catalonia's victory over the Moors in Ibiza, they should hallmark their deed with a Church in honour of this guiding saint, their very own Sant Jordi.

The Catalan Conquest

This juncture is probably as good a time as any to step back from the small island scenario and examine the events of the day in a broader historical context.

The Catalan Conquest was, in fact, one of the lesser Crusades. The major Crusades, of course, had the Holy Land as their objective, although any of the military exploits undertaken by European Christians to recover territory from the Moslems can be included in the appellation. The Balearic crusade was part of a larger movement known as the Reconquest, the Spanish theatre of the Holy War, as it were.

The Mainland

Since the beginning of the 8th century, Iberia had been under Moorish dominion with only the northern fringe of the peninsula remaining in the hands of Christian kings, descendants of the earlier Visigoths (507-711). As early as 718, small, isolated kingdoms had begun to band together against their common enemy; but with Moorish hegemony at its zenith, these efforts were generally in vain. The tide began to change in 1212, after which time great swathes of territory were progressively won back. The Reconquest would continue pressing south against Moorish holdings until 1492 when Christian supremacy in Spain became a 'fait accompi'.

The Balearics

Ibiza and the rest of the Balearics had also been under Moorish rule since 902. The archipelago was instrumental to the buccaneering activities of the Moors, the mightiest pirates in the Mediterranean. Despite various treaties of safe conduct, the Islamic islanders could not resist the temptation to exercise their naval prowess whenever Christian ships passed through Balearic waters.

The dual objective, then, of Christian unification was to oust the Moors from the peninsula and to free the surrounding waters of piracy so that trade could be carried out in peace. In the vanguard of Spain's Christian forces were the Catalonians, a confederation of free counties under the Crown of Aragon. As a coastal nation, they, like the Moors, were expert seafarers and made it their express mission to bring the Balearics back into the fold of Christendom. Majorca was the first island to be conquered (1229), followed by Ibiza (1235) and finally Minorca (1287).

Letter of Marque and Reprisal

The conquest of Ibiza was undertaken by a privateer, Guillem de Montgrí, a warrior knight and close personal friend of the Catalan king, Jaime I. In recompense for Montgrí's loyal efforts, Jaime gave him Ibiza as a war prize. The island was subsequently drawn into four quarters and distributed amongst Montrgí and two other warrior knights, Pedro of Portugal and Nuño Sanz, who had also aided in the offensive. Montgrí was awarded two of the quarters for he had supplied half of the troops, while the other knights received one quarter each for their collaboration.

Sant Jordi Quarter: Curse or Blessing?

One of Montgrí's quarters was, in fact, Salinas, later to be renamed Sant Jordi. This lot was one of the choicest, as it contained the salt pans and was also blessed with very flat fertile land, excellent for farming. Precisely because of these two lucrative modes of livelihood, the area became a prime target for pirates. Unlike other parts of the island, Sant Jordi had a relatively dense population for the day. One of the earliest surviving cadastres reveals that in 1397 no less than fifty families were living in the area - choice picking for pirates who, of course, were after human booty above all else.

As an added attraction, these flatlands were a ridiculousy easy mark due to the long, sandy beaches that fringed them, practically wooing pirates into shore. What red-blooded raider could stay away from such promising fields of exploit? Clearly, not the Moors (nor the Turks who were still active prior to Lepanto, 1570).

Despite the area's high degree of vulnerability, I was shocked to discover that the rate of piracy in Sant Jordi was one or two incursions per week (!) throughout the Middle Ages. Often these attacks lasted for days on end, as there was literally no one strong enough to put an end to them. The government stayed cloistered away behind the city walls, and with Ibiza's internal revenue being what it was - non-existent - there was no way to hire troops to fend off the invaders.

The only recourse the extra-mural population had was to hide in the Church and pray for Providence. An interesting fact is that all of Ibiza's original churches (four, one per quarter) were designed with the defence function in mind. Each one had a deep, fresh-water cistern so that the people could stay locked inside for prolonged periods.

Some of the churches (e.g. Sant Antoni) were also proper fortresses with artillery decked on the roof. Sant Jordi, unfortunately, was not such a church, despite its immensely fortified look. In fact, the castle effect of its square-cut walls was merely an architectural device to hide the building's slanting roof, the very feature which made it impossible to accommodate heavy artillery.

Toward the 15th century, the country folk began to form local militias. These popular bands were comprised largely of teenagers who were still hot-blooded enough to think they stood a chance against the pirates. Sadly, this was rarely the case. The pirates always had superior weaponry and many more years of combat experience. Every once in a while, however, luck would prevail.

One such incident occurred after an especially virulent attack in the 16th century. The chronicles relate that the pirates dropped anchor at Sal Rossa (today part of Playa den Bossa), made their way inland on foot and captured many heads. The prisoners were shoved on board and the lone ship slithered off to Formentera, where the captives would be channelled on to slave markets elsewhere. As fate would have it, three armed vessels from 'foreign' lands (most likely Valencia or Majorca) had just put into the main harbour in Ibiza Town. Islanders quickly alerted the visiting captains of the day's events, and the trio of ships set off in hot pursuit of the bandits. The fighting spirit of St. George must have been with them, for the pirates were captured and all the decent folk returned to their homes.

Closing On that uplifting note, we shall close our narrative for the week. There is much more to tell, but it will have to wait for another day. God only knows, it does the spirit good to hear of triumph in the face of such extreme adversity. The people of Sant Jordi are living proof that survival is possible wherever there is faith and forbearance. After a mere eight centuries of hardship, they are finally reaping the rewards of their perseverance. The very beaches that once ushered in death and destruction now generate wealth and abundance. The flatness of the land, which in the days of yore made Sant Jordi so defenceless, is the very feature, which, in modern times, has suited it to be the home of Ibiza's airport. Life does have a funny way of turning around on itself. See you next week!

Church at San Jordi
Picture Copyright © Gary Hardy

Emily Kaufman