Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Mateu D'Aubarca
Fiesta Day Celebrated 21st September

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome to the history page. This week our travels through rural Ibiza have brought us to Sant Mateu, a tiny village tucked away in the northwest corner of the island. As it happens, the history of Sant Mateu is so simple and straightforward that there is practically nothing to tell!

The parish was founded, the church was built and a minuscule village sprang up around it. The rest, as they say, is history - and of such an equanimous variety that there have only been two outstanding events in the past two centuries. (That works out to one event per century in case anyone is counting.

The first milestone was the buying of the church bell in 1864 for 2,262 reales (an extinct monetary unit). The second was the removal of said bell to Dalt Vila (the walled city) at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, for purposes allegedly more military than religious. After the war the bell was returned safely to its belfry in Sant Mateu.

Late Medieval and Early Modern History in Ibiza: An Overview

Now we've dispensed with those tales of intrigue, we have some free cyber-space in which to map out the general line of development in post-conquest Ibiza. Hopefully, this overview will help to situate the little vignettes we relate each week within the larger picture.

In 1235, when Catalonia conquered Ibiza from the Moors, the island was divided into quarters or quartons. They were:

1) Portmany: a name derived from the Roman Portus Magnus or 'great port' and which corresponds to present-day Sant Antoni.

2) Balansat: the northern-most portion of the island which had belonged to a powerful clan of Moorish landlords of the same name and which today corresponds to Sant Miquel.

3) Quartó del Rey: or the 'King's quarter, so called because King Jaime II of Majorca purchased it from Prince Pedro of Portugal who had participated in the Conquest and had been awarded a chunk of the Ibiza as a war prize. Pedro had no interest in the land and sold it soon after. This area corresponds to present-day Santa Eulària.

4) Pla de Vila: literally, 'Plain of the City', a fertile flatland at the foot of the walled city that encompassed the areas that today are known as Jesús, Puig d'en Vals and part of Sant Jordi (all of which have been previously discussed on this page in our LiveIbiza Archive articles in Weekly Edition 008 of Saturday 21st April 2001, Weekly Edition 011 of Saturday 12th May 2001 and Weekly Edition 028 of Saturday 8th September 2001),

Dalt Vila was a separate entity, an administrative enclave where the ruling class of politicians and ecclesiarchs conducted their affairs and resided.

Parishes Formed

Within a century of the Conquest, each quartó was established as a parish and fortified with a church. For the next 300 years, Ibicencos would travel, by foot or beast, from wherever they lived to the nearest of these four rural churches. On a good week they went for mass; on a bad week they went for shelter.

Plague Prompts Growth

After a close call with the bubonic plague, which decimated island numbers, Ibiza was jolted out of centuries of stagnation into a period of growth and expansion. The quartons were systematically subdivided into smaller parishes, which were not only more accessible to worshippers but also necessary to accommodate the rising number of inhabitants. One of these new parishes was Sant Mateu, previously known as Albarca.


Albarca was a vast tract of farmland whose Arabic name means 'great water deposit' and probably refers to the fact that these flatlands were frequently flooded in times of heavy rain. The area was previously part of the holdings of the Balansat family and was subsequently included in the Sant Miquel quarter.

Episcopal Words

When our good friend, Manuel Abad y Lasierra, came to Ibiza, he had this to say about Albarca: "In the north of the island of Ibiza, far away from the vicarage of San Miguel, there is a place called Albarca which forms a kind of valley and is very fertile. It is almost one league in length and half that in width. There abound dispersed houses in which live some one hundred families. All of these circumstances argue for the erection of a new parish which will carry the title of San Mateu (Saint Mathew), Apostle. It will boarder he parish of San Miguel, the church to which Albarca was assigned until now and the parish of Santa Inés, also new, and will be served by a rector. (1785)"

And so it was done, slowly but surely. The basic structure of the church was finished in the latter half of the 18th century, although many of the necessary objects and adornments had yet to be installed. The famous bell and belfry, for instance, as well as the prestige-giving porxo, or arched front porch, were not added until almost one hundred years after the completion of the main edifice.

Ghost Town

Never a boomtown, even in its heyday, Sant Mateu is perhaps the municipality, which has suffered the greatest demographic decrease since the advent of tourism. A census taken in 1885 revealed that there were 39 inhabitants per km², while a 1975 census revealed that the population density had dropped to less than half that figure at only 16 inhabitants per km². The call of modern life has lured many young adults from their forefather's farming footsteps, leaving behind a Sant Mateu that is but a shadow of its former self.


Next week we will continue travelling north to Sant Miquel proper, one of the four original parish churches. See you then.

Emily Kaufman