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Ibiza’s History - Part One: The Phoenicians

By Emily Kaufman

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Published in Ibicasa Magazine on 15/12/2017

Ibiza occupies a unique and venerable place in the annals of history. Overstatement? Not at all. Consider that Dalt Vila, the walled citadel overlooking the harbour, is the oldest preserved coastal fortress in the Mediterranean. Far from hyperbole, this substantiated fact is the basis of the city’s designation as a World Heritage Site. Consider also that the archaeological remains at Sa Caleta earned Ibiza a second World Heritage award due to the valuable information they convey regarding the Phoenician’s civilizing influence on Western Europe.
The citadel is monumental and impressive; the excavation humble and unassuming; yet both sites tell stories that are significant enough, their message universal enough, that UNESCO deemed them worthy of their highest cultural accolade. Impressed? Like to learn more? If so, the aim of this series is to explain everything you have always wanted to know about island history but were afraid to ask. Let us begin with the question of how an island as small as Ibiza came to occupy such a prominent place on the ancient world stage.The answer, of course, lies with the arrival of the Phoenicians, those mighty merchants who didn’t bother to conquer the foreign lands they visited, but merely traded with them. As expert seafarers operating in far-flung markets, they combed the Mediterranean and beyond in search of valuable metals for the manufacture of the luxury wares they specialized in. Gold, silver, bronze, ivory and precious stones were the costly commodities they dealt in. Ibiza, devoid of this type of mineral wealth, would seem the last place the Phoenicians would choose to establish a permanent settlement, much less raise a city. Indeed, for centuries, they gave the island only passing notice, their primary focus being Tartessus, the area of southern Spain that corresponds roughly to Andalusia. Here they founded the cities of Cádiz and Málaga between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE, and mined the mineral-rich hinterland for silver, gold, copper, iron and tin.
At the time, Tartessus contained one of the largest reserves of metals, especially silver, in the known world. But over-mining eventually took its toll, exhausting the ore veins and eroding the land from the constant felling of trees, which were needed to stoke the smelting furnaces. The crisis that ensued, both environmental and sociological, tipped the balance of local power and forced the Phoenicians to seek markets further afield. In the shake up, Ibiza acquired a new importance.

Originally, the island had been used merely as a stopover on the long routes to and from the Straits of Gibraltar. As the first civilization whose maritime technology allowed them to traverse this perilous passage into the Atlantic, the Phoenicians knew that ships approaching the straits from the east should steer a northwest course toward Alicante or Murcia and then skirt down the Iberian seaboard. Ibiza happened to lie directly on this nautical path. Moreover, trade winds and sea currents drew ships easily to its shores, where an abundance of freshwater springs and a deficit of hostile natives delighted weary sailors. For centuries, this fortunate combination of factors made Ibiza a convenient layover and a safe haven, but nothing more.
In the 7th century BCE, spurred by the decline of the Tartessian culture, the Phoenicians began to work their way up the Iberian coast to what we now call Catalonia and southern France... opening new markets as they went and expanding their sphere of influence. It was during this time that Ibiza, centrally located off the Iberian seaboard, became a useful base from which to coordinate the flow of goods to and from these new trade contacts. Around 625 BCE the Phoenicians established a settlement at Sa Caleta. The site’s excavated remains confirm the widely-held premise that the Phoenicians were an eminently civilized culture whose presence in Western Europe helped further human progress on many fronts.
For example, as the first Eastern Mediterranean people to colonize the Western Mediterranean in any substantial way, they introduced the concept of urban planning. Sa Caleta’s low perimeter walls show the systematic and orderly way this habitat was laid out, with each aspect of human activity contained in its own area, i.e. smelting furnaces, pottery kilns, bread ovens, etc. Moreover, despite the fact that metallurgy was clearly practiced at the site, no weapons have ever been found, an absence which supports the theory that the Phoenicians co-existed peacefully with the indigenous populations that they colonized.

Some forty years later, the success of the Sa Caleta settlement prompted the Phoenicians to relocate about ten kilometres northeast to a massive hill overlooking a wide bay. This easily defensible site was named Ibosim (literally, “Islands of Bes”) and was geographically suited to all aspects of trading, docking, transhipping and warehousing. Today we call it Dalt Vila and take pleasure in its unique charms and exotic air. But what was it like back in the 6th century BCE? We can only speculate as nothing remains of the original walls or buildings, however a city founded under the patronage of the great god Bes was surely auspicious and endowed with a spirit of invincibility.
For over two and a half millennia its walls have stood tall, and continuously encompassed a living community. To be sure, they have at times deteriorated, but they have always been repaired and rebuilt on their original architectural signature - another of the Phoenicians’ areas of expertise. We may also suppose that reading, writing and bookkeeping were commonplace in Phoenician Dalt Vila. Having invented the first alphabet (without vowels) and disseminated it throughout the Mediterranean, they extended literacy to social sectors beyond the priestly caste. As a result, their society, despite being an oligarchy, was more level, inclusive and representative than any other prior to the Athenian experiment in democracy in the 5th century BCE. The Greeks, in fact, openly recognized the Phoenicians’ influence on Hellenic political evolution.

Another of the Phoenicians’ seminal contributions to history was the development of winemaking. As purveyors of the finer things in life, they painstakingly bred various strains of grapes and transplanted them throughout the Mediterranean. With care and nurture, Phoenician winemaking became state of the art. Their techniques also gave rise to a wide variety of wines that were suitable not only for human consumption, but also as religious libations worthy of the gods. Most of today’s top wine-growing countries in Europe (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, etc.) owe a debt of gratitude to this realm of Phoenician expertise that influenced the dawn of their cultures. Virtually all Phoenician coastal colonies had vineyards and Ibiza would have been no exception. Given the large number of Ibicenco-made amphorae and potshards found throughout the Mediterranean basin, we may also assume that the wine made here was not only consumed locally but exported commercially.
Taking stock, we have seen that the Phoenicians were a genteel people who read, wrote, travelled, traded, prayed and lived in peace whenever possible. They elevated the human condition wherever they went by freely sharing their prolific knowledge and expertise. Their approach was characteristically one of solidarity, whether they were dealing with other advanced peoples, such as the Greeks, Egyptians and Etruscans, or with less developed branches of the human family. As for Ibiza, it acquired one of the finest cultural legacies Antiquity had to offer, when the Phoenicians gently led it out of Bronze Age obscurity and guided it into the Iron Age mainstream.

This is the first in a series of articles on the history of Ibiza that will be published in subsequent editions of Ibicasa. We are honoured to have Emily Kaufman contributing both her knowledge of local history and her wonderful writing style. 

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