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Ses Feixes: Ibiza’s Forgotten Cornucopia
By Martin Davies
The extensive wetlands next to Ibiza Town and Talamanca are called ‘Ses Feixes’, and many of us have heard that name in connection with efforts to save this area from further development. Less well known is the fact that this was an amazingly innovative agricultural system which was created over a thousand years ago by the Moors who ruled Ibiza at that time. Ses Feixes means ‘the strips’ because the plots were laid out in lines with each farmer having his own narrow ‘strip’ of land. The area was cleverly drained and irrigated to provide the main source of food for a burgeoning Ibiza Town. It’s a fascinating part of Ibiza’s history that received scholarly attention in 1950 when George Foster, a prominent anthropologist from the University of California (US), carried out a special study of Ses Feixes. In his report Professor Foster stated that “no part of the cultural legacy of the Moors in Spain is more ingenious, or apparently less well known, than the system of agriculture practised on reclaimed lands bordering the harbour of Ibiza.”
Foster unravelled the puzzle of how and when these huertos árabes came into existence using the historical writings of Isidoro Macabich along with some old maps. But the process may well have started earlier with the Carthaginians - the successors to the Phoenicians who first settled Ibiza Town about 2,700 years ago. These people were famous in the ancient world for agricultural expertise. They would surely have exploited the rich loam soil near Ibiza town that was irrigated by five seasonal streams which flowed into Ibiza Bay from the north and west. Writing in the first century BC (over 2,000 years ago) Diodorus Siculus mentioned that Ibiza town had a small khôra (extra-urban space) of vines and olives. The same source includes an evocative description of a typical Carthaginian settlement: “The country was divided into gardens and plantations of every kind, since there are many streams of water in small channels that irrigate every part. There were also country houses one after another, constructed in luxurious fashion and covered with stucco, which gave evidence of the wealth of the people who possessed them.”
This type of urban farming would have lasted throughout the Roman period on Ibiza, but the true blueprint for Ses Feixes was created by Berber tribesmen who settled in Ibiza around 1,000 years ago as part of the Moorish rule of the island. They laid out the plots (feixes) and used waterwheels (norias) to both drain and irrigate the land. With the help of this advanced technology the productivity of local farms soared. Foster’s writing provides a vivid description that allows us to picture how these unique kitchen gardens must have looked in their heyday. “Beyond the canal are fertile gardens dotted with a variety of fruit trees. At short intervals small bridges span the canal, most of which end at a curious gate - a whitewashed adobe structure with a crude wooden door.” Some of these distinctive gates can still be found in the Talamanca part of Ses Feixes, indicating where each individual garden began. The crops that were grown included potatoes, beets, cabbages, onions, tomatoes and a wide variety of seasonal produce.
Over the course of the succeeding centuries the feixes fell into disuse, and they became pastures that were used for grazing animals like sheep, goats and pigs. At some point the twin areas of wetlands (now separated by the built-up Passeig Marítim) acquired the names ‘Prat de Vila’ (Town Meadow) and ‘Prat de ses Monges’ (meadow owned by the nuns of San Cristóbal). Prat means meadow, not farm, and this confirms the fact that what we call Ses Feixes today had formerly been a pasture. In the 17th and 18th centuries Ibicenco farmers drained these grassy sea meadows, and divided the land into distinctive narrow plots (strips) - much like the original Moorish plots which had existed further inland. This reclaimed area was converted into profitable horticultural farmland.
Sad to say, hardly any of those lovingly tended plots remain intact: their fibles (subterranean cross-channels) are now clogged with soil while the network of canals (acèquies) has turned into a stagnant nursery for mosquito larvae. Seen from the encircling highways, the area looks more like a wasteland, with the occasional pylon or palm tree poking its head above the tall, feathery canes. So what does the future hold for these abandoned wetlands? In 2009, three years after Ses Feixes were declared a Site of Cultural Interest, the ecological organization GEN published a lavishly illustrated study, Vila i ses Feixes: Els camins de l’aigua. Its final chapter sketches a ‘Proposal for the recovery of Ses Feixes’, based on an earlier Plan Especial de ses Feixes (2002). This has been subjected to endless discussions between the Consell d’Eivissa and the town halls of Ibiza and Santa Eulalia (Prat de ses Monges lies inside the latter’s boundaries).
The present island legislature hopes to move things forward, and optimists in Amics de la Terra (Friends of the Earth) point to the new Balearic Ecotax as an obvious source of funding. If the politicians can reach agreement they could create a much needed recreational area on the capital’s doorstep. Amateur naturalists might enjoy the facilities of a newly built Visitor’s Centre, stroll around lagoons full of birdlife, admire the newly cleared channels and the rebuilt gateways (only about 25 of the original 150 have survived). Those evocative portals, like miniature versions of the pylons in front of Egyptian temples, have prompted architectural speculation about a possible Near Eastern connection. Could Ses Feixes one day be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list? If the original gardens were brought to life there would be a strong case for it. The entire Talamanca area is on the verge of immense change, and it is hoped that the local government will have the vision to invest funds in the long overdue recognition of Ses Feixes. It is the missing keystone in Ibiza’s Moorish horticultural heritage… and something which would benefit both seasonal and year-round visitors. •