Elche’s World Heritage awards have attracted millions

IN the past 10 years, 1.3 million people have visited Elche Municipal Park’s Information Office, although the actual number of visitors is thought to be much more. This is an 80 per cent increase from prior to 1999, and is thanks to the two UNESCO World Heritage awards bestowed on Elche, which served to raise awareness of the town.

The first was for the Palmeral of Elche – a landscape of groves of date palms which was formerly laid out with an elaborate irrigation system towards the end of the tenth century by the Arabs – on November 30, 2000.

The Palmeral (palm groves) of Elche represent a remarkable example of the transference of a characteristic landscape from one culture and continent to another, in this case from North Africa to Europe. The palm grove or garden is a typical feature of the North African landscape which was brought to Europe during the Islamic occupation of much of the Iberian peninsula and has survived to the present day at Elche. The ancient irrigation system, which is still functioning, is of special interest.

This is the only palm grove of its type anywhere on the European continent, which makes it an exceptional landscape in this geographical context. Arab geographers and European travellers have testified to this exceptional quality throughout history. In addition to the authentic wild forest, many palm trees are cultivated in gardens, the remains of Arab agriculture established over eight centuries ago on the Iberian Peninsula. Archaeological data from the Iberian and Roman periods indicate that these plantations are in fact much older than the Arab palm grove. There is also what survives of a settlement or an urban plan, which can be seen from the cartography of the region.

The central core of the town is surrounded by a series of palm gardens before reaching the rural area proper, where these are more widely scattered, even appearing to be natural woods, without human involvement. Palms also form an essential component of the culture of Elche, manifesting itself in many ways – the processions on Palm Sunday, the Night of the Kings, the town’s coat of arms. The origins of the Elche palm grove are attributed to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the 1st millennium BC, since dates formed part of their diet. It was with the Arab invasion in the 8th century AD that they began to be cultivated; a network of irrigation canals enabled the brackish waters of the Vinalopó River to be used. The town was moved northwards to a new location and surrounded palm groves, so as to recreate landscape reminiscent of that of North Africa, from whence the new settlers came.

Then in May 2001 the Misteri d’Elx – The Mystery Play of Elche – was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The play is a liturgical drama which dates from the Middle Ages and is celebrated in Elche on August 14 and 15 to commemorate the Assumption of Mary.

The mystery play of Elche is a sacred musical drama of the death, assumption and crowning of the Virgin Mary. It has been performed without interruption (by special authorization from the Pope) since the mid-fifteenth century in the Basilica of Santa Marìa de Elche. It is thus a living testimony of European religious theatre of the Middle Ages and of the medieval cult of devotion to the Virgin, influenced by Byzantine rites.

This theatrical performance is entirely sung and depicts the assumption of the Virgin Mary; it comprises two acts, performed on 14 and 15 of August, which depict the death and crowning of the Virgin. The text (preserved in the 1625 collections) is written in the Valencian language with certain sections in Latin. Similarly, some songs are clearly of medieval origin and are for a single voice. These alternate with polyphonic Renaissance and Baroque sections. The stage is organized on two levels: the horizontal ”terrestrial” stage and the vertical “celestial” stage, characteristic of the medieval mystery play.