Ibiza heritage: Who were the Phoenicians?

There are some places in this world where the history of ordinary people is so vibrant that it seeps up from the earth. It’s that feeling you get when you enter a Medieval chapel placed so high on a mountain that the reverence required to build it literally takes your breath away. It’s how you feel when you look at 80,000 year old paintings on a cave wall or wander the verdant undulating greens of a battlefield. Here in Ibiza, it takes some effort to find this feeling. It requires you to detach from the sensual world of beautiful beaches and amazing restaurants and refocus your inner eye on the details.

For architecture lovers in Ibiza, this feeling could be provoked by the shape of a well covering dusted in almond blossoms, a heavy beam hewn by hand sitting across the doorway of an old farmhouse, the jigsaw of dry stone walls snaking across the countryside. These are the talismans left behind by the Phoenicians. More than any other culture that has passed through the island – and there have been many – it’s the Phoenicians who left the legacy that gave shape to modern Ibiza.

Originating from what is now Lebanon, they were known as the Purple People for the purple dye they produced, in addition to the Princes of the Sea for their shipbuilding skills. Having used Ibiza as a stopover for longer voyages, it wasn’t until 625 BC that the Phoenicians finally established a stable outpost. With their penchant for peddling luxury goods and global travel, it seems apt that they were the ones to colonise Ibiza. A community thrived at Sa Caleta for around 40 years before moving to what is now known as Dalt Vila and building a citadel they named Ibosim after the god Bes. The remains at Sa Caleta show a cultured civilisation, adept at organisation and urban planning and focused on producing high-end luxury goods for trading rather than weapons of war. Skilled sailors and shipbuilders, their dominance in the Western Mediterranean saw them control sea routes to the Atlantic, and therefore global trade.

The Phoenicians developed the very first known alphabet, which later transmuted into the Greek and then Latin alphabets on which so many languages are based. Unlike other cultures that restricted reading and writing to the clerical class, the Phoenicians shared literacy amongst their populations, creating a representative political structure despite an overarching oligarchical configuration. Their influence in Western Europe shaped the many cultures that came after them. The ancient Greeks openly cited Phoenician influence in the evolution of the Athenian democratic project.  In fact, the Phoenicians were a civilising force wherever they went. Attuned to the finer things in life and with an obsessive nature they developed grape species until they found the perfect methods for winemaking and conscientiously developed technologies that help establish some of the best wine regions in the world today: Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.

The necropolis at Puig des Molins near Ibiza town is the world’s most intact and best-preserved Phoenician site, providing countless artefacts and points for study about daily life and death in Punic Ibiza. However, it’s difficult to speculate on the exact nature of Phoenician domestic architecture as much of it was made of wood but there are some clues present in the simplicity of the Ibiza farmhouse. Further, there is very little evidence of Roman, Hellenistic or Islamic influences in the island’s architecture unlike in other locations in the Balearics and mainland Spain, meaning Phoenician architectural traditions were the standard practice for millennia.

Right up until the mid-20th century, the unit of measurement used in house building was the Biblical long cubit (around 52.5 centimetres) which was introduced by the Phoenicians. While the evidence of ordinary housing may be lost to time, there is a bounty of descriptions of larger public buildings throughout the Phoenician region. The Greek historians Herodotus, Strabo and Arrian have all left accounts of Phoenician construction and the Bible describes the Temple of Solomon in detail, built under the guidance of Hiram, the Phoenician King of Tyre. The Assyrians were partial to depicting Phoenician buildings in their art which show impressive fortified cities, towers and homes with multiple floors decorated with columns and reliefs of the palm symbol.

Probably the most noticeable remnant of Phoenician design in Ibiza is seen in the decorative motifs on the capitals of columns throughout the old farmhouses and the frescoes that were painted inside important wells and around domestic shrines that portray symbols of the goddess Tanit, the ring of fire, the phases of the moon and the tree of life – all of which are found in Phoenician ruins across the Levant. Tanit herself still holds sway in Ibiza – perhaps not as a piously as in Phoenician times, but as a symbol of the island’s powerful and ancient energy.

They were a polytheistic society with a pantheon of gods and goddesses who all crossed the Med and settled comfortably in Ibiza. Astarte – who originated with the Babylonian Ishtar and the Egyptian Isis – and evolved into the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, was the prime female deity in all of Phoenicia. But by the time the settlement in Ibiza had grown to support a religious practice, Astarte was on the out and Tanit had arrived.

She is first and foremost a goddess of fertility but unlike Astarte, her nature was conceived as the expression of empire and Carthage’s independence from Tyre rather than the love and sexuality of her forebearer. She is the bringer of spring, the Great Mother, at once loved and feared, and whose never-ending milk flowed into the land creating fertile abundance for the island. It was said that the rock of Es Vedra was her birthplace and she was honoured annually with a great festival and feast at the cave sanctuary of Es Culleram where over a thousand clay representations of her were discovered in 1907.

While recent studies show there is just a smattering of Phoenician DNA still coursing through the veins of modern Ibicencans, their heritage is spotted at every turn and for a founding culture you can’t get any better. Known a curious and brave people who ventured far and wide, the Phoenicians were culturally advanced in the ancient world. They ruled the seas, with Ibiza forming the bedrock of ancient trade along with Cádiz and Carthage. Ibiza was both warehouse and manufacturer, storing all kinds of treasures and known for its excellent pottery, salt, salt fish, wine and honey. And while Rome struggled to breach the fortified walls of Dalt Vila, the following rampage through the countryside reaped a bounty so rich it was said to be worth a year of plunder from all of Hispania – proving how prosperous the island was under Phoenician rule. The wealth, both financial and cultural, wasn’t to last unfortunately but that’s a topic for another day…

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza | Photos: Conrad White

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza | Photos: Conrad White