Any investigation into the churches of Ibiza must start with the Reconquista, when the Christian kingdoms prised Spain back from the hands of the Moors in 1235. There’s some trace of the Muslim reign in Ibiza, in place names such as Benimussa, Benirrás, Atzaró and Balafia and also in the vestiges of ingenious irrigation systems but nowhere near as much as other parts of Spain. Supposedly, there was a thriving network of mosques throughout the cobbled streets of the old town, yet all evidence of them seems to have vanished.
In a bid to secure the spiritual wellbeing of the poor Christians who had lived under the rule of the Moors, the Church decreed it immediately necessary to erect small chapels, more so than repairing decrepit housing or sanitation, as a stop-gap for the prospect of losing believers. Rumour has it that this very first house of worship was hastily erected over the ruins of a mosque where now sits the rather majestic cathedral Our Lady of the Snows. Other rumours suggest the mosque was built over the top of a synagogue, itself built over the top of a Roman-era temple. We will never know the true history of this space but can still revel in its beauty and imagine its illustrious origins.
Ibiza is dotted with charming rural and village churches. The island’s churches are like fingerprints – although they all share similarities, no two are the same. In antiquity, the churches of Ibiza held a role well beyond centres for religious worship. Like all spiritual edifices, these whitewashed and imposing buildings provided remote populations with the opportunity to socialise, celebrate and mourn, do business and court sweethearts. But beyond these collective moments, Ibiza’s churches were built to protect.
It’s hard to imagine these days what a horde of pirates might look like sailing into port, cannons ablaze and then lumbering their way across the countryside to loot and pillage and cause havoc. Our fast-paced world cannot fathom the idea that much damage could be done by a bunch of drunkards on foot. But the pop culture concept of a foolhardy and dithering pirate is far from the reality. These hardened men (and a few women) were highly skilled in combat and exceedingly experienced in pilfering riches, food and anything that was not nailed down. Even then, a few good yanks with a dagger blade were usually enough to get the job done. Jack Sparrow would not have lasted a second in their world. Unfortunately, for the island’s inhabitants, Ibiza was a favourite destination of pirates, Barbarians, Berbers and even the odd crew of Crown-approved thieves.
To protect themselves from the ravages of attack, the Ibicencos developed an intricate warning system via a series of lookout towers encircling the coast – you can read more about them in this blog post. They also ensured the local churches were ready to offer sanctuary and protection against the rampaging packs of invaders.
For the most part, the churches of Ibiza are simple and unadorned, in keeping with the character of the people, there is little ostentation. The outer walls are smooth and thick and they were frequently fitted with towers – not for bells but for lookouts. Several churches had their entryways on the longitudinal axis, making it easier for people to scurry inside without being seen. As the 19th century rolled around, the need for defensive architecture lessened and some adaptations were made to the original designs, such as moving the doorways to the front. All consist of thick walls, small windows, a rectangular floor plan and easily accessible flat roofs, perfect for launching rocks and later bullets, towards the enemy.
There’s an apparent correlation between the domestic and religious architecture of Ibiza. Rural churches were extended as needed or requested by the congregation – a parish house, a chapel or a belfry would be tacked onto the previous structure much in the same way the traditional farmhouse grew with the family. The domesticity of religious feeling was not a new concept to the locals. With their household shrines to the pagan gods (read about them here) morphing into reliquaries for Catholic deities, it made sense the local church would be reminiscent of the home. Newer churches built in the 20th century such as Es Cubells (finished in the 1940s) or Forada (constructed in the late 1960s) still follow the same design, so faithful are they to tradition that an untrained eye might not see the difference at all.
Even though attendance to religious ceremonies is dwindling, the church in Ibiza continues to maintain an important place in the community. High holiday masses are still popular amongst all age groups and of course baptisms, funerals and weddings are the ceremonial glue that binds neighbours together. And while their designs may appear homogenous, the detail in each church is truly fascinating. These ancient and vital buildings are worth frequent visits to sit in cool silence and humbly contemplate the beauty of simplicity.