History of Mallorca | Majorca, Palma
& The Balearic Islands

History of Mallorca      Geography and Demographics

The Balearic Islands, of which Mallorca (Majorca) is the largest, form the only group situated in the western Mediterranean. They are not volcanic in origin as commonly thought, but have been forged by the movement and folding of the earth’s surface over millions of years. In size, Mallorca/Majorca is just over 3 and a half thousand km2 which makes it over 2 times bigger than Greater London but with only a tenth of the population. It also makes it 5 times bigger than its little sister, Menorca. The island’s names - a direct reflection of their size; the latin word ‘major’ meaning larger and ‘minor’ meaning smaller, both of which were imposed during the Roman occupation.

View The Balearic Islands in a larger map

Geographically, Mallorca (Majorca) is more varied and can be split into 3 main areas: the ‘Tramuntana’ mountain range, which runs for 90km along the whole of the northwestern coast; the ‘Llevent’ mountains which are far less prominent on the opposite side and ‘Es Pla’, the large plain located between the two.

  • Mallorca Population - About 1 million (2011)
  • Largest City - Palma, Population over 400,000
  • Land Area - 3,600 Km2
  • Highest Point - Puig Major 1,500 m
  • Archipelago - Balearic Islands

History of Mallorca      Talayotic Period - 3000BC

Talayot Mallorca

Evidence of the first human settlement in Mallorca/Majorca is some 5000 years ago in 3000 BC. This period has been given the name Talayotic, from the Arab word ‘atalaya’ meaning tower, after the mysterious tower structures that were found at these sites. Remains of 2 of these settlements still exist on the island today but the Museum of Mallorca is the only place in Palma you can see artefacts from this period.

History of Mallorca     The Greeks, Phoenicians & The Carthaginians

Phoenician Ship

In the centuries approaching the birth of Christ, the Mediterranean was witness to numerous trade wars between the competing empires of the time, and initially the Balearics were only marginally involved. However, as shipbuilding and navigational techniques improved, the natural harbours offered by the islands became ever more valuable. First, the Greeks and the Phoenicians set up trading posts on the islands but later the islands became part of the Carthaginian trading empire from North Africa. Many of the major ports were founded at this time: Mahon, in Menorca for example, takes its name from Hannibal’s brother who landed there in 206BC.

The name ‘Balearics’ itself originates from the Ancient inhabitants of the islands. They had a particularly fierce method of fighting, involving a sling, which they had become famous for using and as a result, in about 300BC, the Phoenicians and the Greeks gave the archipelago the name ‘balearides’, which comes from the Greek word ‘ballein’ meaning ‘to throw a sling’.

Many of these fierce fighters were recruited into the Carthaginian army at the time, but they were no match for the imminent arrival of the highly trained Roman army. In 146BC Carthage was defeated by Rome, but it wasn’t until 23 years later, in 123BC, that the Romans finally pushed home their advantage in the Balearics.

History of Mallorca      The Romans 123 BC & The Vandals 5th Century

Roman Statue

The Romans arrived in the form of the Consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus and his very powerful fleet. After a 2-year campaign he conquered the Balearics and renamed the 2 largest islands Balearis Major and Balearis Minor – the origin of course of their modern names. The official language became Latin and the first important cities were founded: Pollentia, which is now Alcudia in the north and Palmeria, meaning ‘palm of victory’, in the south, which is Palma. They planned and constructed, with typical Roman thoroughness, organising the new city through a network of streets, markets and theatres, administrative and religious buildings and surrounding it all with a city wall – parts of which can still be seen today. Interestingly the most important city at the time was not Palma but instead Pollentia, now Alcudia, in the north.

The Romans occupied the Balearics until the 5th century AD when they were conquered and plundered by the Vandal Kingdom of Africa. This so-called ‘Dark Era’ began as the Vandals demolished and erased much of the Roman infrastructure on the island in a very short space of time. Control of the islands was regained, however, in 534 AD when the islands became part of the Byzantine Empire.

History of Mallorca      The Moors - 7th Century

Elsewhere, in the 7th century, ignited by the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam was spreading like wildfire. In North Africa, which had been ruled by foreigners for thousands of years, the Islamic Arabs were taking over, their Muslim converts becoming known as The Moors. In 711 their army landed at Gibraltar and within 7 years almost all of mainland Spain was under Moorish control. They called it the Caliphate of Cordoba.

Caliphate of Cordoba

The first sign of this Islamic world in the Balearics was at the beginning of the 8th century but it wasn’t until 902 that the islands officially became part of the Arab world, adopting the name ‘the Oriental Islands’. This occupation established the legal precedent that the islands belonged to Spain itself because until then, they had been accepted as a different country. Under Moorish rule ‘Palmeria’ became ‘Madina Mayurka’ and one of its most prosperous ages began. Palaces, mosques and gardens were built, arts and education flourished and agriculture took strides forward when technological innovations such as windmills were introduced.

The 4 centuries of Arab dominance had a profound effect on Mallorca (Majorca). Although little physical evidence has survived from this era, it is still evident in people’s way of life, their customs and their folklore. Not to mention that there are also over 4000 words in the Spanish vocabulary that are Arabic in origin.

Majorca Mallorca Audio Guide

If you'd like to listen to the entire history of Mallorca (Majorca) and take a 2 hour audio guide of Palma's historial sites click here.

The Christians & more on the history of Mallorca --->

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