Mallorca’s position in the heart of Europe’s most fought-over sea has placed it in the path of the great sweeps of Mediterranean history, and events in that wider theatre have transformed the island time and again. But for all its experience of invasion, war, prosperity and hunger, Mallorca has rarely been at the heart of great European affairs. It's the perfect blend of historical riches and contemporary getaway.

Overview

Mallorca’s story begins with a series of unsolved mysteries, with a culture whose talayots (watchtowers) are among the few signposts to their presence on the island. The Talayotic people had the island to themselves until the arrival of the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, and their enduring stone towers continue to defy archaeological interpretation. Next to arrive were the Romans, who established control in 123 BC; for centuries the island was largely at peace, until the Vandals swept all before them in AD 426. A century later, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) powers kicked them out in turn. But it was the Muslim armies who brought the gifts of prosperity and religious coexistence to the island, ruling for over 300 years from the early 9th century. In 1229 Jaume I of Aragón seized the island and it has been in Christian (and, most often, Catalan) hands ever since. Over the centuries that followed, life was often pretty grim for the island’s rural poor, living at the whim of absentee landlords. Mallorca also found itself buffeted by the winds of change blowing from the Spanish mainland, from the grand questions of royal succession to the devastating Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

Following the Civil War, particularly from the 1960s, Mallorca has been transformed beyond recognition by mass tourism, which has yanked the island from centuries of provincial doldrums and propelled it towards new-found wealth and rapidly-imposed cosmopolitanism.

The Talayotic Period

The Balearic Islands were separated from the Spanish continent a mere eight million years ago. They were inhabited by a variety of animal life that carried on in splendid isolation until around 9000 to 10,000 years ago, when the first groups of Epipaleolithic people set out from the Spanish coast in rudimentary vessels and bumped into Mallorca.

The earliest signs of human presence on the island date to around 7200 BC. In the following 6000 years, the population, made up of disparate groups or tribes, largely lived as hunter-gatherers in caves or other natural shelters. Around 2000 BC they started building megalithic funerary monuments, but at the time the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt, Mallorca was home to only a basic civilisation.

Things were shaken up in Mallorca and Menorca around 1200 BC with the arrival of warrior tribes, probably from Asia Minor, who overwhelmed the local populace. They are known today as the Talayotic people, after the dry-stone talayots (towers) that are their chief material legacy, still scattered across many Mallorcan sites. The circular (and sometimes square- or hull-shaped) stone edifices are testimony to an organised and hierarchical society. The most common circular talayots could reach a height of 6m and had two floors. Their purpose is a matter of conjecture: were they symbolic of the power of local chieftains, or their burial places? Were they used for storage or defence? Or were they perhaps religious sites? There were at least 200 Talayotic villages across the island: simple ceramics, along with artefacts in bronze (swords, axes, necklaces), have been found on these sites.

The ancients knew Mallorca and Menorca as the Gymnesias Islands, from a word meaning ‘naked’ (it appears that at least some of the islanders got about with a minimum of covering). Talayotic society seems to have been divided into a ruling elite, a broad subsistence-farming underclass and slaves. It is not known if they had a written language.

Contact with the outside world came through Greek and Phoenician traders, although the Carthaginian Phoenicians attempted to establish a foothold in Mallorca and failed. They did, however, enrol Mallorcans as mercenaries: Balearic men were noted for their skill as slingers, having learned to use these simple weapons with deadly accuracy as children. These sling-wielding Mallorcan and Menorcan foners (Catalan for 'warriors') gave themselves the name 'Balears', possibly derived from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘to throw’. And so their island homes also came to be known as the Balearics. These men weren’t averse to payment, developing a reputation as slings for hire: in Carthaginian armies they would shower a deadly hail of stones on the enemy before the infantry advanced. Also carrying daggers or short swords for hand-to-hand combat, they wore virtually no protection. Balears played their part in the Carthaginian victory over the Greeks in Sicily in the 5th century BC, and again in the Punic Wars against Rome.

Romans, Vandals & Byzantines

When the Roman Consul Quintus Cecilius Metelus approached the shores of Mallorca in 123 BC, possibly around Platja des Trenc in the south, he did not come unprepared. Knowing that the island warriors were capable of slinging heavy stones at his ships’ waterline and sinking them, he had come up with a novel idea. Using heavy skins and leather, he effectively invented the first armoured vessels. Stunned by their incapacity to inflict serious damage, the Mallorcan warriors fled inland before the advance of Metelus’s legions. Within two years the island had been pacified.

Metelus had 3000 settlers brought over from mainland Iberia, and founded two military camps in the usual Roman style (with the intersecting main streets of the decumanus and cardus maximus). Known as Palmeria (or Palma) and Pol·lentia, they soon developed into Mallorca’s main towns. Pol·lentia, neatly situated between the two northeast bays of Pollença and Alcúdia, was the senior of the two.

As Pol·lentia was embellished with fine buildings, temples, a theatre and more, some Roman citizens opted for the rural life, building grand country villas. None remain today, but it is tempting to see them as the precursor to the Arab alqueries (farmsteads) and Mallorcan possessions (country estates).

The indigenous population slowly adopted the Roman language and customs, but continued to live in its own villages. Plinius the Elder reported that Mallorcan wine was as good as that in Italy, and the island’s wheat and snails were also appreciated.

Archaeological evidence of early Christianity – such as the 5th-century AD remains of a basilica at Son Peretó near Manacor – suggest that the new Roman faith had arrived on the island as early as the 4th century. By then storm clouds were gathering, breaking in the form of barbarian assaults on the Roman Empire from the 5th century. The Balearic Islands felt the scourge of the Vandals (an East Germanic tribe that plundered their way into Roman territory) in 426. Forty years later, having crashed across Spain to establish their base in North Africa, they returned to take the islands.

The Vandals got their comeuppance when Byzantine Emperor Justinian decided to try to rebuild the Roman Empire. His tireless general, Belisarius, vanquished the Vandals in North Africa in 533 and took the Balearic Islands the following year. After Justinian’s death in 565, Byzantine control over territories in the western Mediterranean quickly waned. By the time the Muslims swept across North Africa in the first years of the 8th century, the Balearic Islands were an independent Christian enclave.

The Islamic Centuries

In 902 an Arab noble from Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), Isam al-Jaulani, was forced by bad weather to take shelter in the port of Palma. During his stay he became convinced that the town could and should be taken, along with Mallorca and the rest of the Balearic Islands, and incorporated into the Caliphate of Córdoba. On his return to Córdoba, the Caliph Abdallah entrusted him with the task, and Al-Jaulani returned with a landing party in 902 or 903.

The port town fell easily but Al-Jaulani, now the Wāli (governor) of the territory dubbed 'the Eastern Islands of Al-Andalus' by the Arabs, was compelled to wage another eight years of war against pockets of Christian guerilla resistance throughout the islands. But by the time Al-Jaulani died in 913, the islands had been pacified and he had begun work to expand and improve its only city, now called Medina Mayurka (City of Mallorca).

The Muslims divided the island into 12 districts, and in the ensuing century Mallorca thrived. They brought advanced irrigation methods, allowing the alqueries – the farms they established – to flourish. Medina Mayurka became one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, and by the end of the 12th century it had a population of 35,000, on par with Barcelona and London. The al-qasr, or castle-palace (Palau de l’Almudaina), was built over a Roman fort, and the grand mosque stood where Palma Catedral now does. With the raising of walls around the new Rabad al-Jadid quarter (roughly Es Puig de Sant Pere), the city reached the extents it would maintain until the late 19th century. It was a typical medieval Muslim city, a medina like Marrakech or Fez. Few of the narrow streets that made up its labyrinth, now called estrets (narrows), remain. Medina Mayurka enjoyed close relations with the rest of the Muslim world in the western Mediterranean, although by 1075 the emirs (princes) of the Eastern Islands were independent of mainland jurisdiction.

Al-Jaulani’s successors dedicated considerable energy to piracy, which by the opening of the 12th century was the islands' principal source of revenue, arousing the wrath of Christian Europe's trading powers. In 1114, 500 vessels carrying a reported 65,000 Pisan and Catalan troops landed on Mallorca and launched a bloody campaign, entering Medina Mayurka in April the following year. Exhausted after 10 months’ fighting, news of a Muslim relief fleet en route from North Africa persuaded the invaders to depart, laden with booty, prisoners and freed Christian slaves.

In 1116, a new era dawned in Mallorca, as the Almoravids (a Berber tribe from Morocco) from mainland Spain took control. The Balearics reached new heights in prosperity, particularly under the Wāli Ishaq, who ruled from 1152 to 1185. Then, in 1203, Mallorca fell under the sway of the Almohads, who had taken control of Al-Andalus.

The internecine strife between Muslim factions had not gone unnoticed in Christian Spain, where the Reconquista (the reconquest of Muslim-held territory by the Christian kingdoms) had taken on new impetus after the rout of Almohad armies in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. By 1250 the Christians would take Valencia, Extremadura, Córdoba and Seville and the last Muslims would be expelled from Portugal. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that a plan should be hatched to take the Balearic Islands – especially as Mallorca continued to be a major source of piracy, seriously hindering Christian sea trade.

El Conqueridor

On 5 September 1229, 155 vessels bearing 1500 mounted knights and 15,000 infantry weighed anchor in the Catalan ports of Barcelona, Tarragona and Salou, setting sail for Mallorca. Jaume I (1208–76), the energetic 21-year-old king of Aragón and Catalonia, vowed to take the Balearic Islands and end Muslim piracy in the process. Later dubbed El Conqueridor (The Conqueror), Jaume landed at Santa Ponça and, after two swift skirmishes, marched on Medina Mayurka, to which he laid siege. Finally, on 31 December, Christian troops breached the defences and poured into the city, pillaging mercilessly. In the following months, Jaume I pursued enemy troops across the island, meeting only feeble resistance.

With the conquest of Mallorca complete, Jaume proceeded to divide it up among his lieutenants and allies. The Arab alqueries, rafals (hamlets) and villages were handed over to their new senyors (masters). Many changed name, but a good number retained their Arab nomenclature (places beginning with bini (meaning 'sons of') are notable examples). Many took on the names of their new lord, preceded by the possessive particle son or sa (loosely translated as ‘that which is of…’). Jaume codified this division of the spoils in his Llibre del Repartiment.

Among Jaume’s early priorities was a rapid program of church-building, Christianisation of the local populace and the introduction of settlers from Catalonia (mostly from around the city of Girona). For the first century after the conquest, Ciutat (the city) held the bulk of the island’s population. The Part Forana (‘Part Outside’ Ciutat) was divided into 14 districts, but all power in Mallorca was concentrated in Ciutat. Beneath the king, day-to-day governance was carried out by six jurats, or ‘magistrates’.

The Christian Catalan settlers imposed their religion, tongue and customs on the island, while the bulk of the Muslim population was reduced to slavery. Those that did not flee or accept this destiny had only one real choice: to renounce Islam. The Jewish population would also have a troubling time of it.

In the Part Forana the farmsteads came to be known as possessions and were the focal point of the agricultural economy upon which the island would largely come to depend. The possessions were run by local managers who were faithful to their (frequently absentee) noble overlords, and were often well-off farmers themselves. They employed missatges (permanent farm labour) and jornalers (day wage labourers), both of whom generally lived on the edge of misery. Small-farm holders frequently failed to make ends meet, ceded their holdings to the more important possessions and themselves became jornalers.

Crown of Aragón

On Jaume I’s death in 1276, his territories were divided between his two sons, Jaume II and Pere II. In the succeeding years Mallorca was torn in the contest between the two, a dynamic that persisted under their heirs. By 1349, the previously independent Kingdom of Mallorca was tied into the Crown of Aragón, although it retained a high degree of autonomy.

The fortunes of Mallorca, particularly Palma, closely followed those of Barcelona, the Catalan headquarters of the Crown of Aragón and its trading hub. In the middle of the 15th century, both cities (despite setbacks such as outbreaks of the plague) were among the most prosperous in the Mediterranean. Palma had some 35 consulates and trade representatives sprinkled around the Med. The city’s trade community had a merchant fleet of 400 vessels and the medieval Bourse, Sa Llotja, was an animated focal point of business.

But not all was rosy. In the Part Forana farm labourers lived on the edge of starvation, and crops occasionally failed to such an extent that people dropped dead in the streets, as in 1374. Frequent localised revolts, such as that of 1391 (the same year that furious workers sacked the Call in Ciutat), were stamped out mercilessly by the army. A much greater shock to the ruling classes was the 1521 Germania revolt, an urban working-class uprising largely provoked by crushing taxes imposed on the lower classes. The unrest forced the viceroy (by now Mallorca was part of a united Spain under Emperor Carlos V) to flee. In October 1522 Carlos sent in the army, but control was not re-established until the following March.

By then Mallorca’s commercial fortunes had declined and by the 16th century its coast had become constant prey to the attacks of North African pirates. Around the island the building of 'fire-towers' (watchtowers communicating by bonfire) and fortifications, many of which stand today, testified to the urgency of the problem. Some of Mallorca’s most colourful traditional festivals, such as Moros i Cristians in Pollença and Es Firó in Sóller, date to these times. From the 17th century Spain’s fortunes declined and Mallorca slid into provincial obscurity. Backing the Habsburgs in the War of the Spanish Succession (1703–15) didn’t endear Mallorca to the finally victorious Bourbon monarch, Felipe V. In 1716 he abolished all the island’s privileges and autonomy.

Pirate attacks forced Mallorca to be on its guard throughout much of the 18th century, until the island received permission to retaliate without punishment in 1785. At the same time, Mallorcan Franciscan friar Fray Junípero Serra was in California, founding missions that seeded major cities, such as San Francisco and San Diego.

The Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century had repercussions for Mallorca – waves of Catalan refugees flooded the island, provoking economic and social unrest. The second half of the century saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, an increase in agricultural activity and, in 1875, the opening of the first railway, between Palma and Inca.

Mallorca in the Civil War

The 1931 nationwide elections brought unprecedented results: the Republicans and Socialists together won an absolute majority in Palma, in line with the results in Madrid. The Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right) won the national elections in 1933 and all the left-wing mayors in Mallorca were sacked by early 1934. They were back again in a euphoric mood after the dramatic elections of 1936 gave a countervailing landslide victory to the left.

For many generals this was the last straw. Their ringleader, General Francisco Franco, launched an uprising against the central Republican government in July 1936. In Mallorca the insurrection found little resistance. On 19 July rebel soldiers and right-wing Falange militants burst into Cort (the town hall) and arrested the left-wing mayor, Emili Darder (he and other politicians would be executed in February 1937). They quickly occupied strategic points across Palma with barely a shot fired. More resistance came from towns in the Part Forana, but that was soon bloodily squashed.

By mid-August battalions of Italian troops and war planes sent by Franco’s fascist ally, Benito Mussolini, were pouring into Mallorca. The island became the main base for Italian air operations and it was from here that raids were carried out against Barcelona, with increasing intensity as the Civil War wore on.

On 9 August, 1936, a Catalan-Valencian force (apparently without approval from central command) retook Ibiza from Franco and then, on the 16th, landed at Porto Cristo. So taken aback were they by the lack of resistance that they failed to press home the advantage of surprise. A Nationalist counter-attack begun on 3 September, backed by Italian planes, pushed the hapless (and ill-equipped) invaders back into the sea. Soon thereafter, the Republicans also abandoned Ibiza and Formentera. Of the Balearic Islands, only Menorca remained loyal to the Republic throughout the war.

With Franco’s victory in 1939, life in Mallorca mirrored that of the mainland: use of Catalan in public announcements, signs, education and so on, was banned. In 1940, rationing was introduced and stayed in place until 1952. Of the nine mayors the city had from 1936 to 1976, four were military men and the others staunchly conservative.

Boom Times

In 1950 the first charter flight landed on a small airstrip on Mallorca: no one could have predicted the implications. By 1955 central Palma had a dozen hotels, while others stretched along the waterfront towards Cala Major.

The 1960s and 1970s brought an extraordinary urban revolution, as mass tourism took off vertiginously. The rampant high-rise expansion around both sides of the Badia de Palma – and later along countless other beaches around Mallorca's coast – was the result of a deliberate policy by Franco’s central government to encourage tourism in Spain's coastal areas. Many of the hotels built during this period have since been closed, or recycled as apartment or office blocks.

The islanders now enjoyed – by some estimates – the highest standard of living in Spain, but 80% of their economy was (and still is) based on tourism. For decades this led to thoughtless construction and frequent anxiety attacks whenever a season didn’t meet expectations. The term balearización was coined to illustrate this short-term mentality and the avid overdevelopment of one of the island's most precious resources – its beautiful coastline.

A Change of Image

In recent years Mallorca's tourism weathervane has been slowly tilting, with an increasing focus on sustainability, eco-awareness and year-round activities.The island is waking up to the fact that thoughtless construction and anonymous package-holiday hotels are the past, not the future. While areas of Mallorca still offer the boozy resorts and cheap-as-chips English breakfasts that, for some, define the island, the true light of Mallorcan culture, cuisine, history and hospitality is increasingly emerging.

Agritourism has proven to be more than just a passing fad, and more and more fincas (working farms) are opening their doors to visitors, offering faultless accommodation in peaceful rural locations and meals that feature Mallorca's fantastic produce. Meanwhile, the urban counterparts to those handsome fincas, the venerable aristocratic manor houses of the towns and cities, are being sensitively restored as boutique hotels. If Mallorcan tourism has anything of an image problem, fixing it is simply a matter of accentuating these positives – the heritage, style and native pleasures the island has always boasted.

Though many resorts still go into winter hibernation, hotels in busier towns and villages are now staying open during the low season, mostly to cater for a growing number of travellers who come for the island's outdoor activities. Many of Europe's pro cycling teams rely on Mallorca for their winter training and increasing numbers of people are waking up to the richness and variety of outdoor pursuits the island offers. Adventure sports companies offering everything from guided hikes and mountain biking to canyoning, caving and coasteering are rising in number. Their message? Look beyond the beach – Mallorca has year-round substance, variety and appeal.

For an island that is banging the drum about its sustainable tourism, unique landscapes and outdoor activities, the Serra de Tramuntana's inscription on the Unesco World Heritage list of cultural landscapes in 2011 was the icing on the cake. The wild mountains rising in Mallorca's northwestern hinterland are now getting the measure of attention their beauty warrants.