Sekia, Segia, Egeas, Siya, Exea and, finally, Ejea, Ejea de los Caballeros: these are some of the names given by men throughout the course of history. These names hold experiences, suffering, joy and challenges. These names made Ejea what it is today.
Our journey begins many years before the birth of Christ. Exactly ten thousand years ago. Is in that moment in history where archaeologists have found in this land traces of periods as far back as the Bronze Age, the Chalcolithic or even the Neolithic.
But it won’t be until later when the presence of men becomes effective in the flat lands of Ejea de los Caballeros. Between the years 800 and 184 before Christ, this territory was witness to the passage of different tribes and peoples. Vascones, cerretani, iacetani, largenti, sedetani and suessetani came and lived in this territory or its vicinity. Out of all of them, it was the suessetani who settled down in the territory known today by all as the municipality of Ejea. Since 600 b.C., the suessetani founded Sekia, the first name this population centre was known by. The suessetani, Indo-european in origin and counted among the Iberian people, even issued their own currency.
The suessetani most surely succumbed to the Roman invasion in the year 184 before Christ. The Romans gave it a new name -Segia- and started an intense colonizing effort on its area of influence. The road Zaragoza-Pamplona became the backbone of the communication lines that crossed these lands. The Romans took advantage of the inherent good conditions in Ejea for cereal crops and spread out a network of secondary roads to give acces to the villages and population settlements.
The pressence of the Romans in todays Ejea de los Caballeros is proven by the abundance of archaeological remains: gravestones, ceramics, road sections, milestones like the one in Sora, dated in the year 9 before Christ, the baths in Bañera, the everyday utensils found in La Corona and the hydraulic constructions, like the irrigation dam in Arasias.
The courage of the sons of Ejea was reflected during an event of which Roman historians gave good testimony. Sosinadem, Sosimilus, Urgidar, Gurtarno, Elandus, Agirnes, Nalbeaden, Arranes and Umargibas. These nine warriors from Segia are the first ejeans we know the names of. They were part of the “Zaragoza squadron”, recruited by the Roman Empire in foreign lands to fight in the Allied War, in the year 88 b.C.. These first ejeans showed great courage during the siege of the city of Ascoli. Thus, in the year 89 b.C., Rome honoured them with the Roman citizenship, being this the first time Roman citizenship was awarded to foreign warriors.
The fall of the Roman Empire was a period of decline for Ejea. Since the year 545 after Christ, this territory began a demographic desertification process and the socio-economic life decreased. Ejea fell under the rule of a Hispano-Roman landowner, Count Cassius. His power extended from Ejean lands to nearby Tudela, in what is nowadays Navarra. This was a huge territory, where the exploitation of cereal and livestock farming were the main economical activities. These Hispano-Roman Visigoths gave this land a new name, Egessa, which can be read in some coins found on its grounds.
Muslims arrived at the ejean border in the year 714, three years after they landed in the Iberian Peninsula. They found a weak, disjointed country and did not face too much opposition from the population. In regards to Ejea, the Muslims ran into an area dominated by Count Cassius. They reached an agreement with the count applying a non-violent conversion policy: he converted to Islam, keeping all of his possesions but paying respect to the new established power. This way, the muladi dinasty of Banu Qasi was born.
Ejea was the most important population centre in this area. Muslims changed the name again: Siya. The Muslim Siya occupied part of what is now known as La Corona, the tallest and best defensible place. There they established the Zuda (or defensive fortress), the mosque and the village, with a Mozarab neighborhood where the little Christian population that remained in Ejea could live. Their economic activity was based on agriculture. Muslims made the most of the irrigation possibilities. They expanded the dam-canal irrigation system in the parallel areas to the Arba rivers, a system that still persists in the region of Huerta Vieja.
In this age, the importance of Ejea rested more on its strategic aspect, rather than the socio-economic or demographic one. Ejea was the northernmost Muslim settlement with respect to the Christian centres of resistance, the future kingdom and counties of Aragon. Christians showed early interest in it. Already in the years 907 and 908 the king of Pamplona, Sancho Garcés I, wanted to take it from the Muslims. In the year 1091, Sancho Ramírez tried again with no success. However, in the year 1105, the followers of Islam couldn’t hold the force of Alfonso I, the Battler. That year it was conquered by Christians definitively: from the Muslim “Siya”, it became the Christian “Exea”.
Five years after he conquered it, Alfonso I the Battler granted it the municipal charter (Carta Puebla). It was the year 1110. The municipal charter is a legal document by which the territorial limits were determined and a set of legal regulations were established for the new settlers. It is important to say that there were no more Muslims left in Ejea and the King of Aragon was trying to attract new people. One of the elements that ensured the arrival of new settlers, the future ejeans, was the fact that it was declared an ownerless village which answered directly to the King of Aragon. Two main objectives were achieved by this: the new settlers, who were now considered free men, were given a physical security and, also, the king, through his officials, had the absolute control over a village that was strategically very important, because it was the border between Muslims and Christians first and between the Aragonese and the Navarres later.
The people from Ejea, thanks to the Carta Puebla and the following confirmation of royal prerogatives, enjoyed important privileges: privileges over neighbor population centres to exploit the use of water, to utilise the hills, to exploit new croplands, to regulate the grazing of cattle and to be exempt from paying some royal taxes.
Apart from the Christian settlers, Exea nourished from the arrival of Jews, a very important group in the history of the Crown of Aragon. The Jews enjoyed more than a few privileges of their own, directly managed by the King of Aragon. There are plenty of news about Jews from Ejea. For instance, in the year 1208, Peter II of Aragon gave them the castle of Ortes and the adjacent areas for them to inhabit them.
The space that the new settlers, Jewish and Christian, occupied on the new territory was the former Muslim Siya, located in the current neighborhood of La Corona. It is then, during the medieval period, when the development of the urban planning occurs. In the vertex of La Corona, a walled enclosure that recovered the Muslim zuda (fortress) was secured. The Abbey was built inside this enclosure. It was the headquarters of the French monks of Selva Mayor, who were in charge of christianization and the collection of tithing. Next to the abbey was the church of San Juan, the first Christian building after the Reconquista. Around this defensive-religious enclosure, the Muslim houses started to be reoccupied and the construction of new ones began.
The construction of the church of Santa María, consecrated in the year 1174, is the frontier element of the first Christian demographic and urban expansion. This coincided with the construction of the first wall, that went along the southern outline of La Corona, from Cantamora street to the Queen’s Tower (Torre de la Reina), passing by the Carasoles and Tajada street. Inside this first ring, next to the houses of the people from Ejea, we would find the Jewish neighborhood, the Study of Grammar and Dialectic (Estudio de gramática y dialéctica), James II’s royal palace and the cemetery, first in the surroundings of San Juan’s church and later in those of Santa Maria’s church.
The population growth during the first half of the XIII century urged the settlers to build houses outside the first wall and to spread out of the village southward, towards the flat lands. The construction of the church of San Salvador, consecrated in 1222, to the East and the hermitage of La Virgen de la Oliva, to the West, are the two vertexes in this time in the expansion.
A second wall was then drawn following the current line that indicates the Passage of the Wall (el Paseo del Muro). The gate of Zaragoza, next to the church of San Salvador, the access gate to the Plaza (current Spain Square –Plaza de España) and the gate of Huesca, at the beginning of the Huesca neighborhood (Ramón y Cajal street, today) were the entry points to this urban layout.
Outside of the medieval town centre there were several chapels or hermitages. The hermitage of San Matias led to the creation of the Franciscan monastery. The rest were vegetable gardens next to the Arba rivers, cereal crops in the dry lands and hills for the ovine cattle and forestry exploitation.
During the medieval period, Ejea was home of several important events. For instance, in 1265, James I the Conqueror assembled a court (Cortes) to create a new executive figure similar to the ombudsman, the Justicia Mayor de Aragon, who had to resolve issues between the monarchy and the nobility. Nowadays, the figure of the Justicia Mayor is included in the Statute of Autonomy of Aragon as the defender of the rights of every Aragonese.
The kings of Aragon, since Alfonso I, gave and confirmed charters and privileges to Ejea: rights over the use of the water from the rivers, fiscal exemptions, rights to work the land, privilege of infanzonía (the lowest rank of the nobility)… There is documented proof of all of them in the Archive of the Crown of Aragon and in the Municipal Historic Archive.
The Late Middle Ages include two key moments for Ejea and its people: they supported those in favor of the Privilege of Union (unionistas) in their dispute with Peter IV of Aragon (1348) and the definitive inclusion to the Crown of Aragon, in addition to the right of infanzonía, granted by Alfonso V (1428).
Between the XV and XVIII centuries, Ejea de los Caballeros lived in a time of socio-economic splendor, artistic growth and political strengthening as one of the most important population centres in Aragon. Being an ownerless village, declaring all ejeans as free men and having established privileges and an enormous extension of communal hill gave Ejea very useful tools to experience a complete development.
The numerous buildings built on its soil during this period are a lively reminder of this splendor. Buildings that, above all, had a religious origin or were linked to the Catholic Church. This shows the amount of power that the Catholic Church achieved in Ejea. Some examples are the Market Hospital (Hospital del Mercado, XV century), the Clarissan Convent (Convento de las Clarisas, 1630) and the Convent of the Capuchins (Convento de los Capuchinos, XVII century), located near the hermitage of La Virgen de la Oliva. Also, many works of art – paintings, sculptures, goldsmithing- were created during this time thanks to the funds gathered by the church and the rich men of Ejea. The work of the Study of Grammar and Dialectic is also remarkable, specially since 1546.
Throughout the XVI and XVII centuries, Ejea de los Caballeros consolidated its power. It was one of the most important villages in Aragon, which was confirmed by the fact that, in 1527, the king Charles I of Spain paid a visit to Ejea, reinforcing all its privileges and the right of infanzonía.
One of the hardest blows that History threw to Ejea was the War of the Spanish Succession. Between the two candidates to sit on the throne, left by Charles II, the Bewitched – the archduke Charles of Austria and Philip of Anjou, of the House of Bourbon-, Ejea chose the Archduke. The War of Succession solved this argument, which reached beyond Spanish borders, and had Philip of Anjou, the future Philip V, as the winner. Thus the House of Bourbon took hold of the Spanish Crown.
Philip V besieged Ejea in 1706. The town was destroyed, ransacked and burnt down and death was spread to inconceivable ends. It was a hard time for the people of Ejea, followed by the punishment of losing its capital status, after the rearrangement of the Cinco Villas, in favor of Sos del Rey Católico, which had been wise enough to be on the winner’s side. Later on, they would suffer other hard times, such as de French occupation during the War of Independence.
The people of Ejea de los Caballeros had to constantly face the regulation of water, a very precious and scarce asset in these lands. This obsession started in the XVIII century. In 1768, an infantry captain named Juan Mariano Monroy presented to Charles III a project, perhaps economically unfeasible at the time, but very telling of what would happen many years later, during the XX century. Said project planned to construct an irrigation canal which, starting at the river Aragon and after irrigating the plain of Cinco Villas, discharged in the Tauste dam, irrigating a total of 15263 hectares.
After the defeat of the French in the War of Independence, the situation in Ejea was back to normal. The Restoration, during the regency of Maria Christina, relocated Ejea internally. Besides, the judicial district of Ejea de los Caballeros was established in 1834. It ruled over the central-sout region of Cinco Villas.
It would be by the end of the XIX century when Ejea’s economy would start to notice the first signs of transformation through a slow but constant process of working the land for cereal exploitation and the introduction of new agricultural techniques and innovations.
This process was reinforced during the first third of the XX century, encouraged by the expropiation of owned pastures and the implementation of the communal hills. On top of that, during the beginning of the XX century, the curiosity of ejeans brought important technological innovations in this field: the mouldboard plough (braván), the use of mineral fertilizers to compliment the biological ones and the combine harvesters fueled by gasoline. An emerging agricultural machinery industry was developed, and it signified the birth of a sector by which Ejea is now known all around Spain.
The arrival of the train, in 1912, with the Sádaba-Gallur line, connected the region. However, more would have been achieved if the private interests would not have stopped a better design to better help Cinco Villas as a whole: the Sádaba-Zuera line. Nevertheless, the train station and the railway stimulated Ejea and its economy.
The economic, historical event that truly changed de face of Ejea de los Caballeros was the construction of the Yesa Reservoir and the Bardenas Canal. Both were a direct result of the Aragon Plan: the canal project is dated in 1924 and the reservoir project is dated in 1926. Both opened in 1959. A reservoir of 470 hm3 of capacity, a 150 km-long canal, 97300 irrigated hectares and the creation of colonization villages (six in Ejea) changed the demographic structure (population growth starting in the 60s), the economic structure (the economy rocketed thanks to the irrigating agriculture), the urban structure (growth by the district expansion -Ensanche-) and the social structure (new behavior and attitude) completely.
Today, due to the current situation we live in, the Reservoir of Yesa and the Bardenas Canal are once again being considered as possible elements that will ensure the future of Ejea, its people and the people of Cinco Villas. Once again is water the key element to ensure the development of Ejea de los Caballeros with reliable growth channels.
That is why, for the people of Ejea, water means life.