Elche has a historical tradition which was recognized by UNESCO as A masterpiece of Intangible World Heritage: the Misteri d’Elx, or El Misterio de Elche.
On the Spanish Mediterranean coast, in the southern part of the autonomous community of Valencia (in the province of Alicante), sits the municipality of Elche (Elx in the Valencian language). It is an industrial area with a population of 230,000.
The city of Elche was originally founded by the Iberians between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE atop a hill near the Vinalopó River. This original settlement, called Ilici, was renamed by the Romans around 26 BCE to Colonia Iulia Illici Augusta. Later, the Moors moved the settlement from the Alcudia, or hilltop, to the adjacent flatland, maintaining and arabizing the Latin name Illici to its current name of Elche.
The name Elche is associated by all Spaniards with one of the most perfect examples of Iberian religious art: la Dama de Elche, a wonderfully preserved image, carved in limestone, of a priestess. The image can be observed in the National Archeological Museum of Madrid.
The name Elche conjures images of its Huerto del cura, a palm grove accredited by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Elche is also associated with the name of the area that it heads: Vinalopó, the only Spanish grape that bears the prestigious Denominación de Origin label that is reserved for Spain’s finest products.
Elche also has a historical tradition which in 2001 was recognized by UNESCO as “A masterpiece of Intangible World Heritage”: the Misteri d’Elx, or in Spanish, El Misterio de Elche.
This medieval theatrical performance has been consistently performed every August 14th and 15th since the 15th century in the Basílica de Santa María and in the streets of the city. The Misterio is a sacred-lyrical drama about the death, bodily assumption into heaven, and coronation of Mary. The drama is almost entirely in old Valenciano, with a few paragraphs in Latin. The music that accompanies the performance is an eclectic mix of medieval, renaissance and baroque melodies.
The Misterio’s medieval origins are reflected by the fact that all roles, male and female, are performed by men. In medieval times, women were prohibited from the world of the stage. The importance of the tradition can be seen in the fact that, although the Concilio de Trento specifically banned theatrical performances in temples, Pope Urban VIII granted the town of Elche a papal bull in 1632 that permitted the event to continue to be performed within the walls of the Basílica de Santa María.
Over 300 people participate each year in the Misterio as actors, singers, stage directors, stagehands, costume makers, and managers; it is a group effort that attests to the strong sense of community shared in Elche. The event begins with a representation of the death of Mary and then a night procession which hundreds of people participate in. Another procession takes place the next morning, followed by an evening procession through the streets of Elche which culminates once inside the Basílica with a re-enactment of the funeral, assumption, and coronation of Mary. The machinery used in the Basílica to show Mary ascending into the heavens, known as the Deus ex machine, is the original machine from the 15th century, which has been maintained and restored with great care by artisans from Elche.