The historic old centre of Valencia is enticing enough in its own right, with beautiful monuments and classical architecture, but as you stroll round the cathedral and into the Plaza de la Virgen you may walk in on something that is quite unique. The ‘Tribunal de las Aguas’ – or Water Court – has been meeting here every Thursday at noon for over a thousand years now, making it the oldest democratic court of its kind in Europe.
This unique gathering, which skips proceedings only during designated festivities and holy days, goes back to Moorish times, when competition for water in the irrigated fields south of the city often led to conflict. To resolve matters, a most unusually democratic solution was found – especially by 11th century standards. Instead of letting conflict escalate, the farmers agreed to elect representatives who would sit in meetings and pass judgment on arising cases.
In this form, the Water Court became an institution that worked so well and was so well entrenched, that by the time the Christians retook the city in the 13th century King Jaume I chose to leave it in place. The old mosque (built on the site of an old church and later alternatively used as church and mosque, depending who had control of the city at the time) was now permanently re-consecrated as a church, becoming the main cathedral of the city – yet it remains the spot where members of the Water Court meet every Thursday.
Held in the open air and in public view within a small metal enclosure outside the ‘Puerta de Apostoles’ (Gate of the Apostles), this is an institution that is rightly proud of its democratic tradition and common-sense approach. Operating in a swift and no-nonsense, manner, issues are dealt with when they arise, with no minutes taken, records kept or written documents issued, but – and here comes the truly unique thing – the court’s findings are legal and binding within Spanish legal jurisdiction.
It is an ancient privilege maintained by special accommodation within the constitution, and all the more astounding when you consider that those who sit on the council do not belong to the legal profession at all. So if you come to Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen on Thursdays, the spectacle you will witness will not be a folkloristic re-enactment but the real thing – a unique and ancient custom that has confounded time and lives on to this day.