A Spanish court solves irrigation disputes the (very) old-fashioned way
Spain: It’s Thursday morning, just before noon, and the crowd in the center of Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen is already quite large. Near the 13th-century Apostles Gate, onlookers huddle around a circular fenced-in area containing eight leather chairs. When the clock strikes 12, a nearby door opens. Eight men in short black robes, led by a bailiff with a brass pike, make their way to the chairs and sit.
“Claimants from the Quart Aqueduct,” calls out the bailiff in Valencian, the local language. He surveys the crowd for a moment, then repeats the cry. “Claimants from the Quart Aqueduct!” When no one steps forward, he calls claimants on the next case.
The Tribunal de les Aigües de la Vega de Valéncia—Valencia’s Water Tribunal—is said to be the world’s oldest active court of law. Having started under Muslim rule in the 10th century, the tribunal has survived the Christian Reconquista, the Spanish Civil War, and, most recently, the internet. It meets here weekly to settle disputes involving irrigation, water distribution, and canal maintenance.
Along with being a prized cultural asset—the tribunal is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list—this remains an important judicial body, able to quickly and definitively settle conflicts that might otherwise get ugly. “Although simple and based on old customs, it works well,” says court officer María José Olmos Rodrigo. “So why change it?”
Which isn’t to say that the docket is always full. Today, with no claimants in sight, the adjudicators leave in under two minutes—which is just as well, as rain’s starting to fall on the plaza.