Monday, October 8, 2012

Sites in the Book: Intramuros, the Walled City

The Spanish capital of Manila was born in 1571, by decree of Miguel López de Legazpi. By the 1590s, the first walls of Intramuros (Latin for inner city) began to go up and work continued sporadically until the late 1800s. With walls up to 40 feet thick, on 160 acres on the shores of Manila Bay, the walled city reflected Spain's glory days of exploration and power. Other similar structures from that era can be found in St. Augustine, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico, but I think none matched the scale and sublime beauty of Intramuros. As stone-walled forts became impractical (and useless) when military artillery became more powerful, the city began its second life as the cultural cradle of Spain: palaces, government offices and elite homes were built. Schools, universities, and grand baroque churches, including the Manila Cathedral, stood there.

When the Americans took over in 1898, things changed quickly. Land reclamation projects on the bay land-locked the old city, and its surrounding mosquito filled moats were filled in the create a golf course, giving it a park-like appearance. (The picture on the top left gives you a bird's eye view of what it looked like in the 1930s.) As you can see, the Americans went on to create a new Manila– one that looked a bit like Washington, DC.

Enter World War Two and one of the most horrific events of the war. As the month-long Battle of Manila drew to a close, the Japanese holed up behind the walls of Intramuros and refused to surrender. They began slaughtering the native residents of Intramuros: civilian men, women, children, priests and nuns. At 7:30 AM on 23 February 1945, the American Army let loose with everything they had, bombarding Intramuros for exactly an hour, blasting 350 years of art, history and culture into rubble. (Including the Filipinos trapped inside.) Not much was left after it was over. Intramuros looked like a smashed sand castle.

It sat there for years, avoided, neglected and feared for its ghosts. Once again it was First Lady Imelda Marcos who spear-headed a restoration effort who got the blasted walls rebuilt. The work continues oh-so-slowly up to today.

I lived in Manila in the late 1980s, and one of my favorite things to do was walk around in the remains of Intramuros when I was in that part of town. These lonely walks, where I first became aware of what actually happened in World War Two, would later give me the inspiration to write The Yellow Bar.
The Manila Cathedral had been rebuilt, but that was about all. (With the exception of a tall. ugly 1960s newspaper tower, destroying the sense of scale and history.) In the 80s, it was only safe to go there in the daylight hours, because the ruin of Intramuros was where the homeless and destitute lived. Stray dogs, beggars, burning garbage and weeds owned the site. It was spooky. It still is.

The two color photos are from 2007. Even now, (though a bit cleaner) most of the old walled city is still in ruin and neglect. The main reasons for this is political infighting and budget constraints. However, more and more Filipinos are starting to realize what a neglected treasure it is. Hopefully, this movement will provide the political will to restore the grand dame Intramuros. Or at least give back some of its dignity.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.
B/W photos courtesy of John T. Pilot.

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