Miguel Lopez de Legazpi founded the city of Manila in 1571, 50 years after the Spanish discovery of the Philippines. Manila, being better positioned than Cebu for trade with China, was made the original capital of the Philippines.
Here the colonizers built Intramuros, an impregnable European style thick stone-walled city which was the seat of Spanish rule located south of the Pasig River. Although Intramuros was laid out as a pentagon, its uneven sides more approximate a triangle. The twenty-foot-high walls stretched for nearly 4.5 km (3 miles). In some places, they reached twenty-five feet in height and had a thickness of up to forty feet at the bottom. Inside, following Legaspi’s blueprint for the capital, succeeding Spanish governors built churches, chapels, convents, palaces for the governor-general and the archbishop, schools, university (in as early as 1611), printing press, hospitals and soldiers’ barracks, and grand houses for the assorted elite all surrounded by baluartes (battlements) and puertas (gates).
Now a ruin, Intramuros was once a well-planned city, with cobbled lanes, streets and plazas, and tiled roofed houses. Outside the city’s high walls flowed a moat, in the old European style of protection. Only Spaniards and Spanish mestizos (mixed race) were permitted to live within the confines of the walls. Drawbridges went up each night. Natives were moved elsewhere, while the Chinese, necessary for financial matters, trade, and menial jobs “not good enough for a Spaniard,” were moved outside the walls, but within canon range.
Though Intramuros is a far cry from the bustling Spanish city it once was, it has come a long way from the ravages of wartime. During WWII, effectively utilizing the Intramuros District together with the city’s strongly reinforced concrete buildings of prewar construction, the Japanese brought in heavy-caliber guns from damaged and sunken ships in the harbor. But during the Philippine liberation, the US employed every available artillery piece against the enemy inside the Intramuros walls from Feb. 17 to Feb. 23. The shelling finally breached the thick walls in several places in the northeast corner of the walled city.
Once a jumble of broken buildings, portions of the old city have been restored, including the Ayuntamiento (Municipal Hall), once the grandest structure here.
Fort Santiago, within the walled city, was built on the original site of Rajah Sulayman’s settlement and was used to control traffic along the Pasig River. The fort served as headquarters to several occupying armies. The Spaniards used it as headquarters of the Spanish ministry, which was ousted by British troops in 1762 and later housed Filipino Tayabas soldiers in 1843. Yet, Intramuros withstood attacks by the Dutch and the Portuguese, as well as Sulu pirates.
Fort Santiago is kept in spotless condition today and is open to visitors. At one end is a museum housing the relics and personal effects of Jose Rizal, national hero of the Philippines. On another end is Jose Rizal’s cell where he was incarcerated for two months on charges of rebellion and sedition prior to his execution by the Spaniards in 1896 and where he wrote his last legacy of poetry , “Mi Ultimo Adios” to the Filipino people. It was smuggled out in the base of an oil lamp.
United States troops ran the fort after 1898, and it was an operational base for General Douglas MacArthur from 1936 to 1941. MacArthur resided in a penthouse atop the Manila Hotel, off the southwest corner of Intramuros from 1935 to 1941.
With its interrogation chambers, rat-infested holdalls and infamous dungeons that were below the high tide level, this was a place of terror and death throughout the centuries. It was the dreaded prison used by the Spaniards and later by the Japanese. Many atrocities have been committed here. Prisoners were left to drown as the tide rose and filled the lower dungeons. When the Japanese left, 600 bodies were found in the powder magazine chamber.
Rumors had persisted that the Japanese General Yamashita may have hidden his legendary – or as some say, mythical – gold here. In 1988, with President Aquino’s permission, American treasure hunters painstakingly searched and partially excavated Fort Santiago looking for clues, but nothing was uncovered.
A few blocks from Fort Santiago, is the Manila Cathedral, an imposing Romanesque structure constructed of adobe. A plaque on its façade reveals a relentless history, beginning in 1571, of reconstruction after the repeated ravages of fire, typhoon, earthquake and war. Statues by Italian artists, of the saints to whom Manileños owe special devotion, grace the façade. Among them are St. Andrew the Apostle, on whose feast day in 1574 the Spanish repulsed Chinese invaders, and Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Greater), patron saint of Spain and the Philippines. The Dutch organ in the Cathedral, with its 4500 pipes, is one of the largest in Asia.
San Agustin Church, the church within the walled city of Intramuros, is the oldest stone church in the Philippines. First built of nipa palm and bamboo, in 1571, it was destroyed by the Chinese pirate Limahong during a raid in 1574. A second building, of wood, replaced it in 1583. Later in 1599, the present building was begun. This has adobe walls, with beautifully carved ceilings and columns, and imported European chandeliers. It was completed in 1601. The pulpit, a work of art, and the wooden seats in the choir loft are intricately hand-carved. In the vestry, with its long hall and high roof, the Spaniards officially handed over the Philippines to America. This building seems to be the only earthquake-proof structure in the islands. In the passageways at the side of the church hang old paintings, some still bearing the marks of bullets.
Inside the church stands the tomb of the founder of Manila, Legaspi. The remains of the other Spanish conquistadors, Martin de Goti and Juan de Salcedo were also interred here. The church was bombed, machine-gunned and shelled during WWII, but withstood the damage, though the convent beside the church was destroyed.
The Philippines by John Cockcroft
Inside Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel
The Philippines Guide – Jill & Rebecca Gale de Villa
Traveler’s Philippine Companion by Kristen Ellis