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Notes on the Geography of The Philippines: Manila: Intramuros

In 1571, six years after establishing Spanish sovereignty over Cebu, Governor Miguel Lopez de Legaspi moved to Manila, where his forces had just defeated the local ruler, Rajah Suliman. Legaspi took over the rajah's wooden fort on the left bank of the Pasig River and at its mouth, and he then ordered that the fort be rebuilt in stone. Gradually, the walled area expanded to enclose an area measuring roughly 600 by 600 yards, subdivided into a grid of about three dozen blocks.  The enclosed area--logically enough called Intramuros--survived under Spanish rule for 300 years.  It survived the American takeover in 1898, too, and was probably at the apex of its splendor for the international eucharistic congress of 1937.  Eight years later, while taking the city back from the Japanese, American forces obliterated Intramuros almost entirely. 

Since then, it has been haphazardly rebuilt. Some parts look very much like the old Spanish city; others have modern buildings whose owners seem oblivious to the history of the place; still other parts have been taken over by squatters who rebuild their shacks after the government periodically demolishes them.  

Nominally, the authorities recognize the historical importance of Intramuros: they have detached it from the city of Manila and made it the responsibility of a federal Intramuros Administration. Still, the district falls far short of what it was in 1940 and of what local authorities after the war hoped it might once more be. 

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The most intact elements of the old city are its walls, fringed by an 18-hole golf course run by the Club Intramuros. The pond is not mere landscaping: it's one of several ponds remaining from the Spanish moat, which was complete with watergates into the city and which lasted until a few years after the American arrival in 1898.  The golf course followed in 1907, sooner than you might have guessed.

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A ravelin, or detached fortification, lies in the midst of the course.  In the distance beyond it are the high rises of Ermita, a now-seedy commercial district south of Intramuros.  There are equally seedy neighborhoods--seedier, in fact--on the north side, across the Pasig River.  It's all part of the flight of wealthier Manilenos to the urban periphery.

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The Puerta da Santa Lucia dates from the early 1590s, when Governor Gomez Perez Dasmarinas was governor and captain-general of the Philippines.  Dasmarinas wrote to Madrid in 1592 about his efforts to secure Manila. 

An extract: "I must proceed carefully and cautiously; nevertheless, in the preparation and repairs of this city, the defense of the coasts and seas, in order to resist the enemies that might invade them. I would have displayed greater zeal and energy (both in these and in other provisions), had not the fathers, superiors of the orders, and other religious [persons], in all or nearly all of them, opposed me by raising scruples, both in private conversations and in their pulpits and sermons, contradicting my authority and raising up obstacles. For indeed, in the building of the wall and fort of this city, the scruples that they have urged against me are well known—namely, that this country had no need of the defenses; that the Indian, to whom the country belongs, does not request them; and that the whole thing results in labor and oppression for the Indians." Dasmarinas (the name also appears as Das Marinas) was killed by Chinese pirates the next year.  The gate lasted much longer--until World War II--and was rebuilt in 1982 at the order of Imelda Marcos. Rulers are often fond of heritage: in glorifying their country's past they glorify themselves.

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The Puerta Isabel II is named for the queen who sat on the Spanish throne in 1861, when this gate was built to relieve congestion at adjacent ones.  Old pictures show streetcars here.  They also show a drawbridge, an anachronism even in 1861.  A good collection of such photos has been published by the Intramuros Administration as Intramuros of Memory (1983).

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In front of the gate is a worn statue of Isabella.  She became queen in 1833 but was deposed in 1868.  She spent the next 36 years, until her death in 1904, in France.  Accordingly, her statue was put in storage in 1869, though in 1896 it was taken out and put on display about a mile to the south, in front of the Malate cathedral church.  The statue was brought here in 1975.

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The massive wall has plenty of room for shops.  Guess who!

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The guard at the door is a reminder that all is not well in the Philippines.

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Outside, a more typical and much, much cheaper place.

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Not much to look at, but this is what's left of the Intendencia, the office of the Intendent, a local administrator. (Odd that English keeps the word "superintendent" but not the lower rank.)  The building, wrecked in 1945, was not particularly old: it had been rebuilt after the earthquake of 1863 as a two-story structure, square, with a courtyard and a facade of budget classicism. In its later years it was a mint and also a customs office. 

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Slowly, slowly.

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A restored entrance.

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The center of Intramuros was the Plaza de Palacio, later the Plaza McKinley, now the Plaza de Roma.  We're looking south to the cathedral, which was rebuilt in 1958 but looks very much like the destroyed cathedral, except for the bell tower (the cathedral destroyed in 1945 had already lost the bell tower in an 1880 earthquake.)  Private homes, now gone, were on the opposing or north side of the square.  The old palace, also gone, was on the west, while the Ayuntamiento or government office building survives in ruins on the east.  

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In the center of the square, holding forth to nobody, is Don Carlos IV.  The imperial pose is just that, and no more. Charles came to the Spanish throne in 1788 but was imperial only in his self-esteem and was in other domains dominated by Maria Louisa, his wife.  Perhaps Goya's portraits of the royal family, whose members he reduced to grotesques, are truer than this statue.  In any case, Charles abdicated in 1808, left the Spanish throne to Napoleon's brother, and accepted a French pension.  In 1819, he died in Rome.  Five years later, this statue was put up.

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Almost nothing is left of the Ayuntamiento, which had been rebuilt after the earthquake of 1880 and which housed not only the city's administrative offices but those of the governors general, including the American ones.  For the first meeting of the Philippine Assembly, in 1907, the building was wrapped in American flags.  

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So much for cultural preservation.

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A few blocks away is this great survivor, the San Agustin Church, the oldest church in the Philippines.  It's the fourth building on the site, but the first and only one in stone.  Completed in 1604, it had twin bell towers, but the left one was pulled down after an earthquake of 1863 left a medial fissure running from top to bottom.  The church also survived the quake of 1880, as well as World War II.

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San Agustin is off to the left in this view of the historic main street of Intramuros, the Calle Real, now General Luna.  On the right is the Barrio San Luis, which looks like a miraculous survival of the colonial city but which in fact is a careful restoration, based on historic photographs and other documents.  We'll look more closely at the taller building in the middle distance.

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This is the Casa Manila, in the style that the Intramuros Administration fosters under the name "Spanish," though in reality it's indigenous, with an adobe ground floor and an upper story of wood. 

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A similar structure--now an antiques store.

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The Casa Manila is honest enough to admit its youth.

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The courtyard.

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The same courtyard from a different angle.  Five buildings have been built in the historic style--except that the tile roofs are not quite right.  After repeated quakes, the authorities in 1880 insisted on ugly but less lethal corrugated sheetmetal.

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View from the mercifully shady study.  The magnificent hardwood floor is, like the rest of the building, entirely new.

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More authentic: a shantytown seen from a Casa Manila window. Washington SyCip put it well: the Philippines had "a thin layer of rich and successful people floating in an ocean of absolute poverty." (See his obituary in the Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2017.)

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A reminder.

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