Intramuros… The name itself conjures up these visions of sequestered splendour; of Spanish doñas in their black silk shawls slipping into their spectacular horse-driven calesas; of the plaintive strains of a distant guitar as a caballero picks out an old Andalucian melody; and of the silent, stoic shuffle of Franciscan monks in their brown cowls, as they gather for evensong.
Intramuros. Established by the Spanish in 1571 in the name of Philip II, King of Spain. Until the 19th century, this fortress city nestled by the Pasig River was Manila itself, housing the seat of Government, Religion and Culture. Manila was a major port for the Spanish Empire’s Galleon trade, which saw the biggest ships of their time travel across the Pacific to Acapulco, New Spain, bringing luxury goods like silk, porcelain and spices from China. Trade was exceedingly lucrative, and Manila – meaning Intramuros – prospered as a result, becoming one of the most beautiful cities in the Far East – a “Pearl of the Orient,” so travellers would describe it as late as the 19th century.
Historical accounts and archival photos reveal a surreal European landscape of baroque churches and elegant courtyard houses; of facades painted in Mediterranean shades of white, blue and ochre. The walled city housed the Spanish ruling classes in the 17th and 18th centuries, with locals segregated and housed beyond the walls. Within the walls of Intramuros, there is a stunningly authentic recreation of a private domicile at the turn of the century. Called the Casa Manila Museum, it is a moving picture of a fabulous period in history that is now irreparably lost.
Today, walking through the ruins of Intramuros, almost completely laid waste during World War II, and now a bewildering still-ruined landscape, it is hard to imagine how life could have been a mere 70 years ago. It is also painfully ironic to acknowledge that this fortress had endured for more than three centuries only to succumb most ignominiously to peoples (and technologies) it had never been built to defend against and a war it had been unnecessarily dragged into.
The entire Walled City – except, perhaps, its two remaining Cathedrals, the Manila Cathedral, and the Church of San Agustin – has lost much of its original function and intent. Fort Santiago, the fortified entrance to the city, now holds the Rizal Shrine, a facility dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Philippine National Hero’s struggle against the Spanish. Many of the genteel and elegant private townhouses with their elaborate and colourful facades now house squatter settlements, or are so completely derelict as to be uninhabitable. Scattered around the city are a dozen or so of such houses that have been restored to their former glory; and around these painstakingly detailed restorations, you can just about feel the pulse of the old city, just barely.
It is the street-names that most provide a sense of place and history in this jumble of ruins and people. Spelled out in black and white tiles against faded pastel walls, these names evoke a glorious past, even as they emphasise, most starkly, how the present state of affairs is so far removed from that past. They are an acute reminder that underneath the comparatively recent hustle and bustle, and the on-going reconstructions of many of the ruined buildings, there is a silent Spanish core that refuses to go away; an order to this chaos that is far more ancient and resilient than tourists and any of the latter-day residents walking these streets can possibly imagine.
This gallery presents some three dozen scenes of splendour and squalor, new and old, providing a stirring portrait of the Walled City as it looks today. As I had been advised not to walk the streets with a DSLR camera, all these shots were taken with an inconspicuous point-and-shoot camera that slipped easily into my pocket.
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