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Intramuros – Discover the walled legacy of Manila

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    Intramuros, located along the southern bank of the Pasig River, was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century and is the oldest district of the city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Its name, in Latin, intramuros, literally “within the walls”, meaning within the wall enclosure of the city/fortress, also describes its structure as it is surrounded by thick, high walls and moats. During the Spanish colonial period, Intramuros was considered Manila itself.


    Plano dela Plaza de Manila

    A sketch plan of Intramuros (original caption: Plano dela Plaza de Manila), 1898.

    Pre-hispanic settlement

    The site of Intramuros was originally a large Indianized-Malayan-Islamic settlement named “Maynila”, ruled by Datus, Rajahs and a Sultan. The name came from “may nila”, “nila” being a water plant (Scyphiphora hydrophyllacea) whose star-shaped flowers clustered in abundance along the riverbanks. “May-nila,” transliterates as “There is nila (here)”. Maynila is also sometimes called Maynilad because nila is popularly referred to as nilad by people unfamiliar with the plant, a correction asserted by historians Ambeth Ocampo and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.

    The strategic location of Maynila, being on the Pasig River and the Manila Bay, made it an ideal location for indigenous Tagalog and kapampangan tribes to trade with other Asian civilizations, including Chinese, Indian and Islamic merchants who had come from China, India, Borneo and Indonesia. Maynila was also the seat of power for native chiefs who ruled the area before Europeans first arrived in Luzon.

    Spanish Colonial Period

    In 1564, Spanish explorers led by Miguel López de Legazpi sailed from Mexico, and arrived on the island of Cebu in February 13, 1565. There they established the first Spanish colony in the Islands. Having heard of the rich resources of Manila by natives, López de Legazpi dispatched two of his Lieutenant-commanders, Martín de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo to explore the northern regions of the Visayas.

    In 1570, the Spaniards arrived in the island of Luzon. After quarrels and misunderstanding had erupted between the Islamic natives and the Spaniards, both groups fought for the control of lands and settlements. In 1571, after several months of warfare, the natives were defeated, and the Spaniards made a peace pact with the Muslim tribal councils, Rajah Sulaiman III, Rajah Lakandula, and Rajah Matanda; who, in return, handed over Manila to the Spaniards.

    Citing the rich resources and location of Manila, López de Legazpi declared the area as the new capital of the Spanish colony in the Philippines on June 24, 1571. The King of Spain, delighted at the new conquest achieved by López de Legazpi and his men, awarded the city a coat of arms and declaring it Ciudad Insigne y Siempre Leal (“Distinguished and ever loyal city”).

    The planning of the city of Manila was commenced by López de Legazpi who had become the first Governor general on the islands. He established forts, roads, churches and schools. The plans for Intramuros were based on King Philip II of Spain’s Royal Ordinance issued on July 3, 1573 in San Lorenzo, Spain. Its design was based upon a star fort or trace italienne (a very flat structure composed of many triangular bastions, specifically designed to cover each other, and a ditch) and covered 64 hectares of land, surrounded by 8 feet thick stones and high walls that rise 22 feet. It was built to protect the seat of the Spanish government from hostile native revolts, and raiding Chinese sea pirates.

    Intramuros was completed in 1606 and it served as the center of political, military and religious power of the Spaniards during the time that the Philippines was a colony of Spain. Inside Intramuros; there are several Roman Catholic churches, like the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church, convents and church-run schools, such as the Universidad de Santo Tomás, the Colegio de San Juan de Letrán and the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, which were usually being run by religious orders such as the Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans and Jesuits. The Governor’s Palace, the official residence of the Spanish Viceroyalties to the Philippines was originally in Intramuros before it was officially moved to Malacañang Palace and Fort Santiago. Only Spaniards and mestizos were allowed to take part on political issues and take residence inside the walled city. Christian natives and Chinese were allowed to enter, but Spanish officials prevented them from living inside. The vast majority of the natives and Chinese residents lived outside the walled city.

    World War II

    At the end of World War II, much of Intramuros was damaged by the returning joint American and Filipino military forces.

    In 1942, when the Japanese forces invaded the Philippines; U.S. forces led by General Douglas McArthur realized that Manila was indefensible so he declared it an Open City. He regrouped the USAFFE forces in the Bataan peninsula, only to be trapped there by the advancing Japanese army.

    Upon their return in February 23, 1945, United States forces, including Philippine Commonwealth troops, shelled Manila, including Intramuros, to flush out the remaining 400 or so Japanese soldiers, in the process of the shelling 100,000 citizens of Manila died. Intramuros was in ruins following the fighting, and the only structure that survived was the San Agustin Church; almost no other buildings remained standing.

    Intramuros Today

    Intramuros Map

    In the 1980s, under the direction of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, the Intramuros Administration restored the city and at present the walled city is the only district of Manila where old Spanish-era influences were retained. Much of the development of present-day Manila occurred outside the gates of Intramuros, leaving the surviving walls, streets and churches of Intramuros minimally touched by modernization, although outlets of Jollibee, McDonald’s and Starbucks now sit alongside distinguished educational institutions within its walls. The old moats that surrounded Intramuros have been filled up and transformed into a golf course where locals and foreign nationals play the sport. The garrison that was Fort Santiago is now a tourist spot where visitors can enjoy the nostalgic romance of a bygone Spanish legacy within its gardens. In 2003, during Visit Philippines Year, Tourism Secretary Richard J. Gordon cleaned up Intramuros with the help of student and civilian volunteers as well as raised funds to light up the place and build a lights and sound museum.

    Intramuros now houses some of the higher education institutions in the Philippines. These are the city-owned Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, the technical school Mapúa Institute of Technology, Lyceum of the Philippines University, Colegio de San Juan de Letran and high schools such as the Manila High School,and Colegio de Santa Rosa.

    Following the design of medieval fortifications, along the massive walls of Intramuros are strategically located bulwarks: baluarte, ravelins: ravellin, redoubts: reducto. Entrance to the city are through gates: puerta, most of which have been restored or rebuilt. Most of these features have names such as Baluarte de San Diego, Baluarte de San Francisco de Dilao, Baluarte de San Gabriel, Baluarte de Sta. Barbara, Baluarte de San Andres; Puerta Real, Puerta Isabel II, Puerta del Parian, Puerta Almacenes, Postigo del Palacio, Puerta Sta. Lucia.

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