Compelling sights of Historic Manila.
With a population of over 12 million and comprising 16 mini-cities, metropolitan Manila can seem traffic-choked and disorientating.
Staying at the luxurious Makati Shangri-La in the central business district, I’m tempted to venture no further than the surrounding shopping malls.
But while grabbing designer bargains is part of Manila’s appeal, there is much more to the Philippine capital.
Get out and about and you’ll discover a colourful blur of brightly painted jeepneys (reconstructed jeeps that are a legacy of American rule) and welcoming Manilenos.
Scratch the surface and you’ll uncover a city with a compelling past and a pot-pourri of influences including Arab, Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American.
Keen to unravel the city’s history I journey to the Intramuros, the 16th century walled city located on the banks of the Pasig River behind Manila Bay. Following the foundation of Manila by conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571, this became the administrative centre of the Spanish colony named after King Philip II.
Within this 4.5 kilometre stretch of high walls were a fortress, hospitals, schools and churches. This was also where the Spanish stockpiled the riches they amassed from their exploits in Asia before transporting them to Acapulco in Mexico.You could easily spend an entire day wandering among the cobbled streets of the Intramuros.
I begin by visiting Fort Santiago, which is like a time-capsule telling the turbulent story of the Philippines over several hundred years.
Constructed from volcanic rock and held together with egg-white for mortar, the citadel was established on the site of a palisaded fort belonging to Rajah Sulaiman, a Muslim ruler of pre-Hispanic Manila.
Subject to attack from Chinese pirates, threatened by Dutch and Portuguese colonists and frequently damaged by earthquake, the fort remained a Spanish stronghold for three centuries.
When the Philippines finally rid themselves of the Spanish it was only to be colonised again, a new era marked by the raising of the American flag at the fort in 1898.
Then, during the bloody Pacific conflict in World War II, the Japanese occupied the fort. In 1945, during the Battle of Manila, it came under heavy fire from American and Filipino forces. Finally, after the Philippines gained independence from the US the following year, it became a symbolic Shrine of Freedom.
While Fort Santiago resonates with history it is imbued above all with the spirit of one man, Dr Jose Rizal.
Regarded as the founder of Filipino nationalism, Rizal was imprisoned here in 1896, prior to his execution for inciting rebellion against the Spanish.
Walking in the grounds, I see the cells in which he was held and an exhibition dedicated to a “national hero and martyr”.
Boldly displayed here is his valedictory poem The Last Farewell, handed to his sister inside an oil lamp shortly before he was put to death.
“I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and our convictions. What matters death if one dies for what one loves, for native land and cherished ones.”
Later, in nearby Rizal Park, I stroll among families paying homage to their hero at a monument near where he was executed. The bronze depiction of Rizal’s last moments was the focal point of the Philippines’ declaration of independence in 1946 and, in 1986, rallies against the corrupt Ferdinand Marcos regime.
Back inside the Intramuros, I take a short trip in a kalesa, a traditional horse-drawn carriage, to Casa Manila, the recreation of a colonial era house.
Discover the strict class structure under the Spanish.
After alighting, like visitors from the past, beside a fountain in the courtyard, I take a guided tour of the upper-middle class house. Inside, I learn of the strict social strata that existed under Spanish rule.
With barely-concealed bigotry the colonists organised society along these lines: an upper class consisting of Spaniards born in Spain, a second tier of Filipino-born Spaniards, a third class of educated nationals like Rizal and the bottom rank made up of the Chinese, who were also taxed double.
Emerging from the house I happen upon three weddings queued outside the San Agustin church. It’s little wonder that it is popular for tying the knot as it’s the Philippines’ oldest church and has survived several earthquakes.
In the afternoon I return to Makati but continue my historical quest by visiting the Ayala Museum. On its second floor, sixty colourful dioramas tell the story of the Philippines from prehistoric times to independence in 1946. The dramatic models bring to life crucial moments in the country’s history, including depicting the celebration of the first Mass in 1521.
The Philippines is now an 80% Catholic nation. On the fourth floor is a fascinating introduction to the sophisticated cultures that existed among this archipelago of 7000 islands before Spanish colonisation.
The exhibition displays more than 1000 gold ornaments from the 10th-13th centuries.
The array of sashes, necklaces and bracelets indicate an hierarchical society in which gold objects represented wealth and power.
It’s late afternoon by the time I leave the museum and by now it feels as if exploring Manila’s past has made the vast city feel manageable.
But there is still one more site I want to visit, the American cemetery.
The cemetery contains more than 17,000 graves of Americans killed during the 1941-45 Pacific War, many of whom lost their lives in the Philippines.
With its sea of crosses overlooked by Manila’s skyscrapers, it is a poignant place to end my tour.
By contributing writer, Daniel Scott.
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