Secret City

Mon, 04/09/2007 - 00:00
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Ciudad Murada

All that's left of Manila's Spanish heart is a hollow shell.

Once, years ago, Intramuros' thick stone walls enclosed a crowded city of cobblestone streets, old colonial houses, churches, monuments and plazas. In the span of a few weeks in 1945 it all vanished.

Demented and sadistic Japanese soldiers, bent on a last stand, started an orgy of murder, rape and arson. American soldiers “liberating” the capital lavishly used artillery to systematically pulverize enemies, civilians and buildings alike.

When the smoke from the cataclysm cleared, the only parts of Intramuros still intact were stretches of its walls and one church, San Agustin. Nothing else was left of the centuries-old Ciudad Murada.

The 64-hectare shattered city lay dead until the 1970s, when a restoration program started. Since then, most of the four-kilometer wall, with its outworks, parapets and bastions, has been rebuilt. A riverside area, the Maestranza, has been cleared of squatters. It's even possible, along a stretch of General Luna street between the Manlia Cathedral and the Puerta Real Gate, to walk on cobblestone streets and – while dodging horse-drawn carriages -- imagine what it must have all looked like centuries ago.

where's the ciudad?
Find the walled city
photo by Alan C. Robles

Yet Intramuros is far from restored. Not only is it full of nondescript, characterless houses and tenements but the rest of Manila has grown around it so haphazardly that the historic quarter is utterly lost in the urban skyline. In colonial times, part of the city's official moto was El Insigne – distinguished. Ironically, Intramuros now can hardly be distinguished in the clutter of high rises surrounding it.

Intramuros was a unique creation, a medieval fortified town that fused European, Central American and Asian styles. Filipinos and Chinese immigrants provided the workers, soldiers, artisans and craftsmen who constructed the citadel. Incidentally, Intramuros may hold the record for being the country's longest running construction project: started in 1589, the stone walls were only finished 250 years later ( Filipinos today would probably wonder about the commissions and the kickbacks the project generated).

Intramuros Administrator Dominador Ferrer

“If I had the resources”, says IA chief Dominador Ferrer Jr, “I’d buy up all the property and rebuild everything to the way it looked at the turn of the 19th century.” Not likely. A cash-strapped government faced with poverty and plagued by corruption has other prioities than the restoration of a relic from the past. Last year , the IA made do with about P30 million, most of which went to salaries and maintenance.

Visitors can see just how much remains to be done in a huge table-top model kept in the office of the Intramuros Administration office. The model, which duplicates the walls, fortifications and moat, shows which parts of Intramuros have been rebuilt. It is almost completely empty.

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