Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Inside the Real Fuerza de Santiago

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Just a short walk from the imposing Manila Cathedral of Intramuros is a black, wrought iron gate leading to a beautiful plaza with tall trees, well-kept shrubs, blooming flowers, ornamental fountains, and a tranquil moat. A few steps further, you'll see a massive, grey stone wall, one that shows signs of age yet still forbidding. At  its center is a towering arch with some of its once ornate elements in ruins. It is the entrance to a place that was feared by the locals for hundreds of years.  It is the Real Fuerza de Santiago.

Old images of the Real Fuerza de Santiago

The main entrance of Fort Santiago today.
The Real Fuerza de Santiago or Fort Santiago is a 16th century military fortress inside Intramuros that was built during the Spanish colonization of the Philippine Islands. Once made of earth and wood, it was rebuilt and fortified with hard stone to defend the walled city of Intramuros against rebels and ward off threats from invaders. According to the Intramuros historical guide, four foreign flags have flown on this fort since it was constructed: the Spanish, the British, the American, and the Japanese. The fort's thick walls and buttresses have also witnessed various atrocities and injustice in its many years of existence.

Fort Santiago was once infamous for its underground dungeons, where conditions were so inhumane that almost no one wanted to speak of it.  It is believed that many prisoners, after they were tortured by the Spanish military, were placed in the underground cells and left there to die. There were also rumors that  some prisoners were intentionally drowned by allowing the water from the Pasig River to fill the dungeons.

One of the Fuerza's underground dungeons.

Among Fort Santiago's famous prisoners are the priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, collectively known as the GOMBURZA, who were killed by garrote over false charges of  leading a mutiny against Spain in 1872.  The Philippine National Hero Jose P. Rizal was also imprisoned twice at Fort Santiago before he was executed by a firing squad in 1896. His death inspired the Philippine revolution. A shrine in his honor can be found inside the fort.

The Rizal Shrine (L) and a monument of Jose Rizal
at the far end of Plaza de Armas.

At the center is a view of Plaza de Armas.  Take a closer look
and you'll  see  footsteps marking Jose Rizal's march from his
 prison cell to the execution site. 
During the Second World War, the Japanese incarcerated civilians and soldiers at Fort Santiago's Maestranza.   Many of them were also tortured and executed. Those who survived say that the chambers were filled beyond its capacity that it felt like they were in hell.  Many prisoners died of suffocation or illness.  During the Battle for the Liberation of Manila in 1945,  Fort Santiago was ruined due to heavy bombing.

This cross marks the mass grave of civilians
and soldiers who died at Fort Santiago
during World War II.
Restored in the 1980's, the beauty of Fort Santiago's promenades, gardens, and plazas have left many visitors oblivious of its dark past and historical significance.  It's unfortunate because there are many tragic and heroic tales at the Real Fuerza de Santiago, some of which have been forgotten while some are waiting to be retold.
Fort Santiago's entrance and moat 
Fort Santiago is within walking distance of Manila Cathedral and Palacio del Gobernador in Intramuros. One can also take a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) ride from Intramuros to Fort Santiago. To see more photos of Fort Santiago and find out things you can do there, just click on this link.  

Have you visited Fort Santiago? What do you think of this place? 

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