I had actually gone to Intramuros twice before this trip to Fort Santiago. The first time was part of a team outing, during one of my work department’s regional team meetings. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much at all about it.

The second time was when my colleague and friend got Catholic-married, and asked me to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding took place at San Agustin Church, a lovely 16th century church within the historic Intramuros precinct. Unsurprisingly, this visit did not involve any sightseeing of Intramuros itself.

I regret not lengthening more of my earlier business trips around the region, to look around. So, when I went on another business trip to Manila (at the time it was almost an annual affair), I decided to come early to soak in Intramuros on my own. Or part of it, at any rate. I knew that Intramuros is dense with history, and if I were to do it ‘properly’ in the slow traveller way, I would need more than a weekend.

Moving closer to Intramuros

When I come to Manila for work, I would invariably stay in the glitzy Makati area. On the map, Makati doesn’t seem to be very far from Intramuros. However, as a veteran Manila business tripper, I was well aware of the infamous Manila traffic jams, not to mention its unreliable taxis.

So I considered it worth my while to stay nearer to Intramuros for the weekend, and then re-locate to where I needed to be later. I booked myself into Casa Bocobo, which I found quite adequate.

This old part of Manila is the Malate district; it has been implied that the area is sketchy, which I found surprising since it’s next to Intramuros, a major tourist attraction and historic site of the Philippines. Nonetheless, I personally found my area quite safe, albeit certainly not as modern and flashy as Makati.

Fort Santiago and Intramuros

You might have guessed by now that Fort Santiago is inside Intramuros. Intramuros, which literally means ‘inside the walls’, was the Spanish 16th-century fortified city built on the native city of Manila after Spanish colonisers conquered the kingdom. Today, there are museums and universities within its precincts, as well as Catholic structures such as a basilica and the aforementioned San Agustin Church.

I decided to spend a leisurely day exploring Intramuros. This meant that it was not realistic to cover its entirety. So I contented myself with exploring Fort Santiago, and the fortress walls along Santa Lucia street. After all (I thought in 2019), surely there would be future Manila trips for me to pick up the other Intramuros streets.

High rise Manila residential towers beyond Intramuros. Their reflections on the moat's water surface in front of Fort Santiago's walls to the left.

Fort Santiago entrance fee

The taxi dropped me off right at the entrance to Fort Santiago. There, I paid the PHP75 fee to enter the fort, which is about $1.50.

The ticket complex included souvenir shops that featured Philippine crafts. On my way out, I stopped to browse and bought a pair of traditional teak hand carved swim goggles, as a nod to my fellow marine people of the region.

A long garden walk took me to the moat, with a lone bridge over it towards the iconic citadel gate.

Front view of Fort Santiago gateway arch

The arch of Fort Santiago

Most visitors and tourists would take a picture at this arch, attracted by its medieval look. It was imposing, especially against the plain stone walls of the fort, carved with coats-of-arms and a facade of Grecian pillars. A high-relief of a rearing horseman presided over the gateway.

As the other tourists passed through the arch, I contemplated this image. For I had been to Andalucia in southern Spain, and I recognised the style. I had a feeling I knew what the image was, and I was right. It was a Spanish knight (specifically Santiago, in this case), trampling Moors under the hooves of his steed.

It was not as bloody as some of the murals in the old churches of Granada, where Queen Isabella is depicted graphically dismembering the conquered Moors during her Reconquista victories. But it was still pretty graphic.

Close up of Santiago bas relief on Fort Santiago citadel depicting Santiago (St. James) trampling Moors under the hooves of his horse

Projecting halfway around the world

Did they conquer Manila because, having sailed around the world after re-taking Andalusia, they came to these islands and saw the local Muslims as the Moors they hated? For historical accounts seem to indicate that the Manila city-state where Intramuros now lies, had been a Muslim Tagalog kingdom and a vassal of the Brunei empire (yep, back then Brunei was an empire).

Never mind that we on these Nusantara islands are not the same race as the Moors, or at the time, even aware of the wars of Europe. How confused must the people have been, when the Spaniards suddenly came upon them from the wide oceans east, with pre-existing beef with them? Indeed, the Bangsamoro (‘Moro nation’) of Mindanao got this name from the Spanish colonials, who called all the local Muslim ethnicities ‘Moors’, though they were halfway around the world apart.

And this relief picture, upon a fort built over the defeated city of a Nusantara people, did not show a local race being trampled. No, the carvings were turbaned Moors, bearing Moorish rather than Southeast Asian martial gear.

You have to wonder at the psychological state of the Spanish colonisers.

Fort Santiago fortifications

Fort Santiago is reasonably well-preserved, considering how often it was attacked by man and earthquake. It was a sea fort, meant to defend against invasion and bombardment from the sea. This was especially relevant in a region dominated by maritime states. Bastions and cannon bolstered the walls; at the very end the raised fortifications gave a good view of the Pasig river.

Here and there, there were metal statues of barefoot soldiers leaning against lamp posts, with an odd smirk. I wonder if it was because their spears are invisible?

Fort Santiago modern history

Somehow, when I was there, there was a faint call to prayer; though I do not know where the mosque could possibly be.

A ruined building next to the river drew my attention. Called the Rajah Sulayman theatre, it reminded me of the unique thing about the Philippine people; that they can – and meticulously do – own all of their history, with all its contradictions, and even when it appears like cognitive dissonance. For they kept Santiago trampling Muslims on the archway, but put back the name of the Muslim king – their king – whose land was lost. It really is a superpower, and one we could all learn to do more.

And it is here that the Philippines commemorates perhaps the best known Philippine national hero. For Jose Rizal had been imprisoned here upon charges of rebellion. It was among the milestone events of Filipino nationalism against Spanish colonisation.

Rizal shrine

Within Fort Santiago, there is a museum that is well worth visiting. It goes double if you’re a history buff. The Rizal shrine is a whole building dedicated to Jose Rizal memorabilia.

Entrance to Rizal shrine within Fort Santiago in Intramuros

I knew little about him, only that he was associated with La Liga Filipina and the independence movement of the Philippines. And even that was because it was in the Malaysian history syllabus, and I actually paid attention in school. But in the museum, I learned the full range of Jose Rizal’s accomplishments. The man seemed to be able to do everything. A true polymath, he was a doctor and a poet, an economist and a fencer, a writer and an anthropologist, and on and on.

And to my surprise, he himself denied involvement in rebellion. Among the displays was a letter of his, detailing the evidences against the charge.

But the rest is history.

The walls of Intramuros

After my time in Fort Santiago, I decided to walk along the Intramuros walls as much as possible on my way back. Along the western boundary of Intramuros, these would have constituted the sea fortifications, though clearly the walls are no longer right on the shoreline anymore. You could actually climb up onto the walls in some sections and walk along it. You can do this up to the part of the wall that looks to Reducto San Pedro, which is surrounded by a golf course today.

I did this whenever I could, in part because I love castles, and partly to avoid being harassed by rickshaws. There were many rickshaws within Intramuros, all trying to get tourist customers. But the thing is, Intramuros is such a great place to explore on foot. You want to pay attention to the doors and alleyways.

Anyway, there were many placards at historically significant points along this wall, whose stones are pitted and worn concave by age. They build up a picture of a fort that has suffered much and seen more. Repeatedly fortified against Dutch and Chinese pirates, rebuilt after earthquakes, captured by the British, Americans, and Japanese. You wouldn’t guess it from the mild-mannered Philippine people, but they have proved a phenomenal endurance.

Mural of Raja Sulayman outside Fort Santiago

Carbon offset information to the Philippines

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Manila produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,000 lbs CO2e. It costs about $10 to offset this. 

Would you like to visit Intramuros? Check out Fort Santiago! Aside from the historical elements, the park and the buildings within may also host art exhibitions.

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