It’s 6am Christmas morning; I’m sitting in the airport in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on my way to Manila for my Christmas break, and I’m about to fly into the face of a hurricane.
I really hoped that a) the plane wouldn’t fall out of the sky; and b) in spite of all of the negative things I’d heard about the city, Manila would be worth it.
The good news: the hurricane delayed its ETA allowing the plane to land safely. I even had half a day of sun, and then an increasingly blustery afternoon, before the really unpleasant weather arrived. Just enough time to run around the historic centre of Manila.
The founding of Manila
The story of the Philippines, and of Manila, is a story of the coming together of cultures.
The first people to inhabit the region were an Austroloid-Melanesian ethnic group known as the Negritos (a Spanish term, meaning little black people, which is still used today despite its offensive nature) who moved into the Philippines circa 3,000 BCE.
Waves of migrants from throughout Southeast Asia and Polynesia moved into the Philippines during the ensuing millennia.
In the 13th Century CE the Philippines were annexed by the Javanese Majapahits, a Hindu thalassocracy (a seaborn empire similar in nature to the Phoenicians) who went on to become one of the great empires of Southeast Asia.
In 1485 the Philippines were conquered by the Sultan of Brunei, who went on to establish the Islamic Kingdom of Maynila.
And in 1571 the Spanish arrived.
A team of Spanish conquistadors, led by Miguel López de Legazpi, landed on the island of Cebu in the south of the Philippines, in 1565. Hearing of the existence of flourishing trading ports to the north, they set sail, and in 1571 arrived at the mouth of the Parsig River on the island of Luzon.
There they ‘founded’ Manila, the capital of their new colony, which they declared (along with the rest of the Philippines) a part of New Spain.
In 1574 Chinese pirates, led by the infamous Limahong, attacked and destroyed the fledgling city.
A new city was needed, one with serious defensive capabilities. The new city was called Intramuros (meaning: within the walls); it was surrounded by two-metre thick, six-metre high walls. Within the walls Manila thrived.
Manila had been a trading hub for centuries; goods being bought and sold with traders from as far as China, India, and Indonesia.
Under Spanish rule that trade network expanded exponentially. Manila began trading with the New World. Silver flowed in from mines in Mexico and Bolivia. The city became immensely wealthy.
Manila Cathedral, formally known as the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, dates back to the very beginnings of the Spanish ‘founding’ of Manila.
The first version of the cathedral, made of timber was erected in 1571. It burnt down in 1583.
The next iteration of the cathedral was built of stone and completed in 1592; it was brought to the ground by an earthquake in 1600.
The third cathedral was constructed in 1614, but was reduced to rubble, thanks to another earthquake, in 1645.
The next iteration of the cathedral was badly damaged by earthquakes in 1863 and 1880. It survived both events, but was blown to bits in WWII.
The current cathedral was completed in 1958.
San Agustin Church
The first San Agustin Church was built at the same time as the first Manila Cathedral (1571). But the first San Agustin Church only lasted till 1574, when it was burnt down by the armies of Chinese pirate, Limahong.
The second version of the church burnt down in 1583.
The third version of the church, completed 1604, is the church you see standing today. It was the only major structure to survive the earthquake of 1863. And it was the only church to survive the shelling of Manila in WWII.
San Agustin Church is UNESCO World Heritage listed.
Rizal Park is located just outside the walled city of Intramuros. It’s one of the largest urban parks in Asia, and was named in honour of national hero, José Rizal, who was convicted of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy by the Spanish Empire, and executed in the park grounds in 1896.
The remains of José Rizal are enshrined within the Rizal Monument (the obelisk seen in the photo above); the monument is situated approximately 100 metres from José Rizal’s execution site.
Binondo is the oldest Chinatown in the world. It was established in 1594 by the Spanish, on the opposite side of the Parsig River from Intramuros.
Although it may have been officially established in 1594, Chinese traders had been operating here for centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
Fort Santiago, Manila
Fort Santiago is part of the defensive structure of Intramuros. The fort was captured and occupied by British forces in 1762 during the Seven Years’ War.
The fort became the headquarters of the United States Army during the American colonial period commencing in 1898.
Japanese forces captured and occupied the fort during WWII, which led to it being shelled during the Battle of Manila in 1945. The Battle of Manila was one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific during World War II. It resulted in the deaths of 100,000 civilians, and destroyed much of the city.
Modern Manila – the most densely populated city in the world
In modern times Manila has become the most densely populated city in the world, with 41,000 people crammed into each square kilometre.
Second place goes to Cairo with 37,000 people per square kilometre, equal third places goes to Mumbai and Dhaka with 28,000 people per square kilometre.
Is Manila worth a visit?
Most tourists that head to the Philippines are bound for one of the southern islands where they will laze on an idyllic, palm-tree-fringed beach for a week or two. Manila, by contrast, is polluted, noisy, and crowded, but it’s also a fun, bustling, dynamic city with a fascinating, multi-cultural past. There are plenty of interesting cultural sights to keep you occupied for at least a day or two.
Practical information and how to reach Manila:
The international airport in Manila is regarded as one of the worst in the world. This relates to it being poorly designed though, rather than unsafe. There are direct flights to Manila from cities throughout Asia, Australia. and the United States. More transport info here.