top of page

Image above courtesy of


The area which is now occupied by Fort Santiago is a natural defensive position that has been used for centuries. The Fort was built by the Spanish in 1571, as a citadel to protect the newly established city of Manila in the Philippines. It is strategically built on the mouth of the Pasig River and close to the ocean. It was named after the patron Saint of Spain, Saint James the Great (Santiago in Spanish)

An old anchor rusts away inside Fort Santiago

After disembarking from the taxi, we declined the tours as the people were a bit too pushy and in your face. In my time travelling I have learnt that I enjoy discovering places for myself and taking my time wandering around taking pictures at my own leisure rather than guided tours which can feel a bit rushed.


I took my friend to the Fort who was in the country visiting for a few days. I had not been there and had heard some good things about it and I also love ruins and old things, so this was perfect. I come from Australia which was only settled by Europeans in 1788, so to be in a place that was built two hundred years prior to that, felt quite special.


Dungeons were plentiful here

Like any good fort, this place had huge walls surrounding it, a river on two sides and a moat on a third. The walls are six odd metres tall and are two and a half metres thick. The walls are made up of large stone ‘bricks’ (which I found out later were quarried in Guadalupe, where I now live) Fort Santiago is part of Intramuros which is a Latin word which translates into ‘walled city’. The place is dotted with caverns and caves and people could quite easily get lost or injured as often the steps were quite steep and you could easily take a fall if not careful.

There has been many forts built on this location and over the years and it has endured many battles and earthquakes. Each time it has been damaged it has been rebuilt. Even prior to Hispanic rule in Manila there was a palisade fort on this site, run by the Muslim leader, Raja Soliman. It was destroyed in 1570 by the conquering Spaniards, who then built a fort of wood and earth. It was not until the Chinese invaded in 1590 and ruined the wooden fort, did construction of the stone fort commence.

Here I stand 422 years later and try to imagine the people who have stood on the same spot, and what occurred in those dungeons. Just what did someone have to do to wind up in those pits, with no light, waiting for their fate, which was probably death?


I do not have to imagine for one such prisoner, Jose Rizal.  A Filipino hero who spent months imprisoned in a cell at the Fort before being marched to the place of his execution in 1896. He was a prominent patriot who spoke out


about against Spanish Colonial rule in the Philippines. Many believe his execution sparked the Philippine revolution, which resulted in the secession of the Philippine Islands from the Spanish Empire. There are brass footprints at the Fort that trace out the final steps of this historic man. There is a section of the Fort that has been turned into the Rizal shrine, a museum that houses some of his belongings like books and writings. It is a bit eerie to see his prison cell and I feel I am in touch with an important part of Philippine history at that moment.

Statue of J.P. Rizal

In 1942, during World War Two it was occupied by the Japanese military. They used the dungeons and prisons to house and execute many Philippine people during this time. They also stored ammunition here. As it is located near the river, it was not uncommon for prisoners to drown when a high tide would spill into the dungeons. Many people were put to death during this period. The Fort was destroyed in 1945 during the battle of Manila to reclaim the Philippines from the Japanese, but was rebuilt soon after.

                                  Taken my me, Sept 2012                                                     1945. US Sherman Tank during the Battle of Manila

Now days the Fort has been turned into a tourist attraction and has been beautifully restored. At only 75 Pesos entrance fee, a visit to Fort Santiago is recommended. It has many parks and gardens that would be perfect for a picnic with loved ones for the day or just to wander around learning some history of Manila.

Other articles you may be interested in

bottom of page