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San Juan's El Morro: Layers of Stone, Layers of History (Where Gumbo Was, #84)




El Morro, the giant fortification that's guarded San Juan Harbor for nearly 500 years, is the sight we saw before we saw it. Its image is everywhere when you do online research for a trip to Puerto Rico; its "garitas"—small domed watchtowers—are San Juan's symbol and show up everywhere, and the hulking outline of the fort itself is also a common symbol.



And yet, when we arrived at it, and passed through its walls, we found a different and more fascinating place than we could have imagined. Once examined closely, it becomes not so much a monument at the edge of Old San Juan as a reminder that this was the center of the city's (largely successful) defenses, and that it is carefully built not for visiting, but for battle. Every aspect of it is designed to ward off some aspect of an enemy's attack.


Its architecture is exotic enough, when seen in smaller bits, such as the mystery picture, to remind several guessers of the Far East, where other colonial and indigenous fortresses stand, but two of the Gumbo guessers, regulars Jonathan L and PortMoresby, scored the bulls-eye.

DSC03194 Spain built the fortress in bits, starting with a battery of cannon at the tip of the fort, at its lowest level, in 1539, under direction of the governor, Ponce de Leon. The goal was to control the entrance to San Juan's harbor, just to the east of the point.



The safe harbor, on the first fresh-water island ships encountered after the long voyage from Spain, made it a key part of the Spanish empire—and a magnet for others. Each invasion or attempt led to more construction. Sir Francis Drake met his defeat in 1595 under the guns of El Morro. In 1598, another British attack, by land, succeeded in seizing the fort, although dysentery forced them out months later. After that experience, the huge esplanade that looks so green and inviting, was laid out to create a "killing field," where any attackers would be exposed and under fire from the fort.

1024px-El_morro_from_front That worked. The Dutch invasion of 1625 never even got close to the fort, although they managed to burn the town on their way out. That visit spurred Spain to extend the walls that connected the fort to the Governor's Palace at La Fortaleza the rest of the way around the city. From 1630 to 1897, the city was completely surrounded by hugely-thick 42-foot high walls. In 1897, a portion was removed to allow the city to expand east.


After the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico as part of the Spanish-American War in 1898, complete with naval shelling of El Morro, the fort, and its eastern companion fort, became U.S. Army Fort Brooke, and was used by the military until 1961. The Esplanade was covered with barracks, living quarters, hospitals and a golf course during that time.



After World War II, the military began moving out, and the National Park Service began moving in. By 1961, the process was complete, and El Morro became the centerpiece of the San Juan National Historic Site, complete with gift shop, museum displays, and very knowledgeable Park Rangers. The formal name of the fort, by the way, is whose full name is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named for Spanish King Philip II, organizer of the Spanish Armada. El Morro refers to the headland or promontory it sits on.





Inside the fort, we found ourselves in the Plaza des Armas, a large central court used for parades, training, and as a kind of town square. The openings, or casements, in the walls open onto living areas, kitchens, storage areas, and passageways to other levels and parts of the fort. Today, numbers of them house exhibits.




From a number of angles, the lighthouse pokes above the ancient fortifications. The first lighthouse there was added in 1843, and destroyed in the U.S. bombardment of 1898. The U.S. Navy built a new one a year later, and the present one in 1908 after an earth-quake damaged that.




The view directly above, and those below, are from the upper level of the fort. One flight up from the Plaza, this is where cannon and riflemen could fire at anyone advancing across the Esplanade (to the right of this picture) or, in the other direction, cannon could aim at the masts of attacking ships.




The next view looks over the esplanade through an opening intended for artillery. You can see how difficult it would be to reach the fort that way, under fire.



The upper level is reached by a ramp from the Plaza; the ramp allowed troops to move rapidly, and most importantly, to more easily move heavy cannon from one level to another.


Another, steeper, ramp runs from the Plaza to the lower battery, where cannon aimed at the main structures of ships approaching the fort, and to the lowest level, where cannon would aim for the waterline. This ramp has steps and landings along the side to allow troops pulling cannon up or down with ropes to rest.



When the U.S. invaded, most of the Spanish artillery was old and inoperable; Spain started modernizing it only a year or two before. During World War I, the newer Spanish weapons and added U.S. artillery were put in service at El Morro; its location made even more important by the opening of the new Panama Canal. It was during this period,


in 1915, before the U.S. entered the war, that El Morro fired its last shot. An armed German merchant ship, the Odenwald, had been ordered to remain in port; when it attempted to leave to supply the German U-boat fleet at sea, the fort fired on it and forced its return to port. Those shots were fired from a battery mounted on the platform shown below, and in the Gumbo mystery picture (#84)




The fort is open to the public every day of the year, from 9 to 6, except Christmas and Thanskgiving. El Morro and the other parts of the National Historic Site are therefore very helpful in planning your day in Old San Juan—they are open on days with other museums and attractions are not, and they are open longer hours. Admission is $5, with a variety of passes available if you're visiting other National Parks and forests as well. My favorite: for those of us 62 and older, a $10 pass gives lifetime free access to all National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Areas and more.




Just outside the fort, against the city walls, is the Cemetery of Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, opened in 1863, against the outside of the city walls. It opened at a time when there was almost no space left in city churchyards and vaults. It's the final resting place of a long list of well-known Puerto Ricans, including Pedro Albizu Campos, a leader of Puerto Rican nationalism, actor-director Jose Ferrer and archeologist Ricardo Alegria, whose advocacy of Puerto Rican culture and history were a crucial factor in the 20th century not only in reviving Puerto Rican culture but also in the physical preservation of many historic sites.


Below, a few more pictures of various parts of El Morro. Please enjoy!






















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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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A missing bit: El Morro and the historic site as a whole is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but while I included that in the Tags and Collections for the blog, I forgot to mention it in the text! 


My apologies...

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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