The city of Antigua, capital of Sacatepéquez Province, Guatemala, is a charming old colonial city that for many years was the political, religious and economic heart of Central America. After being destroyed by a series of earthquakes in 1773, the city was abandoned in favor of what is now Guatemala City, although not everyone left. Today, it is one of Guatemala’s top visitor destinations.
The Conquest of the Maya:
In 1523 a group of Spanish conquistadores led by Pedro de Alvarado
swept into what is now northern Guatemala, where they came face to face with the descendents of the once-proud Maya Empire. After defeating the mighty K’iche
kingdom, Alvarado was named Governor of the new lands. He set up his first capital in the ruined city of Iximché, home of his Kaqchikel allies. When he betrayed and enslaved the Kaqchikel, they turned on him and he was forced to relocate to a safer area: he chose the lush Almolonga Valley nearby.
The previous city had been founded on July 25, 1524, a day dedicated to St. James. Alvarado thus named it “Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala,” or “City of the Knights of St. James of Guatemala.” The name moved with the city and Alvarado and his men set up what essentially amounted to their own mini-kingdom. In July of 1541, Alvarado was killed in battle in Mexico: his wife, Beatriz de la Cueva, took over as Governor. On the unlucky date of September 11, 1541, however, a mudslide destroyed the city, killing many, including Beatriz. It was decided to move the city once again.
The city was rebuilt and this time, it prospered. It became the official home of the Spanish colonial administration in the area, which covered most of Central America up to and including the southern Mexican State of Chiapas. Many impressive municipal and religious buildings were built. A series of Governors ruled the region in the name of the King of Spain.
The Kingdom of Guatemala never much in the way of mineral wealth: all of the best New World mines were in Mexico to the north or Peru to the south. Because of this, it was difficult to attract settlers to the area. In 1770, the population of Santiago was only about 25,000 people, of which only 6% or so were pure-blooded Spanish: the rest were mestizos, Indians and blacks. In spite of its lack of wealth, Santiago was well-located between New Spain (Mexico) and Peru and developed into an important commercial hub. Many of the local aristocracy, descended from the original conquistadors, became merchants and prospered.
Earthquakes Destroy the City:
In 1773, a series of major earthquakes leveled the city, destroying most of the buildings, even the ones which had been well built. Thousands were killed, and the region was plunged into chaos for a while. Even today you can see fallen rubble at some of Antigua’s historical sites. The decision was made to move the capital to its present location in Guatemala City. Thousands of local Indians were conscripted to move what could be salvaged and to rebuild on the new site. Although all of the survivors were ordered to move, not everyone did: some remained behind in the rubble of the city they loved.
As Guatemala City prospered, the people living in the ruins of Santiago slowly rebuilt their city. People stopped calling it Santiago: instead, they referred to it as “Antigua Guatemala” or “Old Guatemala City.” Eventually the “Guatemala” was dropped and people began referring to it as simply “Antigua.” The city rebuilt slowly, but was still large enough to be named capital of Sacatepéquez Province when Guatemala became independent from Spain and (later) the Federation of Central America (1823-1839). Ironically, “new” Guatemala City would be pummelled by a major earthquake in 1917: Antigua largely escaped damage.
Over the years, Antigua retained its colonial charm and perfect climate and is today one of Guatemala’s premier tourist destinations. Visitors enjoy shopping at the markets, where they can purchase brightly colored textiles, pottery and more. Many of the old convents and monasteries are still in ruins, but have been made safe for tours. Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes: their names are Agua, Fuego, Acatenango and Pacaya, and visitors like to climb them when it is safe to do so. Antigua is particularly known for Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities. The city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Central America. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.