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Panama City - Old Panama

Pre-twentieth century history

Panama City - Old Panama

Founded on August 15, 1519 by Pedrarias Dávila, Panama City was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast. The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé, who were decimated by disease and the sword when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. After several forays along the country's Caribbean shore, the Spanish established a settlement, Nombre de Dios, at the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Caribbean coast in 1510. Panama's Pacific coast later became the springboard for invasions of Peru, and the wealth generated by these incursions was carried overland from the Pacific port of Panama (City) to Nombre de Dios. The transport of wealth attracted pirates, and by the 18th century the Caribbean was so dangerous that Spanish ships began bypassing Panama and sailing directly from Peru around Cape Horn to reach Europe.

Gold coming from Peru passed through Panama toward the port towns of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios, where it was loaded onto ships bound for Spain. In 1671, twelve hundred men led by the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and subsequently destroyed the city.

In the years to follow, Panama went into decline, becoming a province of Colombia when the South American nation received its independence in 1821. In 1846, Colombia signed a treaty permitting the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus and to defend it with military force. The idea of a canal across the isthmus had been broached even in the 16th century, but a French attempt to build one in 1880 resulted in the deaths of 22,000 workers from malaria and yellow fever, and bankruptcy for everyone involved. However, a Frenchman who stood to gain handsomely from a US buyout of the French rights to build a canal was named 'envoy extraordinary' by Washington, and he negotiated and signed a canal treaty with the USA, despite the objections of the Colombian government. The financial and strategic interests of the US momentarily coincided with the sentiments of Panama's revolutionaries, and a revolutionary junta declared Panama independent on November 3, 1903, with the overt support of the USA.

Today, visitors to Panama can tour the remains of the old city: the cathedral, six convents and churches, the city hall building, the House of the Genovese, Fort Natividad, the Hospital San Juan de Dios and three colonial bridges. You can also view the Casas Reales - the compound where the Spanish customs and treasury was located.

Towards the Major Square (Plaza Mayor), you'll find the City Hall, the cathedral and the Bishop's house. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, constructed between 1519 and 1626, is the best preserved of all the buildings. Following the style of the time, it is cross-shaped. The bell tower was located at the back and probably served a double purpose as bell tower and watchtower of the royal houses.

Further north is the Convent of Santo Domingo, constructed in 1570 and its respective church, erected 20 years later. They are the best-preserved religious buildings in the city. Panamá La Vieja offers a site museum, which exhibits a maquette of the city before 1671 as well as colonial and pre-colombine artifacts brought from Spain.

Casco Antiguo

When Panama City was destroyed in the 17th century, its inhabitants moved to the foothills of the Cerro Ancón. On January 21, 1673, Antonio Fernández de Córdoba y Mendoza founded the new city of Panama. The new location was chosen as a defense against new pirate attacks. A formidable set of walls in close the city at the beginning of 1675. The walls had two main doors, one facing land and one facing sea, in addition to these two it also had five side gates.

The new city was apportioned lots and was intended for specific functions: religious, administrative, military, commercial and residential. From its cross-sectioned design emerged 38 blocks, 3 main streets running from east to west, 7 streets running from north to south and others that were shorter.

The urban development of Panama City was interrupted during the 18th century due to various fires that devastated its streets. In 1737, the "big fire" destroyed two thirds of the city, and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90 houses. These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so few colonial examples exist today.

In 1846, the discovery of gold in California spurred the economic development of Panama. The result was the construction of the transisthmic railway, which joined the two oceans for the first time, and the beginning of the construction of the French Canal. The city gradually changed its aspect, transforming itself into a cosmopolitan city with a 19th century European resemblance.

In 1997, UNESCO declared the Casco Antiguo of Panama City a Patrimony of Humanity, underscoring it rich architectonic diversity from the 19th and early 20th century.

-Thanks to Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT)

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