The Gateway of Santiago is high on the list of must-see landmarks in the historically rich state of Malacca (or Melaka). It is featured extensively in “Visit Malaysia” promotions to highlight diversity and conjure the strong historical presence in this rather young country.
Built in mid 15th century, this single structure made of coral stones was part of a larger impregnable fortress that stood against countless invasions from European rivals and local warlords, all spoilt for a violent quest for Malacca’s strategic importance.
Despite its historical significance the site has evolved somewhat less graciously into a convenient photography opportunity for the busloads of tourists. Many, unfortunately, are too caught up in frenzy photo snap shots and history is the farthest from their minds.
The Gateway or Porto De Santiago as it was coined originally is often mistaken for the grandeur A Famosa by tourism booklets and even history bluffs. Santiago and the ruins of St. Paul’s Chapel are the only remnants of a Portuguese fortress that once surrounded the hilly stronghold that loomed over Malacca river mouth.
Fate has never been kind to A Famosa and it suffered one cruel twist after another. The fortress served magnificently over a span of three centuries and endured large scale attacks from the Johorean, Bugis and Achenese armies before it fell into the hands of the Dutch in 1641.
The Strait of Malacca was constantly in turmoil with several masters clamoring for its reign but only for periodically. New ports and trade centers took shape elsewhere and soon contributed to the end of Malacca as a seafaring state. The rapidly silting of Malacca River the main artery where monsoon traders and sailors sought refuge also aggravated its dismissal.
By the late 18th century, Malacca and A Famosa lost most of its allure and was a distant memoir for many enthusiastic land grabbers. The cannons soon fell silent. The defensive walls crumbled due to neglect and Malacca faced real danger of having its struggling settlement forcedly evacuated.
Inquisitive visitors today are still rewarded with delightful architectural features similar to ones found in medieval Europe. Perched on the top right of the gateway is a guard post with gun holes. The zigzag cobble laid entrance reveals another deterrent gimmick to prevent would be invaders. The insignia craved above it tells the tale of Protestant Dutch proclaiming itself the new owner of what was essentially a Catholic Portuguese masterpiece.
Nearby, menacing cannons from an era long gone-by guard the gateway. A closer look reveals they are merely crafty duplicates made in time for Queen Elizabeth II formal visit to Malacca not too long ago. Visitors may have no qualms of the authenticity but with a clever imagination the cries of the fiery years where countless lives were lost defending the fortress still resonates.
Ironically the legacy of A Famosa is given a jump-start lately. Two previously buried bastions facing what was the coastal line of Malacca were uncovered when construction crew of state sponsored development projects stumbled upon the foundations. While excavation is painfully slow, the intriguing details of the magnitude of this ancient military complex have generated astonishing interest.