A place I’d been hearing and reading about since I was a child, the story of Cagsawa has always been told and written about in a tone that’s a mixture of tragedy and wonderment.
The town of Cagsawa (spelled Cagsaua during the Spanish colonial period) and its centuries-old church might have remained just another town and another church in the annals of history had it not been for the disaster that struck it in 1814. The eruption of Mayon Volcano left Cagsawa buried under tephra and lahar.
Mayon had a long history of eruptions prior to 1814. The earliest may have been circa 3100 BCE per radiocarbon dating. Half a century after the 1814 eruption, Andreas Fedor Jagor, a German ethnologist, naturalist and explorer, climbed Mayon, documented eyewitness accounts of the 1814 eruption and published a book in 1873.
According to Jagor, eyewitnesses said that at 8.00 a.m., Mayon “belched forth a thick column of rocks, sand and ashes which rapidly rose to a great height” and that, two hours later, “the rain of large stones ceased, substituted by a rain of sand.” By early afternoon when the skies began to clear, five towns in Albay, including Cagsawa, were burned and buried leaving 12,000 people dead.
Cagsawa Church was built some 250 years before the 1814 Mayon eruption. It was burned down by Dutch pirates then rebuilt by Franciscan friars. All these years, I was under the impression that the bell tower was the only structure that remained of Cagsawa Church after the 1814 eruption. That was what textbooks said. That was what most people said. They’re all wrong.
Portions of walls remain. The walls in the photo above were about 10 meters from the bell tower.
These stone structures, according to the guides, were once part of the second floor dormitories of the seminary. I think we can safely assume that the hole in the wall is a window.
Above, what appear to be “stubs” are also part of the second floor of the seminary.
And the more interesting — or you could say hair-raising — bit of information: according to the locals, the visible portion of the tower and walls get shorter and shorter with each eruption of Mayon. As it spews lava and rocks, the ground rises a bit higher each time.
Mayon Volcano was covered in clouds throughout our Cagsawa visit. Taking photos was complicated by the presence of this viewing deck. I wanted to take a panoramic shot that included the volcanic rocks half buried in the ground. Some of these rocks are huge — huge enough for a person to lie on them with neither head nor feet touching the grass.
Whose graves those crosses mark, I have no idea.