Bits of debris fly as a bomb dropped from an OV-10 Bronco plane explodes at the heart of Marawi City. Photography by Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

A brief history: The Islamic City of Marawi

As Marawi city moves toward rehabilitation, there is hope for a new dawn and a brave return to the nobility of the past.
Ayesha Merdeka Alonto | Jan 01 2019

Straddling between the serene shores of Lake Lanao and the mouth of Agus River, and amidst hills, valleys and mountains, nestles the city of Marawi.  For millennia and even beyond, Marawi has served as the melting pot of the Meranaws from all municipalities. It is the heart of Lanao.

But today, the once bustling city center lies eerily empty and abandoned. Its entire landscape of colorful buildings has now become rubble and ruin. This is the Marawi we now see after the Maute Group—a locally-led terrorist cell affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)—went on a terrorist rampage in the city on May 23, 2017. As their international cohorts continue to do in other cities in the Islamic world, they brought mayhem and destruction in their wake.

Photo shows damaged structures in the area of Mapandi going to Lilod, Marawi City, which was recaptured by government troops from the Maute group. Photograph by Val Cuenca, ABS-CBN News

Marawi was once called Dansalan which uses the root Meranaw word, dansal, meaning  “where the waves come to shore.” Dansalan is understood as the destination point where boats berth. In 1907, Dansalan was officially created as a municipality under the Moro Province Legislative Council, and declared the capital of Lanao Province under the American Colonial Government. Under the Philippine Commonwealth Government, Dansalan was the last city chartered by virtue of Commonwealth Act No. 592 when President Manuel L. Quezon approved its conversion from a town to a city in 1940. Under the Republic of the Philippines, President Ramon Magsaysay signed Republic Act No. 1552, sponsored by Senator Domocao Alonto, into law; it was and renamed Marawi City in honor of the city’s martyred brave in Kuta Maraghui (Fort Marawi) in 1895. In 1959, President Carlos P. Garcia approved Republic Act No. 2228 which was sponsored once again by Senator Domocao Alonto. This act divided the Province of Lanao into Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. Marawi City was then declared the capital of Lanao del Sur.

Ruins of Marawi City. Photograph by Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

By virtue of a City Council Resolution in April 1980, which cited the fact that Marawi City was the only chartered city in the Philippines with a predominantly Muslim population, Marawi City was declared the “Islamic City of Marawi.”

The history of Marawi is inextricable from the history of the Meranaws. In their tarsilas (oral genealogies), it is recorded that the clan existed as far back as 6,000 years ago. Dansalan began as a port area, and was just as much the thriving hub of trade and commerce as it is today.

This photo taken on March 28, 2018 shows an aerial shot of a mosque amid flattened houses in Marawi City after five months of house-to-house fighting between troops and jihadists loyal to the Islamic State group that killed nearly 1,200. Residents of battle-scarred Marawi were allowed back April 1 for the first time -- to dig through the rubble that was once their homes. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

The Meranaws were also the last major tribe to be Islamized in the 13th Century. They were mostly left to their “rather isolated lake country” in the centuries that followed. In the chronicles of Spanish and American colonial forces, the Meranaws are written up as being fierce and valiant—they were known to be fighters who would fight to their last breath for their way of life.

The first attempt of the Spanish conquistadores to conquer Lanao was in 1759,  along the Iligan Bay at Radapan. Meranaw warriors led by Radia Palawan fought with such fierceness that it would take more than a century before the Spanish Colonial Government sent their forces to Lanao again. Radia Palawan came to be known as the revered Saber sa Radapan (the martyred hero at Radapan). To this day, this is the term by which Meranaws know him.

A teacher who used to work in Marawi City's elementary schools in "ground zero" paints the wall of an unfinished structure in May. Recently, the US pledged an additional P296.2 million worth of assistance for women and families affected by the 5-month siege in Marawi. Photograph by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

In Spanish chronicles however, it is only during the final stage of the 333-year Spanish-Moro Wars (a period covering the years 1843-1896) that the Meranaws are mentioned. The battles were between the Moro forces of Datu Akader Akobar and the Spanish forces of Governor General Valeriano Weyler in 1891. They defended the fort with much difficulty, and did so again in 1895 when they fought against Governor General Ramon Blanco. On March 10 of that year, Amai Pakpak and the men of Kuta Marahui all perished defending the fort. Following this tragedy was the slaughter of an entire community inside Kuta Marahui—only a handful managed to run to safety; two of whom were infants.

The community fared no better under American colonial forces, but its warriors were no less brave. American chroniclers wrote up the massacre of Kuta Pandapatan in Baying Lanao, as their “fiercest battle.” It lasted for two days, and took place from the second to the third day of May in 1902. It was the first massacre of Moro communities in Mindanao,  and marked the beginning of the Moro-American War (1902-1915).

These events in their history as a people fostered in them the sense of pride that comes with having been unconquered for centuries. That feeling lasted until May 23, 2017 when the world witnessed the exodus of the Marawi community. For the first time in almost five hundred years, Meranaws fled their homeland, allowing it to become a battleground for terrorists and Philippine Armed Forces. In five short months, the city was pummeled into ruin.

Men work at a local school building at the Sagonsongan Temporary Shelter area in Marawi, Lanao Del Sur, May 21, 2018. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

In those five months, the Meranaws experienced the horror of living outside their homeland as “bakwits” (refugees). It was an unsavory reversal of roles, as Marawi has always stood as a place of refuge for others in the Bangsamoro. It was even a haven for the people of Cagayan de Oro during World War 2. In 2017, they watched in helpless terror as their city and their land shook in the tremors of war. The Marawi Siege exposed a change in the noble warrior character of the Meranaws this last century. Perhaps, as they await for the rehabilitation of Marawi, the Meranaws will also be redefining themselves as a people. Perhaps in this transformative period, the world shall see the dawning of a new Marawi with its people once more returning to the noble character of their ancestors. In Shaa Allah.