From: Ravelings of a Panama Tapestry by Sue Core
At the time of its destruction, Panama Viejo's population was largely Spanish, the greater part of whom belonged to the nobility and originated from Seville. They were described as being "very polite and of much understanding."
There were in the city several hundred dwellings of the better class, built of wood and stone, handsomely constructed and elegantly furnished. Besides these there were also hundreds of humbler houses belonging to the common people, many warehouses stocked with foreign goods, a hospital, the King's Stables, a Genoese slave market, a magnificent cathedral, six convents, and several beautiful churches. One of the most important of these churches was San Jose, celebrated particularly because of the magnificence of a carved cedar altar it contained.
A band of English buccaneers under the leadership of Captain Henry Morgan attacked and captured the city in 1671. Immediately after its fall, a fire was started which demolished the entire city. Historical authorities disagree in placing the blame for this deplorable act. Most of them accuse Morgan of starting the blaze but others hold that the governor, Juan Perez de Guzman, ordered it done to cheat the pirates of
Whosoever it be, when Morgan's band finally departed, only the royal houses and the Church of San Jose were left standing. Some historians list the Church of La Merced also among the edifices saved.
The famous altar from Panama Viejo's San Jose was later installed in a church of the same name which was built in the new city. A few years ago, the better to preserve the wood from decay, it was plated with gold leaf and may still be seen at Avenida "A," not far from the sea wall in the Panama City of today. "The Church of the Gold Altar," as San Jose is popularly known, is one of Panama's most historic edifices.
The Saga of the Sacred Garden
Cradled softly now in the deeply enveloping silence of past centuries lies much of the glamorous history covering that soul stirring long-ago era which encompassed the rise and fall of haughty Spain's dominion in the New World - a cycle symbolized in the West by the birth, life, and death of her wonder city, Panama Viejo, the Pearl of Darien.
Unrecorded by the hand of man was much of the kaleidoscopic pageant of light and shade, of tears and laughter, which made up the life of Panama Viejo four centuries ago. That part of its early history which has survived the on-slaughts of time, exists for us today chiefly in the ringing sagas of a once proud people, told now by wistful-eyed progenitors who have borne the yoke of servitude for hundreds of years.
In telling and re-telling these tales of lost grandeur, the lowly peon, humble and servile in the haughty presence of his conquerors, comes momentarily into his own and recaptures fleetingly a semblance of that lost dignity and pride of being which was the heritage of his ancestors before their enslavement by the white man.
With facial lineaments blotted out by the velvety murk of night, his soul emerges from out the darkness solely as a voice, strong, vibrant, and resonant, as among his fellows he recounts again and again the ancient prideful achievements of his yet unconquered race.
Reverently, awesomely, he recalls the halcyon days before the coming of the Spaniards; when Paquo Meecho, benign sovereign of the jungle lands, ruled in the fastnesses of Darien. And one of the tales he loves best is woven about a concrete proof of that jungle god's supreme eminence which even yet rests in their very midst: a lasting testimonial to Paquo Meecho's victory long ago over the white man's Prince of Darkness.
Ages ago, so begins the aching melody of the tale, Paquo Meecho's earth children, under his direction, constructed along the curving shoreline of the Bay of Many Fish a fair village sacred to his name, wherein all things were done according to the divine commands of the jungle god.
Compassionate as a father was Paquo Meecho, giving heed to all who suffered and were heavy-laden. He fed the hungry, lightened the burdens of the footsore and weary, and healed the sick and dying. He lifted the fallen nestling and guided the lost wanderer to safe haven and rest.
God of all things good was Paquo Meecho. Sorely grieved was his heart over the selfishness and cruelty which caused his children to commit earthly crimes one against the other. Finally, in order to soften the many injustices which men were wont to inflict upon their weaker brethren, as well as to furnish a refuge for the weary and those hard pressed or doomed to death, he decreed in his name an eternal sanctuary for all such in the village of Panama, which was sacred to his name.
Near the outskirts of the hamlet, where the grass was deeply cool and where the filtering sunbeams traced patterns of delicate lacework through the whispering leaves, he consecrated a large park-like enclosure wherein no creature should evermore come to harm.
The hunted fugitive fleeing for his life had but to reach the Sacred Garden and touch the ever flower-bedecked altar within, to be saved. The runaway slave, the wounded stag from the forest, even the condemned murderer, all were immune from any further persecution by men once they had reached the confines of this sheltered haven.
However, even as Paquo Meecho was compassionate and merciful to the needy, so was he stirred to wrath and vengeance toward any who disobeyed his holy mandates. With the swiftness of lightning he smote down all who dared violate his commandment of mercy in the Sacred Garden. In time it became so that in all the land there was none who dared trespass against the holy law.
It so happened, therefore, that long after the village of Paquo Meecho had been buried under the rising towers of Panama Viejo, the Sacred Garden remained unmolested. Strangely mysterious catastrophes were said swiftly and surely to befall all those who sneeringly attempted to desecrate its sacred environs with white men's edifices.
Finally, convinced, His Majesty's architects one and all pronounced the spot accursed and passed it by with a shudder to set up their stone pillars elsewhere.
The ancient story goes on to tell how, after the passage of many years, there came one day from across the ocean, a kindly builder who found beauty and sweetness in the Bush People's worship of Paquo Meecho. One who with tolerant gentleness and respect forbore the harsh desecration's which his countrymen were wont to commit against the shrines of the jungle god. Though faithful to his own deity, he could listen to the teachings of Paquo Meecho and find them good.
Paquo Meecho was pleased. Smiling upon the builder, blessing and calling him friend, the jungle potentate decreed that in the inescapable devastation of the city which, it was written in the heavens, was one day to be exacted from the Spaniards as payment for their sinful trespasses against him, the handiwork of this one man should stand unmolested and unscathed.
He should erect his pillared arches upon the protected area of the Sacred Garden and when the doom-blackened day of reckoning should lay the proud head of Panama Viejo in the dust, the treasured monument of his toil should be left unharmed.
Reverently the builder went about his work. His was the privileged commission of raising in His Majesty's wilderness city a massive lofty-pillared church which would resound throughout the ages with paens of praise to the white man's Savior. It was designed also as a receptacle for a wondrous altar carved by the monks of Spain from the sacred cedar of Lebanon - a gift from the Queen herself to the shrine of San Jose in the New World.
Because of the spiritual value of the precious altar, the builder worked so lovingly and carefully to make its resting place a monument of enduring beauty that when at last he had finished, he knew his work to be good. Laying down his tools when he had done, he communed for a time with the god of the jungle world as one kindly benevolent friend to another.
"Be kind, O Paquo Meecho," he entreated, "to this, my tribute to the Savior I worship and serve. As thou hast worked for goodness in all things for thy jungle children, treat gently this shrine to the Father of my fathers - for He also is a benevolent God of the out-of-doors!"
Paquo Meecho smiled through the benign serenity of dancing sunbeams and cloud wreaths curling their fleecy tresses into the azure blue of the morning. Then, summoning his myriad occult messengers from their invisible fastnesses, he bade them carry far and wide over land and sea and forest the news that the Church of San Jose in Panama Viejo was pleasing in the sight of the jungle world, and should be treated gently by the elements.
Long after the hands of the kindly builder had crumbled to dust, the solemn cloisters in the Church of San Jose continued to resound with the echo of music, the solemn chanting of priests, and the murmured devotions of the faithful who sought divine guidance in the sequestered peace of its cool interior. Tall tapers gleamed before its wondrous altar while the deep intoning of its bells proclaimed far and wide that an enduring monument to God had been raised up in the wilderness.
After many years of haughtily tranquil security, so the story continues, there suddenly descended upon Panama Viejo the inexorable doom which was foreordained at the time of her birth. Smitten in the high tide of her beauty, she was left writing, bleeding, dying, from mortal wounds received at the brutal hands of the pirate Morgan and his invaders.
At the end of the wild orgy of murder, torture, fire, and pillage with which the marauders devastated the city, one temple of God, and one only, was left untouched among the smoking ruins - the Church of San Jose.
Not by chance alone had the sacred edifice been spared. Band after band of the lust-maddened buccaneers had essayed to wreak upon it the same fate which they meted out to all other churches in the city, but it was guarded by something stronger than mortal hand and they were baffled in their effort to do it injury.
At each attempted assault the outlaws were hurled back by some mysterious power which gripped their souls with stark horror before they could so much as set foot inside the sacred portals. And after one encounter which left their eyes dilated with terror, they dropped their weapons and fled on fear-winged feet, nor could they again be persuaded to go near the place.
After the indomitable Captain Morgan, scoffing at his men's reports, essayed the deed himself and was left white-lipped and trembling from his encounter with an all-powerful fury which he could not see, hear, nor feel, he choked back the surging tumult of fright within his soul and, declaring the edifice bewitched, gave order that thenceforward it be left unmolested.
Thus it happened that the Church of San Jose with its wondrous altar was left standing intact among the charred and smoking ruins of Panama Viejo when Morgan at last left the glutted city and started his march to the Castle on the Chagres.
Immediately following the departure of the pirates from the fallen city, a courageous program of reconstruction work was instituted by the surviving inhabitants, whereby a newer and better city was forged in the cleansing fires that had destroyed the old.
Due to the urgency of providing fortifications and governmental edifices in the new project, however, the old Church of San Jose and its precious altar were left to molder undisturbed among ruins of Panama Viejo, tacitly forgotten by the world at large for many years.
Finally, after the passage of several generations, another San Jose was built in Panama Nuevo. It was designed as a resting place for the ancient carved altar which was duly and reverently installed with the pomp and ceremony befitting its historic importance.
Later, in recognition of the role it had played in the tragic life drama of the older city, it was plated with pure leaf gold and will continue to sparkle and gleam under softly burning altar candles for many centuries to come.