Saints, Sinners and Masons. A Trip into Colombia’s Heartland

“As they sailed down to the coast the river had grown more vast and solemn, like a swamp with no beginning or end, and the heat was so dense you could touch it with your hands.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – The General in His Labyrinth.

My chosen fighter lay breathing its last in the cement ring while all around me people cheered, spat, swigged bottles of beer and fistfuls of crumpled pesos changed hands. Just a couple of hours previously I had arrived in Mompox from Cartagena and here I found myself 10,000 Colombian Pesos in the red at the local cock fight and with that lethal jab my days as a cock fight gambler came to an abrupt halt.

How could I have known that the events of Easter 2007 on assignment to write about Mompox’s famously austere Semana Santa would lead me to run my luck, choose an ingredient of magic realism and open a guesthouse in the Garciamarquian heartland of Colombia, a region where legends and superstitions are no more fiction than reality and where shamans are as much in demand as the priests at Mass.

Mompox, a UNESCO a world heritage site, founded in 1540 on the banks of the River Magdalena, played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. On November 3, 1812 it was awarded the title of Ciudad Valerosa, or Courageous City, for having been the first to declare absolute independence from Spain.

The old town consisting of three wide straight and dusty streets is not hard to navigate. Lined with large windowed whitewashed one storey colonial mansions that run parallel to the river it remains largely as it was and gives the idea of what a rural Spanish Colonial city was like.

Expansion has grown far beyond the three original streets and with its renowned Semana Santa celebrations it is a key destination for religiously inspired Colombians for this holiday period. But how much does the average Colombian holiday-maker know about the history of Mompox? New research undertaken by the Academia de Historia de Mompox and local historian Virgilio DiFilippo suggests that the town really owes its existence to more shady elements such as smuggling, contraband and rampant Masonic involvement.

Certainly, when Simon Bolivar, liberator of much of South America said: “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory,” he was truly grateful to the 400 or so Momposinos who in 1812 joined his ranks and followed him into the battle for Caracas. It is up for debate whether all or some of those soldiers from Mompox actually made it to Caracas. It has been suggested that the altitudes and weather encountered in the Andes led many of the volunteers to return to the Mompox depression.

Momposinos will have you believe that Bolivar came here because he was enamoured with the city. In effect, Bolivar knew he would recruit an army in Mompox, he also knew that here was the seat of the Gutierrez Pineres family – still here today and still in possession of the house on the Albarrada – themselves famed Masons and therefore bound to aid a fellow Mason like Bolivar.

Such is the Masonic influence in Mompox that DiFilippo and others have started research on the symbolism of the street grid to the old city plan. Listening to his enthusiasm and reasoning, it is hard to deny Templar involvement. It just seems that there are too many coincidences to deny some sort of Masonic involvement. While this revelation is a spiny topic to the religious institutions in Mompox, the layout does lend itself to certain conspiracies and since Mompox was is a city of complex paradoxes, why not entertain such mysteries? After all, the contraband route from the Guajira peninsula to the interior via Mompox was routinely referred to as the Camino de Jerusalen – the Pathway to Jerusalem.

Aside from members of the Academia de Historia de Mompox there are few individuals willing to support the Masonic theories, most prefer to steer the conversation back to the issue at hand, Semana Santa and its austerity – to put it into the perhaps insincere words of the President of Semana Santa – “as a gift from Momposinos to God”.

This is all interesting and of course not wrong, but how can one balance Catholicism alongside pagan worship and so unashamedly promote Mompox as a pious Catholic destination for pilgrims? I too have fallen victim to some pagan worship when my mother in law, in my defence, in my absence, while we were in a lull at the guesthouse having received few guests that month, had the house blessed by an alternative party in addition to having attended Mass that morning. Later that afternoon nine unannounced guests turned up. With this incident I was converted.

To back up the alternative vision of Mompos one can dissect the Semana Santa celebrations as anticlerical as on the streets during processions you are not going to see Priests, only at Palm Sunday, you will solely encounter scores of Nazarenes in heavy purple and blue smocks suffering under the weight of the ornate wooden carvings and sweltering heat.

Masons and shamans, what next?

DiFilippo explained that the very notion of the division between the contemporary political entities could have stemmed directly from the indigenous settlements existing in Mompox prior to colonial settlement. First were rival shamans who defined the boundaries of their own ceremonial centres and later these boundaries became greater territorial divisions between interpretations of various religious groups, Dominicans, Jesuits, Augustinians to name just a few.

But these territorial conflicts that have been embedded in the city’s identity since its conception have assumed politics and of course have shaped the current belief system where Catholicism is ranked, albeit clandestinely, alongside that of shamanistic rituals.

But, I suggest it to you that you leave it all aside, pull up a chair at a riverside kiosk, order an ice cold beer and let the breeze from the Magdalena lend its favours while you contemplate that here exists a place where entire families sit in their rocking chairs, conversing into the early hours in an almost other-worldy existence. Mompox is a place that people disbelieve and then embrace with vigour.

Once your head is whipped clean by the hot Caribbean sea air that buffets the famed walled city of Cartagena give in to the literary travel bug and head into the interior following the Magdalena river 249km inland to Mompox, Gabo country, heartland for the liberator Simon Bolivar and the Masons, birthplace of black poet Candelario Obeso, setting for a solemn Semana Santa and what I believe to represent the true Colombia.

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