|War and culture comprise Merida's historical
backbone. Inevitably, the citys foundation was not established by means of
books but by means of the sword. Coming from New Granadas city of Pamplona
to search for gold and subdue native Indians if necessary, Spaniard Juan
Rodríguez Suárez (Xuárez), known as The red caped captain, made his way
through the Sierras Nevadas (Snowed Mountains), and arrived exactly in the
village of Xamú or Jamú (nowadays San Juan de Lagunillas, located 19
miles south from todays Merida). Without being authorized by anyone, he
decided to found a city on October 9, 1558 by naming it Merida, in memory
of his native Merida de Extremadura in Spain. But this foundation would
not last for long since, due to the constant attacks by the neighboring
natives, it had to be moved to El Punto in 1559 (a place known today as
Zumba, in the citys south end) where Merida was born for the second time,
though it would not be the last.
Although October 9, 1558 has been recorded in history as the official date of Meridas foundation and Juan Rodríguez Suárez as its founder, it was not deemed as such by New Granadas authorities who considered the foundation illegal for not being official. As a consequence, they sent Juan de Maldonado to legalize the new sites situation and to arrest Rodríguez Suárez. He complied with both orders: he moved the city to its present location, at a higher spot of the plateau, and renamed it Santiago de Los Caballeros de Merida on June 24, 1560. Suárez was taken back to Bogotá for prosecution, with capital punishment as the sentence. Only the intervention of the Archbishop of Bogotá prevented the sentence from taking place, and friends helped him escape. He then returned to the Province of Venezuela and was welcomed and sheltered in Trujillo City, thus becoming Americas first political refugee. However, these troubled early stages of the city resulted in a long history of fights between both Rodríguez Suárezs and Maldonados parties and descendants, which lasted for two centuries.
If struggle--not only against the natives but among the Spaniards--characterized Meridas foundation, the cultural vocation that has given it the nickname of Venezuelas university campus dates from pre-Hispanic times. This territory used to be the home for Tatuy or Mucumbache culture, considered the northernmost expression of the Inca culture. It is not surprising that San Francisco Javier Seminary, created by Jesuits in 1600, would be a seed sown in fertile land which two centuries later would bear its greatest fruit: the university, aim and bed of Meridas arts and science, and second in seniority to that of Caracas.
After creating the Capitanía General de Venezuela in 1777, which separated these lands from Provincia de Pamplona in New Granada, Merida emerged as an Episcopal See in 1778 and, in 1780, Brother Juan Ramos de Lora was appointed as the first bishop of Merida and Maracaibos diocese. Even though it took him five years to settle in Merida, it only took him one month and three days to found in 1785 a study center which would later become Real Colegio Seminario de San Buenaventura de Merida and, in 1810, it would turn into Pontificia Universidad de San Buenaventura de Merida de Los Caballeros. Transformed in 1832, it acquired its present name of Universidad de Los Andes in 1883. The university has not only characterized Meridas history and idiosyncrasy, but has also covered it geographically, since its faculties are spread around different urban areas. In the words of Meridean intellectual Mariano Picón Salas, Merida is a university with a city inside.
The above-mentioned year of 1810 is noteworthy for the level of cohabitation between Meridas books and artillery. On September 16, the city proclaimed its support to the independence cause begun in Caracas on April 19 of the same year. On September 21, five days later, the university was born. The citys independent spirit, probably inherited from its untamed founder, meant a huge amount of human and material sacrifice as well as glorious pages during Simón Bolívars "Admirable Campaign" and, especially, during his journey through the Andes in 1813. Merida was the first city to grant him the title of Liberator, and it is here where the first monument in memory of Bolívar was erected in the world, which consists of a column and a bust built in 1842 and that can be appreciated at the Parque de Las Cinco Repúblicas (Five Republics Park).
Merida was not only struck by war throughout its history but by Mother Nature as well. The renowned writer from Merida, Tulio Febres Cordero, recorded a list with a total of 131 seismic movements that occurred from 1610 (the year in which the first earthquake recorded and described by Brother Pedro Simón took place) to 1930. One of the most tragic tremors was in 1812, when about 1,000 people lost their lives, a devastating figure for a population who, 60 years later and according to 1873s census, had barely reached 3,317 inhabitants.
Fortunately, the great wars and earthquakes are buried in the past, allowing this noble town to fully develop the vast wealth that characterizes it. Its richness ranges from the diligent harvesting of the crops on the rough mountains' slopes and the delicate production of the most varied handicraft, to the greatest scientific and humanistic contributions made by its inhabitants, and their present leadership in regard to state-of-the-art technology, communications, and tourism.
Present Merida, with a population of 600,000 in the year 2000, is a worthy child of her history. The ancient and educated pre-Hispanic indigenous people who lived in these heights would not have disliked the city that graces their land these days.
Mother Earth Travel > Venezuela > Merida > History