National Palace of Antigua Guatemala

Guatemala - Scott #211 (1924)
Guatemala – Scott #211 (1924)

The National Palace of Antigua, or Palacio Nacional de Antigua, is located in the Central Square of Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua is a city in the central highlands of Guatemala famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches. It served as the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also known as Captain General Palace, or Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, currently serves as the headquarters of the Guatemala Institute of Tourism, the Antigua Tourism Association, National Police and the Sacatepquez Department government.

Map of Guatemala
Map of Guatemala
Map of Antigua Guatemala
Map of Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala means “Old Guatemala” and was the third capital of Guatemala. The first capital of was founded on the site of a Kakchikel-Maya city, now called Iximche, on Monday, July 25, 1524 — the day of Saint James — and therefore named Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala). St. James became the patron saint of the city.

After several Kaqchikel uprisings, the capital was moved to a more suitable site in the Valley of Almolonga (place of water) on November 22, 1527, and kept its original name. This new city was located on the site of present-day San Miguel Escobar, which is a neighborhood in the municipality of Ciudad Vieja. This city was destroyed on September 11, 1541, by a devastating lahar from the Volcán de Agua. As a result, the colonial authorities decided to move the capital once more, this time five miles away to the Panchoy Valley. So, on March 10, 1543, the Spanish conquistadors founded present-day Antigua, and again, it was named Santiago de los Caballeros. For more than 200 years, it served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas.

Map of the Kingdom of Guatemala in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
Map of the Kingdom of Guatemala in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

The city was laid out in a square pattern, with streets running north to south and from east to west, with a central square. Both church and government buildings were designated important places around the central plaza. Between 1549 and 1563, property southeast of the square was sold to the crown and occupied by the first president of the Real Audiencia de los Confines: the lawyer Alonso Lopez Cerrato, who also served as governor and captain general. The original building was small and paneled with portal, tile roof, and adobe walls. The city is surrounded by three enormous volcanoes and mountains, plains and hills. This territory was called “Valley of Guatemala” and had 73 villages, two towns and the city of Santiago de los Caballeros

The first two-story building was constructed in 1558 and is in the southeast corner of the Central Plaza. It was made with a wooden floor and arches that support the entire structure. The General Captaincy of Guatemala was governed from this building. It enclosed all of the government, administrative and military offices for the General Captaincy. Construction of the General Captain’s residence and the Real Audiencia began in 1558. The building also housed the Royal Tax office, jail, Army headquarters, horse facilities and warehouses. The full palace was completed by 1678,

Central Park with the Parish of San José and improvised sheds for the collapsed columns of the Palace of the General Captains; 1840
Central Park with the Parish of San José and improvised sheds for the collapsed columns of the Palace of the General Captains; 1840

An earthquake struck Guatemala on September 29, 1717, with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.4, and a Mercalli intensity of approximately IX (Violent). The earthquake essentially destroyed much of the architecture of Antigua Guatemala. Over 3,000 buildings were ruined including many temples and churches. The San Miguel earthquake severely impacted the city of Santiago de los Caballeros; the Royal Palace suffered some damage in rooms and walls. This earthquake made the authorities think about moving the city to a new location less vulnerable to earthquakes, but the city inhabitants strongly opposed this measure and they even went as far as to invade the Palace to make their point. The city did not move, but a considerable number of troops were needed to restore calm. Diego de Porres, city master building fixed the Palace damage and finished by 1720; although he made some more improvements that lasted until 1736.

The San Casimiro earthquakes that stroke the city of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala in 1751 damaged the palace again. Its façade and levels were destroyed, but the remaining basis permitted its rebuilt, in 1755, finishing it in 1764. Nature stroke again when an earthquake in 1773 shook the city. It was intended to transfer the building’s columns when the city moved into the Ermita Valley, but it wasn’t possible because they were too heavy.

Palace of the General Captains of Antigua Guatemala after the Earthquake of Santa Marta and before the reconstruction of its arcades. The columns were kept in the sheds that appear in front of the royal palace.
Palace of the General Captains of Antigua Guatemala after the Earthquake of Santa Marta and before the reconstruction of its arcades. The columns were kept in the sheds that appear in front of the royal palace.

On July 29, 1773, the feast day of Saint Martha of Bethania, a very powerful earthquake hit the city at around 3:00 p.m. One hour later, an even more devastating tremor that lasted for about a minute hit the city again, in the middle of a strong thunderstorm, destroying churches, government office buildings and private homes. It also broke water and food supply chains, as the inhabitants fled to the mountains.

On August 2 and 4, Captain General Martín de Mayorga presided over General Meetings with local authorities, including archbishop Pedro Cortés y Larraz, criollo City Hall members, and regular clergy representatives. They decided to inform King Carlos III and the Indian Council about the destruction and the eventual move of the city to La Ermita Valley, which was not as close to the volcanoes, which were considered the culprit for the destruction of the city at the time.

 Palacio de los Capitanes generales en 1875
Palacio de los Capitanes generales en 1875
General Captaincy of Guatemala Palace after its façade was rebuilt. Taken from Geography of Central America By Dario Gonzalez published in 1896.
General Captaincy of Guatemala Palace after its façade was rebuilt. Taken from Geography of Central America By Dario Gonzalez published in 1896.

On December 13, 1773, two strong earthquakes hit the area once again,  The following year, the Indian Council approved the move to the La Ermita valley. Matías de Gálvez, was in charge of coordinating the move between 1779 and 1783.

On January 16, 1775, master builder Bernardo Ramirez started pulling out all reusable construction material from the destroyed buildings to move it to the new capital city, After this, the Palace was left without doors, windows, balconies, ornaments, etc.

The city remained relatively abandoned during the 19th century, and as such, the Guatemala archbishop sold what was left of monasteries and churches to regular citizens. Some families went back to Antigua to settle there once again, so eventually there had to be some sort of authority that was established in the city and used some of the old buildings to work. Towards the end of the 19th century the old Palace façade was rebuilt, using the stone columns that had been stored for almost a hundred year in makeshift warehouses in front of the Palace. After this work, the less damaged sections such as the jail and government offices were reopened.

Palace of the Captains General of Antigua Guatemala decorated for the Minerva festivities of 1906
Palace of the Captains General of Antigua Guatemala decorated for the Minerva festivities of 1906.
Central Park of Antigua Guatemala in the 1920s.
Central Park of Antigua Guatemala in the 1920s.

On February 4, 1976, Guatemala was struck again by a powerful earthquake of 7.5 in the Richter scale, which destroyed most of country infrastructure and severely damaged the Palace. Its eastern façade had to be demolished. The Palace, along with the rest of Antigua Guatemala was declared a monument of humanity by UNESCO in 1979.

Today, Central Park (Parque Central) is the heart of the city with the reconstructed fountain there acting as a popular gathering spot. To the north of Central Park is the Arco de Santa Catalina, one of the most recognizable architectural landmarks of Antigua.

Government Palace, on main square, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Infrogmation, 1979.
Government Palace, on main square, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Infrogmation, 1979.

La Antigua is noted for its very elaborate religious celebrations during Lent (Cuaresma), leading up to Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Easter (Pascua). Each Sunday during Lent, one of the local parishes sponsors a procession through the streets of Antigua. Elaborate and beautiful artistic carpets, predominantly made of dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needles, and even fruits and vegetables, adorn the processions’ paths.

Due to its popularity among tourists and its very well-developed tourism infrastructure, Antigua Guatemala is often used as a central location from which to visit other tourist areas in Guatemala and Central America. Cruise ships that dock at Guatemalan ports offer trips to Antigua from both the Pacific and Atlantic. Antigua also holds a sizeable retirement community of expatriates from the United States and Europe.

National Palace of Antigua Guatemala
National Palace of Antigua Guatemala
Arches of Government Palace, Antigua Guatemala Photo by Infrogmation, 1979.
Arches of Government Palace, Antigua Guatemala Photo by Infrogmation, 1979.
The Palace of the General Captains in Antigua (Sacatepéquez, Guatemala). Photo taken on January 31, 2011.
The Palace of the General Captains in Antigua (Sacatepéquez, Guatemala). Photo taken on January 31, 2011.

The National Palace of Antigua was first portrayed on a Guatemalan stamp in 1922 (Scott #203), utilizing the same design as seen on Scott #211, featured today). The 25-centavo stamp was printed by Waterlow & Sons, Ltd. in 1922 while the later stamp, released in August 1924, was printed by Perkins Bacon & Company Ltd. Both were perforated 14 and printed in brown ink. Although there are some minor differences between the two stamps, the main method for telling them apart is that the later re-engraved copies feature the imprint PERKINS BACON & CO LD LONDRES along the lower margin while the previous do not. Further uses of the design were stamps printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd. and issued in July-August 1926 (Scott #221) with the added date of 1926, perforated 12½, and a stamp printed by Thomas de la Rue Ltd. and released in January 1929 re-denominated 1 centavo printed in dark brown and perforated 14.

Flag of Guatemala
Flag of Guatemala
Coat of arms of Guatemala
Coat of arms of Guatemala
The colonial coat of arms of Antigua Guatemala and Guatemala City
The colonial coat of arms of Antigua Guatemala and Guatemala City
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