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See the Marvelous Pre-Colonial Castles of the Ivatan in Batanes

These now-mossy monuments to the pre-Hispanic Ivatan's ingenuity.
IMAGE DR. EUSEBIO DIZON
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In and around Batanes' great rolling hills, there are remnants and facsimiles of the country's old masters. We have Spanish shrines, like the Basco and Tayid lighthouses. On Tukon Hills, we get the Dipnaysupuan Japanese Tunnel. We look to Batan's Ivana and there we can find the oldest surviving stone house in the island, the House of Dakay.

What we don't see are 4,000-year-old pre-colonial shrines that have witnessed the island's history unravel.

Covered in sticky moss, undone pastures, and wild roots are the pre-colonial fortresses of the Ivatan people called Ijang.

The term Ijang, or Idjang, which literally translates into "refuge" or "mountain fortress," is derived from the Ivatan word “idi.” These citadels were carved out of the mountains by pre-Hispanic Ivatans.

One of the first accounts of an Ijang comes from the English navigator and "privateer" Captain William Dampier. Arriving first in Batan, his crew visited the Batanes islands from August to September 1687. Batan and Sabtang at the time were adorned with terraced and defended settlements along its inland and coastal areas. 

Located southwest of Savidug Village in Sabtang Island is the Savidug Ijang, which is one of the most studied sites in the islands. Traces of human settlement here were found to be from the 10th to 14th century.

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These rocky hilltop settlements, which are inherent to Austronesian societies, served as structures for defense against hostile clans. Some even posit that these were effective against outside threats like pirates and raiders. The Ivatan would throw stones atop the Ijang during confrontation.

These stone structures were also used for inhabitation and protection from harsh weathers. Each Ivatan community was said to have an Ijang of their own. The terraces around the living areas, meanwhile, primarily operated as agricultural domains for camote and various traditional crops. Evidence of inhabitation was recorded when earthenware vessels, glass beads, jar burials, and other ceramics were found.

Renowned researchers like Dr. Eusebio Dizon have pointed to the Gusuku in Japan as a comparable archaeological marvel to Ijang. These pre-historic Okinawan castles found in the Ryuku Islands exhibit much of the same characteristics.

Coincidentally, documented site trips to Ijangs have unearthed 12th-century Sung-type ceramics and Chinese beads, which are dated during the same time as when the foundations for Okinawan castles were laid.

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Even when Spanish forces claimed Batanes in 1783 under Governor-General José Basco y Vargas, the Ivatan people still remained in their Ijangs (Although gradually Ivatan culture did fall prey to homogenization and disenfranchisement during those years).

It was only in the 1790s when Ivatans were forced to leave the confines of those drum-like stone walls, which were supposedly done for the purposes of taxation under decree. Christianity had also become widespread in the island. This effectively led to more villagers abandoning the citadels.

Throughout the islands of Batan, Sabtang, Itbayat and Ivuhos, there are about 21 documented Ijang sites in the region, many of which we can still visit today.

The Ijang serves as a monument to the island's pre-Hispanic identity. They might get lost in the wave of modern westernization, but they are nevertheless reminders of the great ingenuity of our ancestors. More than that, it shows us an infinite glimpse of what development looked like outside colonial systems.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the Assistant Section Editor of Esquire Philippines.
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