Monte Santo in Bahia – Tourist Sites and History

The architectural complex of the town of Monte Santo in Bahia has great scenic and symbolic beauty, combining natural and cultural heritage, and is one of the greatest landmarks of religious movements in the Northeast – one of Brazil’s “montes sacros” (holy mountains, a place of devotion located on the top of a mountain).

The Sanctuary of Monte Santo has been a place of religious pilgrimage and religious tourism for centuries.

cidade de Monte Santo BA
cidade de Monte Santo BA

The town of Monte Santo is located at the foot of the Serra do Piquaraçá (Serra da Santa Cruz), at the base of Monte Santo, in the middle of a sandy plain that slopes gently down to the Itapicuru River Valley.

Serra da Santa Cruz - Monte Santo na Bahia
Serra da Santa Cruz – Monte Santo na Bahia

The architectural, urban, natural and landscape ensemble of Monte Santo was listed by IPHAN in 1983.

Historical site of Monte Santo BA

Monte Santo is one of the greatest landmarks of religious movements in the Northeast and the second recognised sacred hill in Brazil.

Foto antiga da cidade de Monte Santo na Bahia
Foto antiga da cidade de Monte Santo na Bahia

Monte Santo’s architectural complex includes the chapels of Nossa Senhora das Dores (built in the 18th century) and Senhor dos Passos (in the 20th century), as well as the collection of ex-votos offered by pilgrims over almost 200 years.

The Monte Santo Sanctuary is directly inspired by the Italian tradition, which tries to recreate a sacred mountain – Mount Calvary.

The Monte Santo Sanctuary precedes the Santuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos in Congonhas do Campo MG

Congonhas MG was only transformed into a sacred hill between 1802 and 1818, when the six Steps were built and the groups of the Passion of Christ executed by Antônio Francisco Lisboa, the Aleijadinho, from 1795 to 1799, were placed there.

The listing also covers the urban centre’s streets with buildings along their entire length.

This group of streets in the town of Monte Santo is located near the mountains, where the Via Sacra or Via Crucis (sacred way or way of the Cross) begins.

On Senhor dos Passos Street is the Hospedaria dos Romeiros (Pilgrims’ Hostel), the first house to house pilgrims who arrived in Monte Santo with the aim of obtaining graces or paying promises.

The protected area covers the entire Serra do Piquaraçá and the area around the main road, Rua Senhor dos Passos, where the Way of the Cross begins during Holy Week.

This is the main base of the listed complex, formed by a path that follows the tortuous lines of the mountainside, from the town to the top, where the church is located. It is characterised as a very specific space dedicated exclusively to religious activities.

The other neighbourhoods close to the mountain, which make up the historic site, have a harmonious architectural identity and are made up of simple, mostly single-storey houses.

At the top of the mountain is the Sanctuary of the Holy Cross of Monte Santo, built 1969 metres from the first chapel, at the start of the steep path along which the traditional pilgrimages are made. Along the way, there are 25 chapels with the Passion Steps and the life of Mary.

Historical records indicate that Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel (Antônio Conselheiro) – religious leader and creator of Canudos – visited Monte Santo around 1892, where he carried out repairs and improvements to the Way of the Cross, accompanied by thousands of followers.

Five years later, Monte Santo would become the main military base of the bloody Guerra de Canudos. These episodes served to consolidate the occupation of Monte Santo and increase its mystery and fame.

The municipality is also known as the place where the Bendegó meteorite, weighing approximately 6000 kilos, was found in 1784 and is considered to be one of the largest in the world. In 1887, the meteorite was transported to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, where it is still kept.

Vista aérea de Monte Santo BA

Tourist Sites and Monuments of Monte Santo BA

  1. Monte Santo Way of the Cross
  2. Chapel of the Holy Cross
  3. Museum of Monte Santo (former residential property, built at the beginning of the 20th century)
  4. Streets Senhor dos Passos, Frei Apolônio Toddi, Coronel José Cordeiro, Barão de Jeremoabo, and das Flores.
  5. Monte Santo Sanctuary

The Monte Santo Sanctuary is made up of stairs and ramps between dry stone walls.

The path to the Monte Santo Sanctuary is 2 km long and 320 metres uphill, with 25 chapels built in stone.

Caminho de pedra ao Santuário de Monte Santo BA
Caminho de pedra ao Santuário de Monte Santo BA

Of these 25 chapels, 21 are small steps, two medium-sized chapels and two large ones, which mark the starting and ending points of the pilgrimage: the Matriz do Santíssimo Coração de Jesus, in the town, and the Capela de Santa Cruz, at the top of the mountain and preceded by a cross.

The first three are dedicated to the Souls, the Lord of the Steps and St Joseph respectively. The following ones are dedicated to the Virgin’s sufferings.

The last of these, that of Our Lady of Sorrows, is located in the middle of the road, forcing pilgrims to cross its nave. This chapel serves as a gateway to the fourteen stations of the Passion which, unlike the previous ones, are located on the left hand side of the ascent.

First appearing in Italy during the Renaissance, the sacro-montes saw their greatest development during the Baroque period.

In Portugal, these landscape complexes, which attempted to recreate Mount Calvary, spread to the north of the country in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Bahia’s sacro-monte is the first manifestation of this type in Brazil and is directly inspired by the Italian tradition, including the name it adopted.

History of Monte Santo in Bahia

The region – inhabited by the Caimbé Indians – was part of the great Morgado da Casa da Torre, an immense estate started by Garcia d’Ávila in the 16th century. Despite the fact that Fazenda Cassucá was the first point surveyed, the settlement that gave rise to the present-day town of Monte Santo was formed on the lands of Fazenda Soledade, which were leased to João Dias de Andrade in 1750.

The farmland had belonged to Garcia d’Ávila’s Casa da Torre since the 17th century. At the foot of the Serra de Piquaraçá, the tenant built his house and a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Conception.

Monte Santo was originally known as Piquaraçá (Araçá Peak), a legendary place mentioned in the countless chronicles of the old bandeirantes and in their travelling itineraries.

During the 17th century, it served as an orientation point and landing place for adventurers who travelled through the backlands in search of precious metals.

The origin of the Sanctuary of Santa Cruz do Monte Santo is attributed to Friar Apolônio de Toddi, a Capuchin missionary who travelled through the region and, in 1785, considered the top of the mountain that dominates the landscape of that area to be similar to Jerusalem’s Calvary.

It is said that the friar carried out his religious work at the foot of the mountain and, on All Saints’ Day, organised a procession to its summit, placing wooden crosses along the way.

During the procession, there was a storm with very strong winds, which was quelled by the Capuchin’s prayers.

He travelled on the following day, but the locals attributed miracles to the place, which led to the name being changed from Serra do Piquaraçá to Monte Santo.

Along the 1,969 metres of the Via Sacra, the primitive wooden crosses gave way to 25 chapels that house images of great popular devotion at the top of the sanctuary. In 1791, the work was completed.

From then on, Monte Santo became a place of pilgrimage, attracting the faithful from all over the hinterland, especially during the feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Holy Thursday, when there is a large procession to the top of the hill.

In support of this activity, a small trade sprang up, which attracted other more lasting economic activities – livestock farming, agriculture, and leather, fibre and ceramic handicrafts.

The parish was created in 1790, with the name of Santíssimo Coração de Jesus e Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Monte Santo changed in 1837 to Vila do Coração de Jesus de Monte Santo. In 1929, the town was elevated to the category of city, with the name of Monte Santo.

A century after Friar Apolônio de Todi created the sacred hill, a famous figure, Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel (Antônio Conselheiro) from Ceará, wandered the lands south of the Vaza Barris river and north of the Itapicuru river, preaching, building churches and cemeteries.

In 1893, Conselheiro founded the town of Belo Monte (Canudos) on land that then belonged to Monte Santo, the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in Brazilian history.

Although Conselheiro knew Monte Santo, it was around 1892 that, accompanied by thousands of followers, he carried out a series of repairs and improvements to Monte Santo’s Via Sacra.

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