It’s a small, silent town. It is called São Miguel das Missões and is in the Northeast of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state. In a more detailed examination of the streets, surrounded by vegetation and crops, however, it is possible to hear people speaking English, French and Spanish, and sometimes even Japanese.
The peaceful São Miguel houses one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, the ruins of São Miguel, an archaeological site of a Jesuit priest and Indian community that existed there in the XVII century, Redução de São Miguel Arcanjo.
The site attracts tourists from all over Brazil and abroad, mainly from Latin America and Europe. According to the head of the technical office of the Institute for National Artistic and Historical Heritage (Iphan), Candice Ballester, the ruins of São Miguel receive some 60,000 visitors a year.
Recent research shows that 25% of the visitors are foreign. The historic connection of the site with Europe and Latin America makes these regions mostly responsible for the tourists visiting the sites. “They are tourists seeking information while traveling,” said Candice.
She explains that Europeans are frequent visitors as the ruins end up being promoted by the office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in Paris, France.
The site was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 1983. “Several of the tourists focus on the cultural area, working with preservation – they are historians. But there are also people like an Argentinean who is riding his bicycle around America,” explained Candice.
Despite attracting tourists for its historic value, the archaeological site of the ancient Jesuit mission enchants due to its natural beauty. The ruins are in the midst of a broad lawn, in a quiet city, and it is possible to hear birds and the sound of distant chats.
The most preserved building at the site is the ancient church of the community. There are also many remnants, like the walls of the houses of priests, of workshops and of the school. In the orchard, plants that were cultivated in the seventeenth century were planted.
The formation of the community took place in the context of the Jesuit missions, when the Catholic Church’s Society of Jesus, from Spain, decided to send members to evangelize the Indians who lived in America.
The community of São Miguel Arcanjo was established in 1687, as part of the Seven People of the Missions, which are the seven Jesuit settlements in the region at the time, in an area that is currently in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, but that then belonged to the Spanish.
The priests also set up communities in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, also in the area under Spanish domain, and then decided to cross the Uruguay River.
São Miguel settlement operated for several years, mixing the social model of the Guarani Indians with that of the Jesuits. In 1750, however, the Treaty of Madrid resulted in a revision of the Treaty of Tordesillas and the governments of Portugal and Spain redefined their possessions in the region.
The Seven Settlements of the Missions were granted to the Portuguese and the Indians would have to cross over to the other bank. This resulted in a revolution, the Guarani War, between 1754 and 1756.
To control the situation, Portugal and Spain joined forces against the Indians. At the time a fierce warrior became very famous, due to his leadership in the fight, chief Sepé Tiaraju.
A new treaty resulted in everything returning to how it was before. But the Jesuits were expelled from their missions and then, in the early 18th century, when Portugal took command of the region once again, the communities had already dissipated and spread to other areas.
In the ruins of São Miguel, every evening there is a light and music spectacle, as well as a play telling the story of the region, with special attention to the Indian warrior.
At the archaeological site, there is also a museum, created by urbanist Lúcio Costa, who designed Brasília. It includes 120 religious images, of saints and angels, among others, which were carved by priests and Indians – mainly Indians – in the XVII Century.
The community of Indians was made up mainly of Guaranis. Currently, a family of Mbyá Guarani Indians, one of the Guarani lines, lives in São Miguel das Missões and sells handicraft in the archaeological site.
São Miguel Ruins
São Miguel das Missões – Rio Grande do Sul
Further information: (+55 55) 3381 1300