buildings in salvador

Exploring the Brazilian City of Salvador da Bahia in Honor of World Heritage Day

Every year, on the 18th of April, World Heritage Day is observed based on a theme. This year’s theme was Complex Pasts: Diverse Future.

This post explores the heritage of Salvador da Bahia, a historic city in the northeast of Brazil that I personally believe encapsulates this year’s theme very well.

The post begins by explaining the importance of World Heritage Day, then, it explains this year’s theme and how it is celebrated. It then proceeds to talk about Salvador focusing on the Historic Centre of the city, its culture and its impact on Brazilian society.


World Heritage Day

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) declared this day as World Heritage Day in 1982. This declaration was ratified by UNESCO in the following year.

World Heritage Day, also known as the International Day of Monuments and Sites is celebrated to make people more aware of the significance, existence and vulnerabilities of various cultural heritage around the world. Awareness provides citizens of this planet a reason to do whatever they can to protect and preserve their heritage.

Though the focus of this day is given to tangible elements of heritage, it isn’t limited to it. The intangible aspects are in fact tied to physical sites and vice-versa, making them interdependent.

Preserving heritage would protect the ancient legacy that our ancestors left behind. It is the identity, beliefs, principles, customs and rituals formed over several generations. It represents the very existence of a group of people. Therefore, the day also acts as a reminder to the present generation to do their bit in transmitting their heritage to the next generation.

Finally,  the efforts made by people and organizations from around the world to conserve and promote cultural heritage are acknowledged on this day as well.


The 2021 Theme 

As mentioned earlier, ‘Complex Pasts: Diverse Future’ was this year’s theme. But what does it mean?

In order to protect cultural heritage, one must trace its origins. This would help in understanding why the practices are important to preserve and will provide a reason to practice them.

Recently, issues with our current comprehension of history have been highlighted. This is because most of it was recorded by the more privileged groups in our world. As such, there is a gap in understanding and recognizing different cultures, therefore, obstructing their preservation.

Acknowledging conflicted and multi-layered origins require the willingness to communicate about challenging topics from a neutral perspective and open mind. That is what this year’s theme is about. It is also about keeping each other’s differences aside to unite as one.

Both UNESCO and ICOMOS encourages the initiation of challenging conversations about what we already know from various points of view, thus welcoming out-of-the-box opinions. Discussions and an exchange of ideas between groups not only help in finding answers to questions but, also evoke vulnerabilities and difficulties faced preserving heritage. For example, housing issues, treatment of sites, etc.

After all, discouraging or not recognizing a heritage is ultimately a loss for the world.


How is World Heritage Day Celebrated?

As organizations and scientific communities 

A wide range of organisations, ICOMOS Regional centres, National and International Scientific Committees arrange the following so that individuals around the world can observe the day:


  • Publish articles in journals, newspapers and magazines.
  • Design posters and postcards calling people to take action, to protect their cultural heritage.
  • Put up banners or posters in public spaces, with the permission of the local authorities to promote the day.
  • Arrange conversations in the form of interviews, dialogues, conferences with experts, artists, and personalities.
  • Showcase photos or paintings at an exhibition.
  • Acknowledge efforts of organizations that have worked towards preserving and promoting their cultural heritage by presenting awards to them.
  • Arrange relevant activities in schools and colleges to engage the youth.
  • Inaugurate a recently refurbished monument.

As individuals 

Normally, the best way to celebrate the day would be by visiting World Heritage sites, other historic monuments, locations and exhibitions.

When visiting a site, find out whether they are taking any measures to preserve the place and the associated culture and adhere to them.

If you happen to stumble upon a site that isn’t protected but, you believe that it needs to be conserved, you can submit the details of the place to ICOMOS. That way, you can do your part in preserving your local heritage.

Another way to honour the day is by attending events specifically organized to celebrate World Heritage Day or, by attending any event organized by the aforementioned organizations.

Lastly, posting pictures of historic sites on social media by applying the HeritageDay hashtag, is also a great way to promote the day.


Observing World Heritage Day Amidst a Global Pandemic

This year, most of the events were held online. Only a few countries with a lower number of COVID-19 cases, opened up either their community centres or heritage sites to organize events.

Just yesterday, workshops, webinars, virtual conferences, presentations, lectures, shows, documentaries, quizzes, round table discussions, international dialogues and, video streamings were organized internationally to observe the day.

Plus, a virtual exhibition was set up by Google Arts & Culture for us to explore the different UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world from the comfort of our homes.

Now that we know more about World Heritage Day, let’s proceed to explore the Brazilian city of Salvador.

Why Salvador da Bahia?

You may be wondering why this city was chosen for this post. That is because The theme talks about coming together as one despite the differences, this ideology is reflected in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé that most likely originated in the city of Salvador, Bahia. This ideology is also reflected in the legalization of the religion in 1976 and also in the city of Salvador itself.  Keep reading to find out the details.

About Salvador 

Salvador city is the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia in Brazil. The city is located on a peninsula that is bordered by water on both sides. To the west, there is the Todos os Santos Bay, while the Atlantic Ocean lies to the east. The city, therefore, separates the two bodies of water. The city is divided into two parts, the lower city or the Cidade Baixa and the upper city or Cidade Alta. The latter is located at a height of 85m housing buildings dating back to the 17th to 19th centuries, while the Cidade Baixa includes the coast.

brazil map
Map of Brazil indicating the location of the city of Salvador. Image Credit: Becoming Brazilian

Currently, Salvador is the 4th largest city in the country with a population of 2.9 million.

The city is most known for its UNESCO enlisted colonial Historic Centre, for hosting the largest Carnival in the world, for its large Afro-Brazilian population and for being the epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Salvador’s Timeline

1549: Tome de Souza, a member of the Portuguese nobility and the first governor-general of Brazil found Salvador and made it Brazil’s first capital in 1549. The centre of the town was designed to be a fortress and a large town as per the orders of the then Portuguese King Dom João III.

The city was built taking advantage of the bay of Todos os Santos and the elevation as natural defences. Moreover, The bay area was ideal for travelling to trade with countries to the East and Africa, primarily trading sugar and gold. These exports sustained income and economic development.

1558: The first slave market in the New World was established by the Portuguese. They would trade slaves from West Africa, mostly in the regions of present-day Nigeria and Benin. They were brought in to work in the sugar plantations which, was the main source of income and economic stability in the colonial period. The number of slaves brought into Brazil is supposedly more than the number of slaves that was brought into the United States of America. Though they were transported to other parts of Brazil much earlier, Salvador had more slaves compared to all other Brazilian regions with an estimate of 4 million.

The 1600s: By the end of the 17th century, several architectural wonders were constructed. These included palaces, churches and public buildings.

1763: Nearly 200 years later, the Brazilian capital shifted to Rio de Janeiro as it was closer to Minas Gerais, where gold was produced. Salvador was no longer an important city.

The 1800s: The Portuguese court shifted to Brazil, the sugar trade revived and the discovery of diamonds in the region made it a commercial centre once again. In the later part of the century, infrastructure was modernized, where traditional materials were replaced with bricks and glass.

1861: The transportation system was developed as buses had begun operating. These advancements would encourage expansion creating new neighbourhoods that would capture the attention of high-income families.

The 1900s: In the 20th century, new roads were constructed connecting the old and the new neighbourhoods. This would further attract the wealthy to move there. commercial activities that were concentrated at the centre shifted to the port area, therefore, diminishing the economic value of the centre. The district of Misericordia was still economically important till the 1970s as such, the centre became an area inhabited by lower-income families, small traders and craftspeople, immigrants, and minorities. The colonial buildings were converted into small apartments and workshops for the craftspeople and traders.


The Historic Centre 

The Pelourinho is a 50-acre neighbourhood located in the western part of the city of Salvador famous for colonial architecture dating back to the founding of the city in the 16th century to the 18th century. The asymmetrical town square in the centre of this locality. This is the centre that was enlisted as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1985.  

Pelourinho was the city centre during the colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese. The square was used for beating the enslaved in public for allegedly breaking their master’s rules or for allegedly committing a crime.


The centre is famous for the Renaissance and Baroque architectural buildings that still stand today.  The streets of the historic centre are lined with these bright pastel-coloured buildings with stucco work accessories.

pelourinho sqaure
Pelourinho square with the colourful colonial buildings. Image Credit: Tripadvisor

The historic buildings such as the churches and palaces were made in rococo and mannerist styles as well.

Notable Monuments and Sites

Catedral Basilica de Salvador:  A baroque-style cathedral with a few mannerist decorations, almost as old as the city of Salvador itself. The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Salvador. Gained National Heritage Site recognition by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1938.

Interior of the Basilica Cathedral of Salvador. Image Credit: Salvador da Bahia

Igreja e Convento de São Francisco: A baroque-style church and convent with an ordinary exterior and an extraordinary interior designed in gold. The building is enlisted as a National Heritage Site by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1938.

san francisco
Intricate gold interiors of the church and convent of San Francisco. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Igreja de São Domingos Gusmão: A Rococo style Roman Catholic church built in 1731. Gained National Heritage Site recognition by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1938.

Church of Sao Domingos Gusmao. Image Credit: Flickr

Palacio do Arcebispado: 
A baroque-style palace built in 1715 for the archbishop of the Catholic Church to take residence at Terreiro de Jesus, one of the oldest Areas in Salvador. It was recognized as a Heritage Site by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1938.

Archbishop's Palace
Archbishop’s Palace in Salvador. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Forte de Santo Antonia da Barra:  The fort was built in the 1500s to border the bay and the city. The lighthouse was added in the early 1700s. This structure too was recognized as a Heritage Site by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1938.

The Fort of Saint Anthony of Barra
The Fort of Saint Anthony of Barra. Image Credit: Afar

Museu da Misericordia: Museum of Mercy established in the 17th century originally as the first hospital in Salvador. Baroque style building with the essence of nearly 500 years’ worth of history.

museum of mercy
Interiors of the Museum of Mercy. Image Credit: Museu da Misericordia

The Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim:
The church took 20 years to complete, starting its construction in 1754. The two bell towers on either side and the rococo style decorations make it a unique piece of architecture in the city. The Catholic church also houses elements of the Candomblé religion. Just outside the church, colourful ribbons where each colour represent an Orixa spirit is tied to the metal railings for good luck. It was recognized as a Heritage Site by the National Artistic And Historical Heritage Institute in 1998.

Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Notice the colourful ribbons tied to the railings.  Image Credit: Vou na Janela

Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká:
A Candomblé temple, also known as Terreiro de Casa Branca. This establishment is the oldest of its kind in the country. Each part of the temple is dedicated to one of the Orixa spirits. National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute by the Brazilian Government in 1986.

Terreiro Casa Branca
Interiors of the Terreiro Casa Branca. The blue ribbons represent the presiding spirit in the temple. Image Credit: Wikipedia


Afro-Brazilian culture

Candomblé: The Afro-Brazilian religion with roots in the indigenous African animist traditions.

The Portuguese would force the slaves to convert to Catholicism meaning naturally they weren’t allowed to practice their own religions. The slaves had all been brought from different areas of central west Africa as such, they all spoke different languages and, had their own traditions and rituals to perform. Their circumstances however united them and their rituals. So, in the attempt to protect their native traditions, they would found a way to worship secretly. They later had to combine elements of Catholicism with the practice because it was made illegal and they were publicly punished if they were found practising it.

Throughout history, the practice was either forbidden or not accepted in society and its practitioners were persecuted. However, after an immense struggle by activists, it was finally legalized and recognized in 1978 by the state of Bahia government.

In the religion, natural spirits or, Orixas are summoned and worshipped who seemingly possess some people in a trance-like state. Drums and dancing play an important part in the Candomblé rituals. It is the rhythm of the drums and dancing to its beats allow certain people to achieve a trance-like state where the vibrations made from the drums almost act like hallucinogens.

Offerings and sacrifices are also made to the deities to receive the blessings of the spirits for prosperity and health.

Orixa statues
Statues of 4 of the 8 Orixas on the Tororo Dike in Salvador. Image Credit: Casa do Amarelindo

The state of Bahia supposedly has the largest population of people of African origin outside the continent of Africa. The religion is, therefore, a symbol of the Afro-Brazilian heritage and is deeply connected to ancient indigenous African history.


Anthropology: Impact of Afro-Brazilian Culture on Salvador and Brazil

The contributions to Samba

Samba de Roda, an intangible cultural heritage enlisted by UNESCO in 2008. This style of Samba is unique to the state of Bahia and is probably the most traditional form of the dance genre. Initially, people would gather together after Candomblé rituals and start dancing, singing, clapping while the drums from the rituals would be played. This casual ‘afterparty’ of sorts evolved into the Samba de Roda by the 17th century including Portuguese elements like poetry recitals.

When these people migrated from Bahia to other cities, the tradition travelled with them. Those who migrated to Rio took the dance with them and there, it developed into the samba that the world knows today.  By the 20th century, Samba then became synonymous with Brazil and Brazilian culture.

In this style of Samba, performers, usually women in traditional outfits, gather in a circle called a roda. Then, they each take turns to dance in the middle of the circle while simultaneously clapping and singing.

samba de roda
Women performing the Samba de Roda wearing traditional dresses. Image Credit: UNESCO


Capoeira is a form of choreographed martial art that originated in Africa and was brought to the South American continent via the Atlantic slave trade. It was used as a defensive technique for their survival in a new place. They would use this art form to liberate themselves. Salvador was one of the few places where it was still practised while it was made illegal in the 19th century as it was being used for criminal activities after slavery was abolished in the same century.  It was due to a practitioner from Salvador that the art form still survives.

The art was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2014.

Capoeira Martial Art performance. Image Credit: ABC


Bahian Carnival 

Although the Carnival in Rio is more popular, the carnival celebrated in Salvador is just as extravagant and wild.  The carnival is organized in February every year where, singing, dancing, playing instruments and partying, in general, goes on for 5 days and 5 nights.

The Bahian Carnival however is different from the rest of the carnivals in the country. These carnivals are more like street parties with performers dressed up as different characters such as princes, princesses, warriors, etc. Their style of celebrating the Catholic origin festival is more African than it is in other states. In the sense that they take this time to honour the Orixas and other Candomblé deities. Plus, the colours, patterns, clothes, rhythms, dancing and singing at the event are all inspired by their ancestral rituals.

bahian carnival
Drummers, Drums and Performers at the Bahian Carnival. Image Credit: Pinterest

Festa do senhor do bonfim

A folk festival celebrated every January on the 2nd Thursday after Epiphany to gather at the Cidade Baixa for an 8km procession.

The festival begins with women wearing traditional white dresses washing the steps of the Bonfim Church with water just like their enslaved ancestors did in the era.  After this ritual, the whole crowd celebrates until Sunday.

Lavagem do Bonfim
People in white traditional attire washing the entrance of the Bonfim Church. Image Credit: Wikipedia


Issues in Salvador 

After the enlistment by UNESCO, the city went through a much-needed renovation.  Public transport system connecting the city with other areas, renovation of heritage sites, drainage canals, schools, daycares, roads, crossroads and, the city hall were built. Furthermore, efforts were made to make the city a more tourist-friendly place.

While some improvements were visible, the renovations did induce housing issues as it resulted in the displacement of the local dwellers.

On top of that, the city still faces issues relating to maintenance, abandoned properties, safety, accessibility, amenities, cleanliness, poverty, drug trafficking, prostitution, socio-political and infrastructural issues, among others.

Expert architects and scholars point out that the lack of political initiative and agreement among stakeholders are hampering the necessary development.

In conclusion, through this post, we saw how the city of Salvador, particularly its Historic Centre encapsulated this year’s World Heritage Day theme. At the same time, we realized that while tourism is one of the ways to preserve heritage, it may not always be the ideal solution as it can also have adverse effects on the locals. The solution, therefore, is to include the locals and give them a reason to preserve their own identity and heritage. After all World Heritage Day is also observed because heritage is a human asset and at the end of the day, it is everyone’s responsibility to protect it.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and click here for more articles like this.

Leave a Reply