The Meaning Behind The Aldabas In Cartagena de Indias
By: Lola Méndez
Many architecture fanatics and door lovers have been enamored by the beautiful ancient door knockers, known as aldabas, which can be spotted around Cartagena, Colombia. Long before electronic doorbells were invented, door knockers were used to alert a homeowner of the presence of a guest. The fancy door knockers which adorn the city’s façades are more than just aesthetically pleasing—they reflect the city’s complex colonial and social history.
Cartagena was colonized in 1533 by the Spanish empire. The door knockers came along with colonization. In Spain, the type of aldabas used on a door symbolized the social status, wealth, and career of those who lived in the home. This tradition of specialized door knockers was carried over to many of the lands the Spanish stole including Cartagena, Colombia.
Many of the intricate knockers use the likeness of various animals—each which has a different meaning behind it. A sea creature, such as a fish, sea horse, or a mermaid, was used to symbolize that the homeowner is involved in an ocean-related trade. An iguana-shaped aldaba means that the dwellers were either of the Spanish royal family, nobles, or in close cahoots with the monarchy. Some of the dramatic door knockers are shaped like human hands which also have significance. The hand knockers were for those in the clergy as it’s meant to be the hand of the Virgin Mary of Fatima.
A lion head door knocker meant it was a military household. Cartagena was a fortified city so many residents were involved in the military. After the Spanish stole the land they protected it from pirates and other colonial powers. For instance, the first home in Cartagena of Simón Bolívar aptly features an aldaba shaped like a Lion. Bolívar was Venezuelan and known as “the Liberator” of Latin America as he was involved in helping countries gain independence from Spain. Bolivia is named after him and he served as the president of Gran Colombia which was a union of Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Beyond the symbolic shape of the aldaba the size, intricacy, and material also determined Cartagena’s social hierarchy. Any passerby could guess the wealth of the homeowner based on the aldaba that adorned the door of their residence.
Many of the original aldabas can be seen in the colorful Old Town section of Cartagena where the wealthy have always resided. You’ll notice that in this neighborhood the wooden door frames are significantly larger and consist of a smaller door within the main door. The large doors were installed in the luxurious homes of wealthy Spanish colonizers who’d enter their residency on horse or in a carriage. The small doors were reserved for enslaved people or servants who had to enter the house on foot.
It’s still common to use an aldaba, but today homeowners stray away from tradition and choose whatever symbol they’d like regardless of whether they’re a prince or a merchant. You may come across an owl or a bearded man’s face utilized as door knockers across the colonial port city. Big knockers remain quite fashionable.
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