Kutang Bato, the cave where the city was named
Kutang Bato, the cave where the city was named

Wandering around the streets of Cotabato City, It’s easy to assume that the city is predominantly a Muslim country with many minarets and crescent moons from Mosques jutting out from the city skyline. In fact, if it weren’t for the Hijab (women’s headscarf), it’s hard to tell whether one is Muslim or Christian. Both religions have been deeply intermingled since the birth of Muslim and Christianity in Mindanao.  The Tamontaka Church, the oldest church in the city, stands in testimony on the harmonious co-existence of both religions.

Mosque is a common sight in Cotabato City
Mosque is a common sight in Cotabato City

Cotabato City’s history goes way back to the14th century when a Malaccan prince, Shariff Muhammad Kabunsuan landed on the banks of the Rio Grande River, the longest river in Mindanao and the second largest in the country. He introduced Islam to the settlers and established the Sultanate of Maguindanao. Four centuries later, in 1862, the Spaniards established the first Christian settlement near Tamontaka River. Elite Christian Spanish families intermarry with the Muslim slaves and were given lands to cultivate.

The Tamontaka Church is the oldest church in the city
The Tamontaka Church is the oldest church in the city

In 1872, the Tamontaka Church was built.  The church was relocated to its present location in 1879.  Only the façade remains from the original structure where the church stands after an earthquake and a fire devastated it. The church also has an interesting underground passageway that leads to a catacomb which is part of the network of caves for which the city was named from.

Sultan Kudarat statue at Tantawan Park
Sultan Kudarat statue at Tantawan Park

Natives seeking to evade the Spanish evangelism to Castillan faith sought sanctuary in a cave found within town. This cave has a huge sprawling underground network extending to the lengths of present Awang, in Maguindanao. This network diverges into a multitude of cave chambers found under Tantawan (from the word tanawin or view) hill now known as Pedro Colina Hill derived from the Spanish words “Pedro” meaning Rock and “Colina” as Hill. The hill stood out on the open plain of Cotabato City like a fort.  It was used by the natives as a lookout point for incoming hostiles hence its name “Kutang Bato” from the words “Kuta” meaning Fort and “Bato” meaning stone which eventually became the name of the city, Cotabato.

Kutang Bato Cave Entrance in Bagua
Kutang Bato Cave Entrance in Bagua

The Kutang Bato Cave (or Kutawato) is one of a kind since it’s found at the heart of the city.  It has several entrances but only four are open to visitors. We entered at the cave entrance in Bagua just on the roadside, bringing powerful torch lights and wearing boots since the cave passageway is partly filled with brackish water and can be muddy when the tide is high. There is a huge chamber with an army of bats, salt water ponds, access to other cave networks and walls filled with crawling cockroaches the most I have seen (good thing they weren’t flying). It’s hard to imagine how our Filipino Guerillas used this cave network to outsmart the Japanese invaders during World War II.

Inside the bat-chamber of Kutang Bato
Inside the bat-chamber of Kutang Bato

These days, Muslims and Christians have deep respect for each other’s belief. A lot of Muslim’s grew up in Christian schools like Notre Dame hence the understanding. Same way with the Christians understanding and adapting to Muslim customs like Friday’s being a holiday as it is day of worship for the Muslims and Sunday as the start of the work week. My visit to Cotabato City opened my eyes on this fact that two religions, like in Tawi-tawi, can live together.

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Ferdz
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.