What the door knockers in Colombia's Cartagena de Indias tell us about the city's history

San Felipe de Barajas Castle, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Photo by Gabriela García Calderón.

The city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia is known for its impressive city walls, built during the Spanish colonial period to protect it from attacks by pirates and privateers. The city has one of the mightiest fortresses in South America and the Caribbean.

Door at the historic center of Cartagena de Indias. Photo by Gabriela García Calderón.

You could almost say that Cartagena de Indias is an “open-air museum full of secrets.” Some of those secrets are concealed by what is another hallmark of the city: its door knockers, or the “old metal doorbells that many doors had […] before electric doorbells existed,” according to travel blog El rincón de Sele. The entry says:

Durante siglos fue, sin duda, un símbolo de distinción de tal forma que existía un refrán en español que decía «A tal casa tal aldaba» refiriéndose por completo a términos de clase social y poder. […] Durante la época colonial en América hubo ciudades ricas en la diversidad y laboriosidad de dichas aldabas, siendo una de las más destacadas Cartagena de Indias, en la actual Colombia, la cual formó parte en principio del Virreynato de Perú y a partir del Siglo XVIII del Virreynato de Nueva Granada.

For centuries, it was, no doubt, a symbol of distinction to the extent that there was a saying in Spanish that went “To each house its door knocker,” referring completely to terms of social class and power. […] During the colonial period in America there were cities that were rich in the diversity and the laboriousness of those knockers, with Cartagena de Indias as one of the most well-known examples in present-day Colombia, which at first was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and then during the 18th century became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.

Each design had a meaning, as the website Fuscia notes:

La lagartija significaba que era parte o descendiente de la familia real. El león significaba que era parte del mando militar o de la iglesia, casi siempre fueron destinadas para las puertas de las iglesias.

El pescado o figura marina significaba que era un comerciante, la mano se decía que era la mano de la Virgen de Fátima, por ende, era una familia religiosa.

The lizard meant that [the owner] was a part of or descended from the royal family. The lion meant that [the building] belonged to the military or the church, almost always those were used for church doors.

The fish or sea figure meant [the owner] was a trader. The hand was said to be the hand of the Virgin Mary of Fatima, thus, it was a religious family.

Door at the historic center of Cartagena de Indias. The metal buttons is a sign of social class. Photo by Gabriela Garcia Calderón.

The door knockers were made by expert forgers according to the requests of the house owners. Today, descendants of those forgers are still in the business, such as Jesús Acevedo Pombo, from the Cartagenero neighborhood of Getsemaní. A 2013 article by a local newspaper told his story:

Jesús cuenta que al principio sólo le mandaban a hacer leones, anillos y manos, que eran las figuras clásicas que había en la época de la Colonia.

Ahora, las personas están menos interesadas en seguir con la tradición y se les ha dado por innovar mandando a hacer sirenas, caballitos de mar y hasta cabezas de diablos.

Jesús says that, at first, he only received requests of lions, rings and hands, which were the classic figures from the colonial period.

Now, people are less interested in following the tradition and have begun innovating by asking for mermaids, seahorses and even devil's heads.

On Twitter, it's possible to find photos of some of the door knockers:

Door knockers of Cartagena. The beauty of small things.

The city with the best door knockers in South America: Cartagena de Indias (photos from Instagram).

The travel and curiosity website Atlas Obscura has an entry about Cartagena's door knockers too:

Now you have one more reason to visit Cartagena de Indias!

1 comment

  • Adam

    Very cool. Thanks for writing about this. I’ll have to pay more attention next time I’m there.

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