En español | Steeples, spires, crosses, and bells rise above barrel tile roofs of colonial mansions and tin slopes of precarious favelas of Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. With some 365 churches serving a population that is 80 percent black, it’s no wonder that the historic city has earned the nickname “Black Rome.”
Year-round, visitors flock to Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, one of Salvador’s most famous churches, to pay homage to a sculpture depicting Jesus at the moment of the crucifixion. This tradition, transported from Portugal, gives the faithful a place to ask for wishes and pray for miracles. Worshippers then tie colorful ribbons around their wrists and pledge to wear them until the wish or miracle is granted—or until the ribbon breaks. The church’s Room of Miracles showcases precious objects donated in gratitude.
The number of visitors swells to thousands every January for the Feast of Bonfim, when Catholics and practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion come together for a ritual washing of the stairs of this hilltop church of affecting beauty and baroque colonial architecture. Wearing white, the pilgrims sing and chant in Yoruba—the African language brought to Brazil by slaves—while giving the stairs and the adjoining church square an aromatic cleansing.
Bonfim, which was founded in 1740, is just one example of the syncretism of beliefs and the treasure troves of architecture and cultural riches in the city’s churches—and one reason for Salvador’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site-—and for the resources that were recently spent in the city on renovations.
The latest church to get a facelift, Igreja de São Francisco is now one of the city’s main attractions. The altar area of the baroque- and rococo-style church is bathed floor to ceiling in gold.
Just as each house of worship displays unique artifacts, each also tells a tale. It’s worth listening to Igreja de Nossa Rosário Dos Pretos’s. This church built by and for slaves sits in the the Pelourinho, the historic main plaza of the city, where slaves were sold at auction.
“It’s very poignant to witness all of the history contained in this church,” says Claudio Alves, a vacationing Brazilian from the town of Porto Alegre.
Salvador’s churches are easily accessible, and visitors can trace the city’s history and complex cultural mix of Portuguese, African, and indigenous influences. At Igreja do Carmo, a life-size statue of Jesus taken down from the cross draws tourists. Enclosed in a huge glass case, this is one of Brazil’s most sacred effigies. Sculpted and carved in 1730 by Francisco Xavier das Chagas, a black slave, it is the bloodstains on Christ’s body that make viewers marvel. The teardrops rolling down his face and the blood pouring from his nailed hands and feet were created by crushing more than 2,000 rubies in whale oil.
As with everything about this city perched on São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (Holy Savior of All Saints Bay), the sight is unforgettable.