São Francisco Square, in the town of São Cristóvão, Sergipe, is the country’s newest world heritage site. Located 23km from Aracaju, the Sergipe state capital, the square is Brazil’s only example of urban design of Spanish origin. Brazil’s minister of culture Juca Ferreira has noted that the inclusion of São Francisco Square on the World Heritage List “is recognition of the singular variety of Brazil’s cultural wealth.”
The new cultural heritage site also represents a specific moment in time in Brazilian history. It was built during the period known as the Iberian Union, when Portugal and Spain were united under one crown from 1580 to 1640.
The inclusion of São Francisco Square was confirmed last Sunday, during the last day of the 34th Session of the World Heritage Committee, which met this year in Brasilia.
With the addition of the Sergipe square, the number of Brazilian sites on the World Heritage List is now 18. Among the other Brazilian tourist attractions on the list of UNESCO-recognized sites are: Iguaçu National Park, the historic cities of Ouro Preto, Olinda and Diamantina, and the city that has been the federal capital for 50 years, Brasilia. Prior to this latest achievement, the last site to be accorded this status was the historic center of Goiás, which won recognition in 2001.
The square in São Cristóvão had already been identified as a cultural site three years ago, but in 2008, the UNESCO Consultative Body (UNESCO being the educational, scientific and cultural organization of the UN) requested more detailed information about the historic value of the plaza.
São Cristóvão is one of the oldest cities in the country and was the first capital of Sergipe. It was founded in January 1590 under the Philippine Dynasty of Portugal. The main monuments, which are found in the Upper Town, constitute about a dozen buildings around the plaza, including the Church and Convent of São Francisco. Its construction, which was funded by community donations to the Franciscans, began in 1693. During the time when the city was the provincial capital, the Convent of the Third Carmelite Order housed the provincial assembly and the convent hall was occupied by the provincial general treasury. After Brazil became a republic, São Cristóvão was where the troops of the battalion that fought the followers of Antonio Conselheiro at Canudos in 1897 were garrisoned.
The city was listed by IPHAN (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, the entity entrusted with preserving Brazil’s national heritage and art) on January 23, 1967.IPHAN acquired and restored one of the houses on the square, and that building currently houses a technical office and cultural exhibits. The historic complex also contains the Sacred Art Museum, home to a collection considered the third most important in the country, and the Sergipe Museum, containing items that belonged to the region’s noble families.