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A Vanished El Dorado Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by Jeremy Main

Splendid baroque facades in a tangle of trees and vines attest a unique union of Jesuit priests and native tribes in the heart of South America

[image]The clock tower of the San Miguel mission in southeastern Brazil ranks among the best of the restorations at mission sites. (Carlos Mordo) [LARGER IMAGE]

For five centuries, conquistadors, utopians, adventurers, fortune-seekers, missionaries, colonists, and crackpots ventured up the Paraná and Paraguay rivers to seek their spiritual or temporal El Dorados. Most failed utterly, but for nearly 200 years, Jesuit missionaries, harvesting the souls of the native Guaraní, succeeded. They presided over a thriving, virtually sovereign state they called the province of Paraguay, a semitropical area roughly the size of Pennsylvania made up of parts of present-day Paraguay, northeastern Argentina, and neighboring Brazil.

Wind, rain, humidity, fungi, bacteria, encroaching vegetation, theft, and neglect have all helped ravage the once resplendent missions of the Jesuit Republic, but in the last half-century rescue efforts have revealed their former majesty. Splendid baroque facades with figures and arches carved in warm, red-ocher sandstone have emerged from the tangle of trees and vines. Restorations, however, have been disorganized, fitful, and woefully underfinanced.

Jeremy Main, a former Time correspondent and member of Fortune's board of editors, spent his boyhood in Argentina and returned recently to research a book on the history of the people who lived along the Paraná and Paraguay rivers.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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