Gleaming under the morning sun, a gilded petrified flame sits atop a whitewashed monolith. Emanating from its base, trees cover most of the wide plaza providing shade for visitors – and a few decades ago, deer. Monumen Nasional – widely known by its acronym, Monas – was a monument commissioned by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, to embody the spirit and optimism of the newly independent country.
To the north of Monas lies one of the most important buildings in Indonesia’s political landscape: Istana Merdeka (Independence Palace) which is joined by another palace to its back, Istana Negara (State Palace). Together they make up the Presidential Palace complex, the seat of the executive branch of government. Originally built as the office of the Dutch Governor General in the 19th century, the neoclassical palace looks rather modest in size compared to many other presidential palaces around the world. It is even dwarfed by Gedung Sate, the office of the West Java governor in Bandung.
In addition to Istana Merdeka, more than a dozen government ministries’ offices are also located around Monas, reinforcing this area as the focal point not only for the national capital, Jakarta, but also the entire nation. Merdeka Square, as the area is called, became an exclusive precinct of Dutch East Indies government offices in the 18th century when they moved from the more crowded Kota – today better known as Kota Tua (Old Town) – 4 km to the north.
Politics aside, the area is also where two of the country’s most important religious buildings reside. Istiqlal Mosque – Southeast Asia’s largest with a total capacity of 120,000 people – was built over a 17-year period and inaugurated in 1978. Designed by a Christian architect, the mosque was constructed at Wilhemina Park, right across Jakarta Cathedral which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jakarta. The two monuments alongside the nearby Protestant Church of Immanuel symbolize the religious harmony to which the country aspires.
A bit further off the main roads around Merdeka Square are some of Jakarta’s finest Dutch buildings and an oasis for culture and art connoisseurs. Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Art Building) serves as one of the city’s most prominent theaters with regular performances. Meanwhile Galeri Nasional Indonesia (National Gallery of Indonesia) showcases works by various Indonesian and foreign artists.
Amid the exponential growth of malls in the city, a walk around Jakarta’s focal point proves to be not only a nice jaunt, but also necessary to better understand the history which has shaped the face of the country today. Furthermore, it is here at Merdeka Square where one can learn about Indonesia’s history at Museum Nasional, hosting the richest collections from all corners of the country.