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El Dorado is a Spanish term that means 'the gilded one' or 'the gilded man.'
The Spanish invaders of the 16th century came up with the term 'El Dorado'. To the Spanish, the legend of El Dorado revolved around the mythical city of gold.
The continent of South America has always been steeped with hidden myths and mysteries. After large parts of the continent were explored by the early Spanish explorers in the 16th century, the indigenous populations were faced with the greed and avarice of the European expansionists. The first South American empire to fall to the Spanish was the Inca Empire of Peru, and adjoining areas in the 1530s.
Soon, the Spanish had turned their attention to a local legend involving the golden city of El Dorado. The El Dorado myth, which talked about the existence of a legendary city made entirely of gold, captured the hearts and minds of the Spanish and other European powers, such as the Germans and the English. Frantic operations followed, with every other European expedition party looking for the legendary lost city of gold.
An animated movie named 'The Road to El Dorado' (2000) has a plot where two young men find their way to the legendary city of El Dorado after overcoming a string of deadly mishaps. Watch this film to get a better idea of what the lost city of El Dorado may have looked like.
In the beginning, the Spanish used the term 'El Dorado' to refer to the Muisca king. The Spanish explorers had heard of the sacred ceremony that the Muiscas performed while crowning a new king.
The Muisca people were also known by the name 'Chibcha', and they had their distinct ancient culture in South America. In fact, they were one of the four leading tribes of the Americas, along with the Incas, the Aztec, and the Mayans. The Muisca people had their dominance over the highlands of the northern Andes in Columbia. This area is found in modern-day Colombia.
Apart from the Spanish, the English and the Germans were also involved in the search for El Dorado around this time. By the early 17th century, the story of the legendary city of El Dorado had reached most of the royal courts of Europe. As a result, kings and queens were commissioning expeditions to the Americas at state expense. The famous Elizabethan courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh, had led two unsuccessful trips to Guyana to look for the city of gold.
Let's look at the history of South America. You will find that it was around this time that large parts of the continent was surveyed by soldiers of fortune-seeking gold and other treasures. This is portrayed in history books as the only positive thing that came out of the El Dorado story.
One of the best surveyors of the continent was Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, who was a member of the expedition led by conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro. Here we have to add that Gonzalo Pizarro was the brother of the most famous Spanish conquistador of them all. This person, Francisco Pizarro, destroyed the Inca Empire. De Orellana is now credited with discovering the Amazon Rover system, which he followed up to the Atlantic Ocean.
Once the Spanish became deeply invested in finding El Dorado, they began searching for the lost city in the jungles of South America. Eventually, the explorers found the Andean homeland of the Muisca people in 1537. This party was led by a Spanish conquistador named Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada.
Once he reached the core area of the Muiscas, he ordered his men to ransack and loot the local population. After the destruction was complete, de Quesada followed clues given to him by the locals to find out the truth behind the gold city's legend. From what they had gathered from their local agents, El Dorado was actually the name given by the Muiscas to their kings.
As per an old custom, when a new Muiscan king was about to be crowned, there was a royal ceremony. The ceremony involved the would-be king covering himself with gold dust and then proceeding to a sacred lake for a series of rituals. The would-be monarch looked like a 'golden king,' with his whole body covered with gold dust. He would then sail on a raft made of reed, along with high priests and attendants, and sail to the very center of a sacred lake.
Once the boat was there, the priests would perform the necessary rituals; at the end, precious jewels were offered to the sun god and thrown into the lake. The ceremony required several witnesses to offer objects made of gold to the sun god, which they did while standing on the shores of the sacred lake.
When the party of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada leaned of this truth about the Muiscas, they hurriedly reached one of the lakes that the Muiscas revered. This was Lake Guatavita. Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his men looked for gold and other valuable items in and around Lake Guatavita by dredging it. They did get their hands on a substantial amount of gold, but it was never enough for them.
After becoming dissatisfied with their find, de Quesada declared that Lake Guatavita was not the real El Dorado and that the golden city of El Dorado still existed somewhere in the Muisca country.
After the expeditions of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada in 1537, the craze for finding the city of gold began in South America. Many adventurers and officially appointed treasure-hunters set their foot in this region with the hopes of reaching the city of El Dorado.
Countless individuals scouted the interiors of the continent of South America in their quest to find the secrets of the legend of El Dorado. Their search was not limited to just finding El Dorado, but any ancient culture having incredible amounts of wealth on the lines of the Inca Empire. As more and more expeditions met with disappointments, the explorers began looking for the fabled city in parts other than the Andean highlands of Colombia.
The search for gold took the Europeans to the Andean highland at first, then to the east of the Andes Mountain chain, all the way to the basins of the rivers Orinoco and Amazon. When the search parties failed to find any gold after surveying the plains of Venezuela, they decided among themselves that the city of gold lay not in Colombia or Venezuela or in any other country that they had already toured, but in the mountainous regions of Guyana. For a while, Guyana was widely recognized as the country that housed El Dorado. Maps showing the same were even in circulation in Europe!
The story of the fabled city of gold inspired many generations of Europeans to search for an enormous stack of gold somewhere in the deep jungles of South America. A large number of gold objects were looted by the explorers in areas associated with the myth of El Dorado. Presently, some of the gold that was taken away from the region has been returned to its original place. For example, gold items found in Lake Guatavita are now displayed proudly in the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá, Colombia. However, this is not the only museum where you will find lost Muisca gold items.
The British Museum in London, UK, also has a credible collection of Muiscan gold objects. The collection includes votive offerings collectively known in indigenous language as 'tunjos.' The most spectacular item on display at the British Museum is undoubtedly a raft made of gold. This priceless gold object was found by three locals in 1969 inside a cave in the hilly regions of South Bogota. The golden raft has miniature human figures engaged in the form of a ritual on the top of it. What is fascinating about this object is that the figures on the raft tell the story of the ceremony performed by the Muiscas during the crowning ceremony of their king.
Although the hidden city of El Dorado was never found by any of the European explorers, the El Dorado myth has never left the public consciousness in this part of the world.
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