Even today the city of Córdoba owes its importance largely to the Jesuits who founded a college here in 1613. It would later become South America’s second university, the Universidad San Carlos, in 1621, making Córdoba the de facto capital of the Americas south of Lima. In 1640, the Jesuits built a temple at the heart of the city, and for the next 120 years the Society of Jesus dominated life there. Their emphasis on education earned the city the nickname La Docta (“the Learned”), and even today Córdoba is still regarded as an erudite kind of place – albeit politically radical.
But while the Jesuits and other missionaries turned Córdoba into the cultural capital of this part of the empire, their presence elsewhere resulted in the decline in numbers of the native population. The indigenous Sanavirones, Comechingones and Abipones resolutely defended themselves from the invaders. Finally conquered, they thwarted attempts by the Spanish to “civilize” them under the system of encomiendas, a forced labour system in which indigenous populations were taught Catholicism and Spanish in ‘‘exchange’’ for their toil. Nonetheless, devastated by influenza and other imported ailments, the indigenous population dwindled from several thousand in the late sixteenth century to only a few hundred a century later. Apart from a few archeological finds, such as rock paintings, the only signs of their former presence are the names of villages, rivers and the mountain range to the south of the city, and discernible indigenous features in the serranos, or rural inhabitants of the sierras.
Despite their profound effect on the area’s original inhabitants, the Jesuits were relatively enlightened by colonial standards, educating their workforce and treating them comparatively humanely. In addition to various monuments in the city itself, you can still visit their estancias, whose produce sustained communities and boosted trade in the whole empire. The Jesuit buildings in Córdoba and four of the remaining estancias around the province – including Santa Catalina, Alta Gracia, Jesús María and Caroya, near Jesús María – are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.