“In Mexico, Spaniards encountered history as well as geography. This history is still alive: it is a present rather than a past. The temples and gods of pre-Colombian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared: it speaks to the hermetic language of myth, legend, forms of social co-existence, popular art, customs.”
Octavio Paz in his Nobel Laureate address in 1990
The home of tequila, Aztecs, sombreros and Maya pyramids – not to mention Pancho Villa, Diego Rivera, El Chapo and Carlos Slim (though of Lebanese ancestry) – almost everyone on the planet knows something about Mexico. One of the greatest civilizations, Mexico offers an alluring blend of cultures, landscapes, tastes and adventures. Even though I have visited Mexico a half-dozen times, I’ve never ventured beyond the Maya land, hence I was immensely thrilled to accept our friends’, Valeria and Jon, wedding invitation and spend a weekend in Mexico City. One of the most populous megapoli in the world, Mexico city sprawls across a 2,240 meter-high valley surrounded in every direction by even taller mountains. To be exact, the valley is a bed of Lake Texcoco, drained in the 17th century, and its heavily saturated soft clay base is slowly causing the city to collapse. It is both the oldest capital in the Americas and one of two founded by Amerindians (Native Americans), the other being Quito. Sadly, the first associations with Mexico city aren’t always positive – corruption, pollution and frequent earthquakes, but let me assure you that it is much more than that – this very unique, colorful and vibrant city is a gem for history buffs, art lovers and adventure seekers. This is a city that has transformed itself into a modern metropolis without shedding its traditional charms.
- Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler by Jim Johnston
- Lonely Planet. Mexico
- National Geographic Traveler: Mexico by Jane Onstott
- The Rough Guide to Mexico by John Fisher
- La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City by Jonathan Kandell
- Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas
- History of the Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott
- The Aztec by Richard E. Townsend
- A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas
- Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico by Tony Cohan
- Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in Twenty-First Century by Daniel Hernandez
- The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
- In the Sierra Madre by Jeff Biggers
- God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant
Mexico’s story is always extraordinary and at times barely credible. How could a 2700-year tradition of sophisticated indigenous civilization crumble in two short years at the hands of a few hundred adventurers from Spain? How could Mexico’s 11-year war for Independence from Spain lead to three decades of dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz. Mexico’s past is present everywhere you go and is key to any understanding of Mexico today. The Aztecs were glorious and great. The Spanish were evil conquerors. The United States stole half of Mexico. La Malinche sold out. There were enemies and there were victims, there was pre-Hispanic Mexico and postcolonial Mexico. The Conquest, the Colonial period, the Inquisition, Independence, the Reformation, the Porfirian period, the Revolution, the era of modernization and authoritarian rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party – all makers in a story of multiplying layers, where Mexico city is not only a stage of Mexican mixing but of historical mixing as well. Nothing in the history of Mexico City can be presented simply in black and white, it is a parade of gray – for it can trace its existence continuously from Paleolithic site to cradle of ancient civilization, and from colonial stronghold to contemporary megapolis.
The city now known as Mexico City was founded as Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in 1325 and a century later became the dominant city-state of the Aztec Triple Alliance, formed in 1430 and composed of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. There are two overlapping narratives about the founding of Tenochtitlan. The first is told by the archeological and historic record, and the second comes from the Mexica (Aztec) themselves, which is both mythological and historical.
The central highlands of what is now Mexico were occupied for many centuries before the founding of the city. It is hard to imagine now but less than 500 years ago the downtown area was on islet criss-crossed by canals, or that the communities who inhabited this island and the banks of Lake Texcoco spoke a patchwork of languages that had as little to do with Spanish as Malay or Urdu. A loose federation of farming villages had evolved around the lake by approximately 200 B.C., the biggest of which, Cuicuilco, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption three centuries later. Breakthrough in irrigation techniques and the development of maize-based economy contributed to the rise of a civilization at Teotihuacan, 40 km northeast of the lake. For centuries, Teotihuacan was the capital of an empire whose influence extended as far as Guatemala. However, it was unable to sustain its burgeoning population and mysteriously disappeared around A.D.750. Over the following centuries power in central Mexico came to be divided among varying locally important cities, including Xochicalco to the south and Tula to the north. Their culture is known as Toltec (Artisans), a name coined by the later Aztecs, who looked back to the Toltec rulers with awe. In particular, the cult of Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”) assumed new importance as in Tula, Toltec capital, the god was depicted everywhere, perhaps embodied as a king or dynasty of kinds, and it was from here that he was driven out by the evil god Tezcatlipoca. The prediction of his return was later to have fatal consequences for the Aztecs. The Toltecs ruled the area in and around the Valley of Mexico until about A.D.1200 and after their fall, large migrations of people moved into the Valley, bringing with them the concept of city-state (known in Nahuatl as altepetl). This led to the founding of a number of semi-autonomous urban centers around Lake Texcoco each claiming legitimacy as descendants of the Toltecs. By the early 16th century, at least a dozen of these city-states had reached 10,000 in population with Tenochtitlan by far the largest at 150,000 and perhaps as high as 200,000. The Aztec (aka Mexica) who founded Tenochtitlan were part of the last wave of migration of Nahuatl-speaking peoples into the valley. Their presence was resisted; however, taking advantage of the nearly-constant conflict among the city-states along the lake shores, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan and their allies since 1430 of Texcoco and Tlacopan conquered the Valley of Mexico, exacting tribute from the same powers that resisted their migration in the first place.
The second narrative of the founding of Mexico City commences from the mythological record left by the Aztecs and is related to the tribe’s origin. The Aztecs were the last of the mainly barbarian tribes who drifted southwards into the Valley of Mexico. They traced their tribal origin to a nebulous enclave called Aztlan located somewhere in northwest Mexico. Aztlan is described in the ancient Aztec annals as a complex of cave on the rim of a lake, where fish and wild game abounded:
There they feasted on great numbers of ducks of all kinds, storks, sea crows and water hens. They enjoyed the melodic songs of the red-and-yellow-headed little birds. They gorged themselves on a variety of great and beautiful fish. They rested in the cool shade of the trees that grew on the water’s edge…. But later, when they left this delectable land, everything turned against them. The underbrush bit at them, the stones scraped them, the fields were filled with burrs and spines… and were impassable, with no place to sit or rest.
The description of Aztlan doesn’t match any locale in the arid, mountainous terrain of northwestern Mexico, and archeologists have long ago given up efforts to uncover it. Just why the Aztecs fell from grace and departed from Aztlan is not revealed in their chronicles. Perhaps it was the depletion of food, maybe a more powerful tribe routed them – an event the Aztecs were not likely to record since their annals display acute embarrassment over any defeats.
In any case, after abandoning Aztlan in 1064-1065, the Aztecs wandered for centuries in the wilderness, on a zigzag course that slowly moved them southwards in search of a new promised land. They were guided, they said, by their chief deity, Huitzilopochtli, which means “Hummingbird-of-the-left”. The significance of the “left” lay in the fact that the sun set in the west, and if one stood facing that sacred directions, the left hand pointed to the south, where the new Aztec homeland would presumably be found. But Huitzilopochtli was not originally an Aztec god. The Aztecs probably began to worship this deity only after having temporarily settled west of the Valley of Mexico, in Michoacán, where a tribe called the Tarascans had already placed the hummingbird in their own pantheon of deities. As had happened to them everywhere, the Aztecs were eventually expelled from Michoacán. They departed carrying off an effigy of Huitzilopochtli in a portable, cage-like shrine made of clay. The deity was supposed to have whispered to their priests the likeliest location of game and edible plants. But whenever the Aztecs lingered too long in one place, Huitzilopochtli allegedly ordered them to continue their quest for the promised land, which they would recognize as a lake with a small island where an eagle perched on a cactus plant was devouring a snake. This divinely appointed scene unfolded on a lake in the Valley of Mexico, and it was there that the Aztecs built their great city-state Tenochtitlan, the precursor of Mexico City. This legendary version of the Aztec arrival in the Valley of Mexico is still taught as factual history to Mexican schoolchildren. And the central emblem on the Mexican flag is an eagle clasping a serpent in its beak and talons.
But divine guidance played a lesser role than the Aztecs would have us believe in their appearance in the Valley of Mexico. A closer approximation of the truth is that the Aztecs arrived at the lake’s edge in a hungry and savage state around the middle of the 13th century, where they were scorned by the already established tribes. The Aztecs stumbled into the Valley almost a hundred years after the fall of the Toltecs when the area was living through an unsettling era of both political turmoil and economic prosperity. The land was partitioned among several powerful, warring tribes. It was a time of shifting alliances and constant treachery, with vassal groups seizing every opportunity to revolt against their masters and each dominant tribe claiming to be the rightful heir to the Toltec legacy.
The Aztecs must indeed have seemed as primitive people to the valley’s tribes, as nowhere in their travels had they come across the wealth and sophistication they encountered here. The only commodity they could trade upon was their skill as fighters, an expertise honed by their peripatetic hunting life and the constant skirmishes with tribes who had chased them away from temporary sanctuaries elsewhere in the country. And so the Aztecs offered themselves as mercenaries to the Tepanecas, the strongest tribe among the valley’s lakeside inhabitants. The Tepanecas allowed the Aztecs to settle in what is now the Chapultepec district of Mexico City, and what was then a patch of wooded high ground located just west of the lakes. It was around 1280 that the Aztecs began the difficult transition from a hunting-gathering existence to a sedentary agricultural way of life. Chapultepec (“Hill of Grasshoppers”) was infested with insects, but its sloping land was fertile and watered by underground springs. The Aztecs were fierce fighters, and quickly gained a reputation for cruelty. They transformed Huitzilopochtli, their relatively benign hummingbird deity, into a god of battle, and regularly offered him sacrificial victims from the warriors they took prisoners. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were by no means considered loathsome by the other tribes in the valley, but they objected to the fact that the Aztecs elevated these practices from occasional ritual to regular feasts.
Around 1300, the tribe of Culhuacan, who lived on the southern periphery of the lakes and emerged as the chief rival of the Tepanecas, sent an expedition into Chapultepec to subdue the hated Aztec mercenaries. Many Aztecs were slaughtered, and the defeated remnants of the tribe were herded back to Culhuacan as slaves. At first, the Culhuacan lords seemed intent on humiliating the Aztecs, they relegated them to menial tasks, as porters, messengers, servants, and fieldworkers in the chinampas. They were forced to live in a stark terrain strewn with boulders and jagged volcanic stones and infested with poison serpents. Impressed by their hardiness, the Culhuacan lords decided to send the Aztecs into battle against a nearby rival tribe, the Xochimilcas. If the Aztecs triumphed, their masters promised to raise their status from slaves to mercenaries. The Aztecs crushed the Xochimilcas, and brought back hundreds of enemy ears as victory trophies. Though aghast at the barbaric methods of the Aztecs, the Culhuacan ruler, Coxcoxtli, released them from bondage and when the Aztecs requested that one of his daughters marry their chieftain, Coxcoxtli complied, hoping to maintain the loyalty of these brutes.
But the Aztecs had secretly been nursing their grudge against the Culhuacan tribe. They had not forgotten the massacre at Chapultepec, their twenty-five years of servitude, or the long seasons of bare subsistence in the volcanic wasteland where only snakes thrived. When Coxcoxtli arrived at the crude, foul-smelling, and smoky Aztec temple to witness his daughter’s wedding ceremony, he was greeted by a priest dressed in a freshly flayed human skin. Only after his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness of the temple did Coxcoxtli scream and recoil in horror: it was his own daughter’s skin draped around the priest. She had been sacrificed to one of the Aztec gods. Rather than risk being annihilated by the superior forces of Culhuacan, the Aztecs fled before Coxcoxtli could rally his army. They paddled across the lakes northward to a small uninhabited island a short distance from the western shores where their former Tepanec masters had their stronghold and could guarantee them protection.
This was the island which the Aztec legends described as the promised land of the eagle devouring the serpent. They named it Tenochtitlan – meaning “place of the nopal”, and their settlement there in 1325 is now considered the official founding date of Mexico City. The migration lasted around 260 years.
Tenochtitlan rose in the midst of Lake Texcoco, one of five interconnecting water bodies that spread south to north across the floor of the Valley of Mexico. Texcoco was the largest and most centrally placed of the lakes. Because of its location at the very bottom of the valley, it constantly received the nitrate soils washed down from the surrounding slopes by the rains, and its waters were too salty for human consumption or irrigation. But the Aztecs were more concerned with their island’s strategic potential than the quality of the surrounding water. They wanted a natural barrier between themselves and the tribes on the mainland. And although the lake was brackish, it was by no mean lifeless. It teemed with fish, frogs, turtles, and algae that could be dried and rolled to a cheese-like consistency, and billions of mosquito eggs that were skimmed off the lake’s surface and beaten into a protein-rich paste. All of the lakes were a stopover for the countless numbers of birds migrating from the northern hemisphere. Ducks, geese, storks, and egrets were so abundant that they could be trapped by the dozen simply by setting up large nets between clumps of reeds. The island itself had enough fresh water in underground springs to satisfy the Aztecs’ drinking and irrigation needs, at least for a few decades after their arrival.
Soon after settling in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs had to somehow deal with the very cramped conditions of their small island. They put to used the chinampa techniques they had learned from their former Culhuacan masters. By building artificial isles, they were able to incorporate more land into Tenochtitlan and expand the inhabitable area. The lake was shallow, ranging in most places from 1-3m deep. Still, the chinampas required enormous expenditure of time and labor, timber and stone had to be brought over from the mainland, where they were purchased with the fish, birds, and other animals caught by the Aztecs in their lake.
In 1375, Acampichtli – a young Calhuacan nobleman, whose mother was Aztec – became the first Aztec monarch. His enthronement served as an excuse to radically reorganize Aztec society and politics. The leaders of the Aztec clans joined Acamapichtli’s court as a new order of nobility with far more privileges and powers than the commoners. Multiplying prodigiously over the next two generations, their offsprings monopolized the administrative, commercial, military, and religious bureaucracies in Tenochtitlan. By the beginning of the 15h century, almost nothing remained of the egalitarian clan system that had served the Aztecs so well during their lengthy nomadic existence, Tenochtitlan society had become as centralized and stratified as any in the Valley of Mexico.
Tenochtitlan roughly correlates with the historic center of modern Mexico City. During the pre-Hispanic era, the city developed in a planned fashion, with streets and canals aligned with the cardinal directions, leading to orderly square blocks. The island that the city was founded on was divided into four calpullis or neighborhoods that were separated by the main north-south roads leading to Tepeyac and Iztapalapa respectively and the west-east road that lead to Tacuba and to a dike into the lake, respectively. The intersection of these roads was the center of the city and of the Aztec world. Here were the main temple, the palaces of the tlatoani or emperors, palaces of nobles such as the “House of the Demons” and the “House of the Flowers”. Also located here were the two most renowned Aztec schools: the Telpuchcalli for secular studies and the Calmecac for priestly training.
In the years following the establishment of monarchy, the population of the city expanded greatly, not only among the sexually prolific nobles, but among commoners as well. A high birthrate was officially encouraged because the island-state strength was linked to its growing citizenry. More laborers were required to extend and maintain the land reclamation and hydraulic projects. More warriors were needed to mount a credible defense against encroachments by the hostile tribes who surrounded the Aztecs on the mainland. At its height, just before the Spanish arrived, Tenochtitlan was the center of the vast Aztec Empire, stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts and south towards the Yucatán Peninsula and Oaxaca. This was an empire of 38 provinces, 370 cities and about 5 million people, geared to extracting tribute (tax in kind) of resources absent from the heartland – items like jade, turquoise, cotton, tobacco, cacao, etc. With a vast income of tribute, Tenochtitlan grew to become one of the largest (more than 200,000 people) and richest urban areas in the world at that time. The city had services and infrastructure that was unheard of in the rest of the world: potable water brought in by aqueducts, drainage systems and wide, paved streets. Their markets boasted of products from nearly every part of Mesoamerica. But inevitably, Tenochtitlan began to reach its ecological limits – new cultivable land was scarce, underground springs were depleting.
With the growth and development of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec rulers now had to reinterpret religion to justify the expanding empire and their brutal treatment of conquered peoples. The key to the new religious orthodoxy was Huitzilopochtli, the hummingbird god. Initially, he had been a harmless deity – a tiny, beautiful bird who guided the Aztecs in their search for wild game and an eventual homeland. Once the Aztecs settled in the Valley of Mexico and became mercenaries, Huitzilopochtli metamorphosed into a god of battle. For a century, he remained only one of numerous gods worshipped by the Aztecs, but soon he raised above all other deities. He became the lord of creation, the all-powerful god of sun. He was chosen for this exalted role because he was the oldest of the Aztec gods, the one they could most comfortably claim as their own. His bloated stature was well suited to the Aztecs’ new imperial notions. It became the divine duty of the Aztecs to force all peoples of the world to worship Huitzilopochtli. The conquered tribes not only would have to supply a constant stream of sacrificial victims (prisoners of war, slaves, young women, children), whose blood and flesh would nourish Huitzilopochtli, thus ensuring that the sun moved across the heavens every day, but they were also required to carry out sacrificed among their own people in the local temples that were built to honor the sun god. While the Aztec pipiltin (nobles) largely confined their cannibalism to victims selected from other tribes, the provincial lords were forced to eat their own subjects. And to ensure that these gruesome practices were carried out, thousands of priests were sent from Tenochtitlan to villages and towns throughout the Aztec realm.
Not only the pipiltin but also merchants and artisans could stage their own bloody festivals, hardly a week went by without sacrificed and cannibalism in the Aztec capital and its vassal provinces. Merchants, artisans, and other professional groups each had a patron deity associated with their trade or craft, and some of these gods were important enough to be honored by sacrifice several times a year. The feasts that followed these religious ceremonies were an opportunity for the merchant or professional to flaunt his wealth. The host who served his guests the most sumptuous banquet of human flesh and other meat greatly enhanced his prestige. As cannibalism spread to these newly privileged social classes, it spawned a culinary tradition with an assortment of recipes: human flesh stewed in corn, or squash, or chili. The victim’s thigh, considered the most delectable part, was frequently offered as a gift to the Aztec rulers. In 1487, when Herman Cortez, the future conqueror or New Spain, was two years old, up to 80,000 people may have been sacrificed during the dedication of a new temple in Tenochtitlan. Beaten nonstop during the four-day bloodbath, snakeskin drums marked the rise and fall of flint knives as black-painted priests, their long hair matted with blood, sacrificed victims to the god Huitzilopochtli (Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto” accurately depicts a similar ceremony).
By the time a Spanish expedition under Hernan Cortes arrived on Mexico’s east coast in 1519, Tenochtitlan was feared, respected, and hated almost as much by its allies as by its subject states and enemies. Only this far-flung hostility made possible one of history’s most amazing conquests. Another important factor was timing. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl had sailed eastward five centuries before, promising to return in the year 1 Reed. Cortes arrival in that very year convinced the Mexica ruler, Moctezuma II of the god’s return. A priest, poet, and a philosopher, Moctezuma had been chosen king in 1502 based on his courage in battle, sagacity, and clarity of mind. Ironically, it was his indecision and unwillingness to acknowledge and engage the enemy that led to the downfall of the Aztec Empire, and ultimately, to the conquest of Mesoamerica.
In 1492, the year Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, Spain was an aggressively expanding state, fresh from completing the 700-year reconquista in which Christian armies had gradually recovered the Spanish mainland from Islamic rule. With their mix of brutality and bravery, gold lust and piety, the Spanish conquistadors of the Americas were the natural successors to the crusading knights of the Reconquista. Seeking new westward trade routes to the spice-rich Orient, Spanish explorers and soldiers first landed in the Caribbean, establishing colonies on the islands of Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic) and Cuba. They then began seeking a passage through the land mass to the west, and soon became distracted by tales of gold, silver and a wealthy empire there. Spain’s governor on Cuba, Diego Velazquez, asked a colonist named Hernan Cortes to lead one such expedition westward. As Cortes gathered ships and men, Velazquez became uneasy about the costs and Cortes’ loyalty, and tried to cancel the expedition. But Cortes, sensing a once-in-history opportunity, ignored him and secretly set sail on the night of February 15, 1519, with 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses.
After landing near the modern-day city of Veracruz, Hernan Cortes heard about the great capital of Aztecs and also learned of long-standing rivalries and grievances against it. It is hard to imagine than only two years later, the Spaniards would defeat the Aztecs and effectively establish control over most of Mexico. Before proceeding any further, I would like to mention a few factors that historians believe enabled Cortes to do so. First was Cortes himself: within a few days of his arrival to Veracruz, Cortes ordered all the expedition boats to be burnt, literally cutting the way out. In addition, his men had little to lose and much to gain, and their metal weapons and armor were greatly superior to anything the Aztecs had. Their gunpowder and cannon could also wreak havoc on opposing armies, both physically and psychologically. The horses and attack dogs, too, terrified Aztecs who had never encountered such animals before. However, the most important factor was the Cortes’ ability to form alliances with tribes who were chaffing under Aztec subjugation.
Details of the Spanish battles, alliances, and eventual conquest were recorded by Bernal Diaz, a solder, who later described them in a fascinating narrative entitled “True History of the Conquest of New Spain”. One detail not overlooked by the sagacious solder was the importance of the two translators – Jeronimo de Aguilar and la Malinche. The former was a Spanish solder shipwrecked on a previous expedition and enslaved by the Maya. When returned to Cortes, he spoke Mayan and Spanish. A young girl of noble descent, la Malinche, had been sold into slavery in Tabasco and thus spoke Maya and classical Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. La Malinche, baptized and renamed dona Marina by the Spaniards, proved especially helpful to them, with her well-worded translations, grasp of politics, and ability to turn potential foes into allies. Despite horses, cannon, and other military advantages, the Conquest would not have been possible without the allied strength of Aztec adversaries.
Moctezuma II could certainly have destroyed the Spanish before they left their first camp, since his spies had brought news of their arrival almost immediately. Instead, he sent a delegation bearing gifts of gold and jewels, which he hoped would persuade them to leave in peace. This served only to inflame the greed of the Spanish. By all accounts Moctezuma was a morose, moody and hesitant man, but his failure to act had deeper roots: he truly thought that the invaders were the returning god Quetzalcoatl – fair-skinned and bearded, as was Quetzalcoatl, coming from the east, where the deity had vanished. When Cortes finally reached Tenochtitlan on 8 November 1519, Moctezuma welcomed him and his Spanish army as his guests, while 6,000 indigenous allies were left to camp outside the city.
Tenochtitlan was the product of imperial strategy, based economically on trade and agriculture as well as a regular tribute of incoming goods and labor. The subject towns that were required to send men and products at established times numbered in the hundreds, from lands on the coast and highlands which the Spaniards had hardly yet envisioned. The imperial tribute system was enforced by the terror of retribution from a fierce army, whose victories were proclaimed in the capital by skull-racks of sacrificed victims. Yet Tenochtitlan was not simply the product of a state-organized agriculture, traders and markets, and a ruthless series of conquests. What the Spanish didn’t see and could not have understood were the deeper historical and symbolic relationships between the city and its inhabitants. The city’s plan, its buildings and monuments, and its place in the natural setting, were visible expressions of religious and aesthetic forces that flowed through the life of the people. In great measure the Aztec state drew its power from the early round of seasonal rites and their panoply of signs and symbols. No aspect of Aztec life was more carefully orchestrated than these religious activities. In art such ceremonies celebrated individual achievements and specific historic events, but more importantly they brought the community into direct contact with the elemental life of the land – the mountains, clouds, rain and thunder, the wind, the lakes and the sun. In this communal religious system, Moctezuma himself was chief.
Legend goes that Cortes asked Moctezuma to show him Huitzilopochtli’s temple. The monarch agreed to meet Cortes at the top of the great pyramid the following day. In the morning, Cortes and some of his conquistadores were guided around Tenochtitlan and its adjoining island-city, Tlatelolco. They were astonished at the wealth and size of an urban civilization that was superior in many ways to anything they had encountered in Europe. With its 200,000 inhabitants, Tenochtitlan was several times more populous than any city in Spain. The great marketplace of Tlatelolco was “twice as big as that of Salamanca,” wrote Cortes, “with arcades all around, where more than 60,000 people come each day to buy and sell, and where every kind of merchandise produced in these lands is found.” And the city was so clean and orderly, with streets swept of all debris and whole blocks reserved for specific trades and professions. With their intricate network of canals and avenues, the inhabitants appeared none the worse for the lack of wheeled carts (a wheel was never discovered by the Aztecs). There were palaces and villas more splendid than the residences of Spanish aristocrats. The towers of the largest temples rose higher than the Cathedral of Seville. Intoxicated by the smells, sights, and sounds of the Aztec capital, Cortes and his entourage entered the great religious precinct and scaled 114 steps of Huitzilopochtli’s pyramid for their rendez-vous at the summit with Moctezuma. And at that moment, their euphoria vanished. Two slabs of stone in front of Huitzilopochtli’s chapel were bathed with blood from victims who had been freshly sacrificed by Moctezuma to appease the hummingbird god for the unprecedented invitation of foreigners to his temple. Inside the dark chapel, the walls “were so splashed and encrusted with blood that they were black, the floor was the same and the whole place stunk so vilely…. that in the slaughter houses of Spain there is no such another stench,” recalled Diaz de Castillo. On his altar, Huitzilopochtli stood twice the heigh of a man, with “a very broad face and monstrous and terrible eyes, and the whole of his body covered with precious stones, and gold and pearls… and girdled by great snakes made of gold and precious stones, and in one hand he held a bow and in the other some arrows.” His hollow mouth, dripping blood, had been stuffed with the hearts of the recent victims. Repugnant, one of the Cortes’ first actions after conquering the city would be the destruction of the temples and establishment of Christianity.
From their vintage point on the pyramid of Tlatelolco, the Spaniards saw a city that would seem to be invulnerable. Yet on the long march to the capital they had already begun to understand the inner tensions and instabilities – in Tlaxcala, in the streets of Cholollan, and even now, while standing next to the emperor Moctezuma. In his person all power and decisions were concentrated, and it would be in their dealings with him that their future would be decided.
Before waging outright war on the Aztec, a large contingency of conquistadors was entertained by Moctezuma in the fortified city. However, knowing that they were being vastly outnumbered, Spaniards promptly repaid king’s hospitality by taking him prisoner within his own palace; in this way, Cortes hoped to rule through the emperor. However, Moctezuma’s power was dwindling in the eyes of his people. The Aztecs grew ever more resentful of the Spaniards’ attacks on their religion and their relentless demands for gold. Resistance broke out on one of the lakeside settlements, which Cortes tried to quell by having a formal ceremony where the emperor swore allegiance to the Spanish king. To add to Cortes’ troubles, the Spanish governor of Cuba sent an arrest party for Cortes, as his orders were not to conquer but simply to trade. This forced Cortes to leave Tenochtitlan in the hands of Pedro de Alvarado as he went to Veracruz to confront this party.
While Cortes was gone, tensions exploded when Alvarado ordered a massacre of priests during the religious ceremony dedicated to Huizilopochtli. When Cortes returned on June 24, 1520 the situation was dire, as he had to fight his way back into the city only to find himself trapped as well. Communications and entrances to the city were cut off. Cortes had Moctezuma try to pacify his people by speaking to them from the palace, but the emperor was greeted with a storm of stones and arrows, wounding him badly. On June 27, Moctezuma died, but whether he died from his injuries or whether the Spanish killed him, seeing that he was no longer of use to them, is unknown. The news of Moctezuma’s death caused uproar in the city and the Spanish tried to flee unnoticed but were caught. Hundreds of canoes closed in on the city from all sides, while the Aztecs recaptured their city with Cortes’ men fleeing. Some Spaniards found their way to a causeway out of the city. Some others, like the troops of Juan Velázquez, were forced to retreat toward the center of the city, where they were captured and sacrificed. Cortes took advantage of the night time to cross the causeway to a place called Popotla. Here is still found an ahuehuete tree called the tree of Noche Triste (“Tree of the Sad Night“) because Cortes supposedly wept here after his defeat. At least 600 of the Spanish were killed (some estimates state over 1,000), many weighed down by the gold and booty they were carrying; several thousand Tlaxcalans were probably lost, too. Once more, though, the Aztecs failed to follow up their advantages and the Spanish survivors managed to reach their allies in Tlaxcala, where they regrouped and rebuilt their military force. The Aztecs thought the Spaniards were permanently gone so they elected a new king, Cuauhtemoc, who was an experienced leader in his mid-20s and the son of Moctezuma’s uncle, Ahuitzotl.
When the 900 Spaniards re-entered the Valle de Mexico in May 1521, they were accompanied by some 100,000 indigenous allies. The defenders resisted fiercely, but after three months, the city suffered from the lack of food and water as well as the spread of smallpox – disease brought by the Europeans. Cortes and his allies landed their forces in the south of the island and fought their way through the city, street by street, and house by house, pushing the defenders to the northern tip of the island. Finally, Cuauhtemoc had to surrender on August 13, 1521. Aztec king asked Cortes to kill him, but instead he was kept alive as a hostage until 1525, undergoing occasional foot-burning torture as the Spanish tried to force him to reveal the whereabouts of Aztec treasure.
Although the fall of Tenochtitlan was a swift and definitive occurrence, this did not imply that the Spanish domination of the entire city, or the rest of Mexico, would be a rapid process. Indian cooperation in the destruction of Aztec power ensured that Cortes would have to take allied interests into consideration as well. In a number of ways, this made the Spaniards another factor in the ongoing political conflicts between rival native peoples, not to mention that Spanish were vastly outnumbered. For much of the colonial period, parts of Mexico City would remain very indigenous in character, with elements of these cultures surviving into modern times. Two separate parts of the capital were under indigenous rule, San Juan Tenochtitlan and Santiago Tlatelolco, with Nahua governors who were intermediaries between the indigenous population and the Spanish rulers, although the capital was designated a ciudad de españoles (Spanish city).
Cortes did not establish an independent, conquered territory under his own personal rule, but remained loyal to the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain and its associated European territories. By dint of his success, Cortes was appointed a temporary governor of this new territory, although in practice he was watched over by minders from Spain and never had much real freedom of action. Albeit Cortes was portrayed to the Spanish court as an ambitious and untrustworthy adventurer by his enemies, he sought to prove his loyalty. First, he wrote the Five Letters to explain what he had done and why, and between 1528 and 1530, he traveled to see the emperor in Toledo, Spain. However, the emperor decided not to appoint him as governor of New Spain, he gave him the noble hereditary title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, with vast numbers of tributary Indians there and elsewhere. Cortes was to die a wealthy but embitter man back in Spain in 1547. The first viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza arrived in Mexico City only fourteen years later (as Nueva Espana was formally established only in 1535) when it had long since been the major settlement of “conquerors and immigrant Spaniards, who for their own reasons already made … Mexico City their principal seat” before the establishment of the high court (Audiencia), the archbishop, and the viceroy.
There followed nearly three centuries of direct Spanish rule, under a succession of 61 viceroys responsible to the Spanish king. Spain’s policy toward all its conquests in the Americas can be summoned up in one word: exploitation. The Spanish crown saw the New World as a silver cow to be milked to finance its endless wars in Europe, a life of luxury for its nobility, and a deluge of new churches, palaces and monasteries that were erected around Spain. The crown was entitled to 1/5th of all bullion sent back from the New World. Conquistadors and colonists saw the American empire as a chance to get rich themselves. Cortes granted his soldiers encomiendas, which were rights to the labor or tribute of groups of indigenous people.
In the chaotic early years of the colony, plebeians who has suffered under the Aztec regime saw one harsh reality replaced with another. And while they would avoid the dreaded sacrificial slabs, they were statistically more likely to be worked to death in a mine or dispatched by smallpox, measles, or some other imported disease (there were 19 major epidemics in the century following the Spanish victory). Millions of indigenous people died in the first hundred years of Spanish domination, possibly more than 90% of the original population. Although relatively few Spaniards succumbed to the Old World illnesses, there was one native American disease – syphilis – that spread among Europeans as rapidly as their microbes had overcome the Indians. There is no mention of a disease with syphilis’s symptoms in European literature prior to the New World discoveries. The remains of ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Asians show none of the bone lesions left by the illness in its last stages. On the other hand, such evidence has been uncovered in a few pre-Columbian grave sites. Syphilis appears to have been brought back to Spain in 1493 by sailors on Columbus’s first expedition. Many more European contacts with the disease were made in Mexico. In the first few decades of the 1500s, syphilis spread so quickly throughout the Old World that neighboring countries accused each other of originating it. In Italy, it was known as French disease; the French called it the disease of Naples; Middle Easterners named it the European pustules: and the Japanese referred to it as the Portuguese disease. But as fearsome as syphilis was in the Old World, there was no wholesale annihilation of communities, no alteration of the entire social structure, as occurred in Mexico and throughout the Americans in the wake of European epidemics. Epidemic disease was the most dramatic element of what one recent historian has called the greatest biological revolution in the Americas since the end of the Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago.
The conquerors were given girls and women by the tribes they bested in battle, and by the Aztec who initially treated them as honored guests, producing a caste called mestizos (part European, part Indian). The settlers kept concubines, or less often, took Indian women as legitimate wives. However, unlike the Aztec nobles, who accepted the offspring of their mistresses and raised them in privilege, most Spaniards refused to recognize their bastard children. Consequently, the first generation of mestizos enjoyed no legal status whatsoever. Largely spurned by both Indians and whites, a renegade class was created, with no cultural group and no place within the emerging colony. Even among the wealthy Spanish-descended landowners there was growing resentment, fueled by the status of those among them born in Mexico: only peninsulares or “gachupines”, Spaniards born in Spain, could hold high offices in the government or Church. Of the 6 million people in Mexico in 1800, only 40,000 were gachupines – the rest were criollos – born in Mexico of Spanish blood, who dominated the lower ranks of the Church, army and civil service, or lived as anything from shopkeepers and small ranchers to bandits and beggars. Important to mention the presence of thousands of black slaves brought by Spaniards to help run the numerous ranches, plantations, and mills. Colonists believed that the Indians were lazier and less hardworking than the blacks, but those beliefs lose credibility when one considered the enormous accomplishment of native labor in the construction field alone. In the first 80 years of Spanish rule, the quantity of structures built by forced Indian labor far exceeded the total volume of construction during the entire Aztec era. The Mexican landscape was transformed by churches, government palaces, private villas, townhouses and irrigation projects.
The indigenous peoples’ only real allies were some of the monks who started arriving in 1523. Of course, the missionary work helped extend Spanish control over Mexico – by 1560 they had converted millions of people and built more than 100 monasteries – but many of them also protected local people from the colonists’ worst excesses. First to arrive were the Franciscans followed shortly by the Dominicans, Augustinians, and others. The Jesuits were expelled from New Spain in 1767 by King Charles II, who was convinced by rival orders that they were becoming too influential.
Criollo discontent with Spanish rule really began to stir following the expulsion of the Jesuits (many of whom were criollos). The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain, and direct Spanish control over Nueva Espana evaporated. The city of Queretaro, north of Mexico City, became a hotbed of intrigue among disaffected criollos who were plotting rebellion against Spanish rule. The rebellion was finally launched on September 16, 1810, by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in his parish of Dolores. The path to independence was a hard one, involving almost 11 years of fighting between rebels and loyal forces, and the death of Hidalgo and several other rebel leaders. But eventually rebel general Agustin de Iturbide sat down with Spanish viceroy Juan O’Donoju in Veracruz in 1821 and agreed on terms for Mexico’s independence.
Mexico’s first century as a free nation started with a period of chronic political instability and wound up with a period of stability so repressive that it triggered a social revolution. A consistent thread throughout was the opposition between liberals, who favored a measure of social reforms and conservatives, who didn’t. Between 1821 and the mid 1860s, the young Mexican nation was invaded by three different countries (Spain, USA and France), lost large chunks of its territory to the US, and underwent nearly 50 changes of head state. It was an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca who played the lead role in Mexican affairs for two tumultuous decades after the halfway point of the century. Lawyer Benito Juarez was a key member of the new liberal government in 1855, which ushered in the era known as La Reforma, in which the liberals set about dismantling the conservative state that had developed in Mexico. Juarez became president in 1861. With the French intervention almost immediately afterward, his government was forced into exile in provincial Mexico, eventually to regain control in 1866. Juarez set an agenda of economic and social reform, which started with the appropriation of monasteries and churches, their subdivision and sale. Schooling was made mandatory, a railway was built between Mexico City and Veracruz, and a rural police force, the rurales, was organized to secure the transportation of cargo through Mexico. Juarez died in 1872 and remains one of the few Mexican historical figures with a relatively unsullied reputation.
A rather different Oaxacan, Porfirio Diaz, ruled as president for 35 of the following 39 years, a period known as the Porfiriato. Diaz brought Mexico into the industrial age, stringing telephone, telegraph and railway lines and launching public work projects. He kept Mexico free of civil wars – but political opposition, free elections and free press were banned. Peasants were cheated out of their land by new laws, workers suffered appalling conditions, and land and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a 3-4% of the population. All this led in 1910 to the Mexican Revolution.
The Revolution was a tortured 10-year period of shifting conflicts and allegiances between forces and leaders of all political stripes. The conservatives were pushed aside fairly early on, but the reformers and revolutionaries who had lined up against them could not agree among themselves. Successive attempts to create stable government were wrecked by new outbreaks of devastating fighting. All told, one in eight Mexicans lost their lives in the Revolution.
Francisco Madero, a wealthy liberal from Coahuila, would probably have won the presidential election in 1910 if Porfirio Diaz hadn’t jailed him. On his release, Madero called successfully for the nation to renew an uprising which spread quickly across the country. Diaz resigned in May 1911, and Madero was elected president 6 months later. But Madero couldn’t contain the diverse factions that were now fighting for power throughout Mexico. The basic divide was between liberal reformers like Madero and more radical leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, who was fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants, with the cry of “Tierra y Libertad!” (Land and freedom). In 1913 Madero was deposed, brutally executed and replaced as a president by one of his own top generals, Victoriano Huerta. The revolutionary forces united (temporarily) in opposition to Huerta and three main leaders in the north banded together under the Plan de Guadelupe: Venustiano Carranza, a Madero supporter in Coahuila, Francisco “Pancho” Villa in Chihuahua and Alvaro Obregon in Sonora. Zapata also fought against Huerta.
But fighting then broke out again between the victorious sides with Carranza and Obregon (the “Constitutionalists” with their capital at Veracruz ) pitted against the radical Zapata and the populist Villa. Zapata and Villa never formed a serious alliance, and it was Carranza who emerged as victor. He has Zapata assassinated in 1919, only to be liquidated himself the following year on the orders of his former ally Obregon. Pancho Villa was killed in 1923.
The conflict dragged on until 1920, when the ideals of the Constitution of 1917 were adopted. The country was economically devastated by years of war. Political unrest reigned, and subsequent transfers of presidential power through nominal elections were accompanied by revolts and instability. From 1920 to 2000, Mexico was ruled by the reformers who emerged victorious from the Revolution and their successors in the political party they set up, which since the 1940s has borne the name Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party), or PRI as it is universally known. Starting out with some genuinely radical social policies, these governments became steadily more conservative, corrupt, repressive and self-interested as the 20th century wore on. Mexico ended the century with a bigger middle class but still with a yawning wealth gap between the prosperous few and the vast numbers of poor.
The problem of land ownership was addressed by redistributing more than 400,000 sq. km from large estates to peasants and small farmers between the 1920s and ’60s. Nearly half the population received land, mainly in the form of ejidos (communal landholdings). Meanwhile, Mexico developed a worrying economic dependence on its large oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1970s and ’80s saw the country veer from oil-engendered boom to oil-engendered slump as world prices swung rapidly up then just as suddenly down. The huge government-owned oil company Pemex was just one face of a massive state-controlled economic behemoth that was established as the PRI sought control over all important facets of Mexican life.
During the revolution, thousands fled to rapidly industrializing Mexico City in search of jobs and a better life. Between 1910 and the mid-1940s the city’s population quadrupled and the cracks in the infrastructure quickly became gaping holes. Houses couldn’t be built quickly enough to cope with the 7% annual growth, and many people couldn’t afford them anyway, so shantytowns of scrap metal and cardboard sprung up. Most neighborhoods had little or no water supply and sanitation was an afterthought. Gradually, civil leaders tried to address the situation by improving services and housing in existing shantytowns, while a new ring of slums mushroomed just a little further out. This expansion strained the transport system, necessitating the construction of a Metro system in the late 1960s.
The PRI was discredited forever in the minds of many Mexicans by the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, in which an estimated 400 civil-liberties protestors were shot dead. The PRI came to depend increasingly on strong-arm tactics and fraud to win elections. Mexicans’ cynicism about their leaders reached a crescendo with the 1988-1994 presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who won the presidential election only after a mysterious computer failure had halted vote-tallying at a crucial stage. During Salinas’ term, drug trafficking grew into a huge business in Mexico, and mysterious assassinations proliferated. Salinas did take steps to liberalize the monolithic state-dominated economy. The apex of his program, the North American Free Trace Agreement (NAFTA), boosted exports and industry, but was unpopular with subsistence farmers and small businesses threatened by imports from the US. The last year of Salinas’ presidency, 1994, began with the left-wing Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, and shortly before Salinas left office he spent nearly all of Mexico’s foreign-exchange reserves in a futile attempt to support peso, engendering a slump that he left his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, to deal with.
It was also left to Zedillo to respond to the rising clamor for democratic change in Mexico. He established a new, independently supervised electoral system that opened the way for the country’s first ever peaceful change of regime at the end of his term in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the business-oriented Partido Accion Nacional (PAN) won the election. Vicente Fox’s election itself – a non-PRI president after 80 years of rule by that party and it predecessors – was really the biggest news about his 6-year term. He entered office backed by much goodwill, however in the end, his presidency was considered a disappointment by most. Lacking a majority in Mexico’s Congress, Fox was unable to push through reforms that were key to stirring Mexico’s slumbering economy.
Fox was succeeded in 2006 by another PAN president, Felipe Calderon. During his term Mexico’s economy sprang back surprisingly fast after the recession of 2009, and Mexico became something of a global environmental champion when it enshrined its carbon-emissions targets in law in 2012. But Calderon’s presidency will be remembered far more for his war on drugs. Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and put 50,000 troops plus naval forces and several police forces into the field against them, predominantly in cities along the US border. Some top gang leaders were killed or arrested, and drug seizures reached record levels, and so did the killings – an estimated 60,000 in the 6 years of Calderon presidency. The gangs’ methods grew even more shocking, with street gun-battles, gruesome beheadings, torture and even, allegedly, human sacrifices. The northern city of Ciudad Juares, with over 3,100 killings in 2010, became the world’s murder capital. When the total number of killings finally started to fall at the end of Calderon’s term, many people believed this was simply because the two most powerful cartels – the Sinaloa cartel in the northwest of Mexico and Los Zetas in the northeast – had effectively wiped out their weaker competitors.
Against this background, the PRI managed to convince enough Mexicans that it had cleaned up its act for them to vote it back into power, in the shape of its candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, in the presidential election of 2012. President Nieto has had some success reducing drug cartel violence since 2012; some drug bosses were killed and the Mexico’s most-wanted man – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was captured in 2014. Nevertheless, the Iguala mass kidnapping of September 2014, when 43 students from Ayotzinapa were abducted and later murdered by a drug gang in collusion with local police in Guerrero horrified the nation; the case led to national and international protests and a string of high-profile resignations and arrests. And in 2015, after barely a year in Mexico’s top prison, El Chapo escaped yet again in what was a massive embarrassment for the Nieto administration.
Mexico City continued to grow in the 1970s, as the provincial poor sought economic refuge in its thriving industries, and the metropolitan area populations surged from 8.7 to 14.5 million. The result of such unbridled growth was some of the world’s worst pollution and traffic, but also an unenviable list of major social and physical problems, including an extreme vulnerability to earthquakes – the last big one, in 1985, killed over 5,000 people and made 100,000 homeless. At last count, the greater Mexico City area had more than 20 million inhabitants.
If the history of Mexico hasn’t yet inspired you to visit its capital, a simple but endless list of its sites, would. I had only 1.5 days to see what a traveler could spend months exploring – the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, archeological finds, shrines and religious relics that this encyclopedia of a city has to offer. What I did have was a plan and a local guide and as I stepped off my early morning Mexico City bound plane, I could only think of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy’s lines, in which he counsels Homer Odysseus:
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca
then pray that the road is long….
I found Jorge Mendoza information (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, cell # 0445536608182) on www.tripadvisor.com – he was a local guide with excellent credentials and multiple recommendations. And when I reached out to him with my dates and itinerary, he was happy and very enthusiastic to help. On my very first day in Mexico City, I wanted to go to Teotihuacan – an ancient Mesoamerican city located about 40 kms outside the capital and on the second day I thought to explore the Zocalo (city center) and see some famous murals by local artists, before heading to the wedding reception! Jorge services with a car were appx. $110 per day.
Jorge was already waiting for me at the airport when I arrived so we didn’t waste any time leaving for Teotihuacan. The traffic was heavy, as it was Friday morning, but I used this opportunity to get to know Jorge and through him – the history of Mexico City. My guide had a truly remarkable memory and affection for his home country, which is always a great combination. On a few occasions though he came across as a nationalist or, it would be better to say – anti-American. Oh well!
It took us over an hour to get to Teotihuacan and by then, I already learnt a lot about this majestic city that peaked in A.D.100- 450 and housed the world’s most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Please allow 5-6 hours, entry is $4 plus extra for taking videos, hours 7.00 – 17.00.
The World Heritage Site, Teotihuacan is the most visited yet the least understood pre-Hispanic site in Mexico. Its original name, early history and the ancestry of its founders until now remain a mystery. It’s present Nahuatl name, which means “the place where gods were born”, was given by Aztecs when they discovered the ruined city. Even 700 years after it was abandoned, it must still have been an extraordinary site as the Aztec lords made multiple pilgrimages to the ruins to consult with the gods and to bring home relics for their own palaces and altars. And until now, the impressive pyramids of Teotihuacan – The Piramide del Sol and Piramide de la Lune – remain the tallest in Western Hemisphere, and the site – the largest archeological ground in Mexico.
Scholars today know very little about the people who constructed this magnificent city except that while Europe stumbled through the Dark Ages, Teotihuacan’s culture shone like a beacon. Around 300 B.C., people of the central and southeastern area of Mesoamerica began to gather into larger settlements. By the 1st century B.C., the true agricultural revolution and sustained irrigation led to a greater food production, abundant crops and greater population. Around A.D. 500 Teotihuacan had a population of more than 100,000 people and sprawled over 20 sq km, a larger area than imperial Rome. It was a religious and trade capital, drawing pilgrims and merchants from as far away as the Maya region in Yucatan and Guatemala, and Monte Alban in the Oaxacan highlands. Closer to home, Teotihuacan dominated the Valley of Mexico by trade and through tribute exacted by its powerful armies.
What is remarkable about Teotihuacan is how closely its spatial development and social structure repeated the pattern of the first cities of the Old World. Between A.D. 100 and 200, Teotihuacan’s most impressive building, the Pyramid of the Sun (the 3rd largest pyramid in the world, after Cheops in Egypt and Cholula in Mexico), was completed. Rising to the height of more than 65 m, it has a broad base that extends over an area as great as the Pyramid of Cheops. But at some later date, after A.D. 200, the focus of religious activity shifted just south of the Pyramid of the Sun to an enormous walled enclosure of temples, palaces, and granaries. This was the classic citadel found in all the ancient capitals of the Old World. Here the ruling class of king, aristocrats, and priests created a sacred precinct, monopolizing political and religious powers, and dispensing grain to their subjects in time of famine. Adjoining the citadel was a huge marketplace, where the normal distribution of food and merchandise was carried out under the supervision of the authorities.
Around this political-religious-commercial center, along a grid of well-defined streets, arose more than 4,000 stone and mudbrick buildings where the artisans, merchants, and warriors resided. They were one-floor structures, each consisting of several connecting rooms. To the narrow streets, they presented only a door and a windowless walls, but on the other side, the rooms led to inner, sunlit, airy patios where residents could enjoy their privacy. Archeological evidence indicates that the quarters immediately surrounding the citadel were associated with specific professions. Some neighborhoods had a heavy concentration of potters. Other districts were identified with weavers, animal-skin and featherworkers, and artisans of obsidian, the black volcanic glass used for tools and weapons. Teotihuacan controlled one of the largest obsidian quarries in central Mexico and apparently established an important commerce in the unworked and finished glass over a region extending hundreds of kilometers away.
On the outskirts of Teotihuacan, beyond the citadel and the merchant-artisan-warrior quarters, lived the farmers in far less imposing houses built of mudbrick, reed and cornstalks. They outnumbered the rest of the urban population by as much as 4 to 1. Although they continued to tend their fields, they were forced to live within the city limits where they could be more easily brought under political control.
It bears repeating that the Teotihuacanos created a great city despite the total absence of some of the most essential ingredients associated with the rise of urban civilization in the Old World. They had no animals to plow their fields, to transport people and goods, or to aid in their huge construction projects. Because there were no mules, donkeys, cattle, or horses, the Teotihuacans didn’t bother to “invent” the wheel. Their mountainous terrain rendered even hand-pushed carts almost useless. They lacked the rivers of the Old World civilizations, rivers that made transportation and irrigation so much easier tasks. And for reasons that are harder to explain, they had no metal implements, even thought they had enough metallurgical knowledge to work gold and copper into jewelry and ornaments. The Teotihuacanos, did, however, have one comparative advantage over the Old World civilizations: the possession of that miracle crop, maize. Uniformity meant efficiency.
As Teotihuacan’s population expanded, its society became more stratified. The ruler needed extensive bureaucracies – religious, political, economic, and military – to regulate the affairs of so many subjects. The elites were rewarded with status and by wealth, in the form of tribute collected from commoners and subjugated peoples. The commoners were ultimately held in check by fear and reverence of the ruler and his state, whose powers were boundless. The same authority that directed people to dig new irrigation works was used to harness thousands of laborers behind grandiose plans to build majestic palaces and temples, broad avenues and streets. The same power to command was used to create large standing armies, as protection against enemies outside and within the city-state and as instrument of conquest.
At the peak of its efficiency, the city-state of Teotihuacan could ensure food supplies even to its lowliest subjects. We know this because the population tripled between 100 B.C. and A.D. 650, reaching 150,000 (some say 250,000) people. No form of encouragement or coercion could have caused such an increase if food was scarce. Of course, their diet was almost exclusively vegetarian and as in any other ancient society – and many recent ones as well – meat was the prerogative of the wealthy. Virtually all the animal bones uncovered in Teotihuacan are found in the royal and priestly quarters, and in the refuse piles of the artisan, commercial and warrior neighborhoods. Archeological data indicates that the relatively sparse wild game accounted for less than 1% of the caloric intake of all Valley of Mexico’s inhabitants. To some extent, cannibalism may have compensated for this meat shortage. 5 km west of Teotihuacan in its subject village of Maquixco, human bones, mandibles, and skull fragments have been found scattered through the kitchen refuse and even in cooking pots. In Teotihuacan itself, the evidence is less conclusive. The presence of pyramids with platforms at their summits – like the religious structures used by the Aztecs centuries later to immolate uncounted thousands of victims – hints at large-scale human sacrifices. But the midden heaps that have been unearthed thus far within the city limits contain no human remains.
Teotihuacan could have survived without any meat at all. But it was vulnerable to water shortages. Water – the essential ingredient of agricultural and urban development – began to dwindle in the second half of the first millennium A.D. Perhaps a long era of repeated droughts – a frequent enough occurrence in Mexican history – lowered the flow of the underground springs around Teotihuacan. The intense slashing and burning of the hillside forests, either to recover more farmland or to obtain wood for construction, was also a contributing factor. Once denuded of their trees, the hills failed to absorb the rain runoff that partially fed the underground springs. As food production fell, a demographic decline began in Teotihuacan after A.D. 650. The peripheral areas of the city show signs on abandonment about this time. Building projects are less numerous, and far less spectacular in scale, reflecting a smaller labor force. Even the pottery is of a lesser quality.
In the wake of droughts, Teotihuacan’s military power and population diminished, making the city more vulnerable. The morale of the inhabitants, particularly the poorest subjects, must have declined as food supplies grew scarcer. The king ruled both by force and moral suasion. He was the keeper of the granaries, the great provider, the divine agent who interceded with the gods of fertility, water, and agriculture. But he could no longer deliver enough food. The gods obviously no longer listened to him. If the droughts produce stains within the great city-state, its effects must have been catastrophic elsewhere in the Valley of Mexico. Vassal tribesmen were forced to contribute greater portions of their crops as tribute to Teotihuacan. Those who escaped starvation reverted to a semi-nomadic existence, harvesting what they could, hunting and trapping the scarce wild game, gathering any wild plants and fruit that could be found.
By A.D. 700, the northern barbarians were showing temerity in their attacks on the weakened state-city of Teotihuacan. Their raids on the farmlands were more frequent, and carried out by larger numbers of warriors. They gathered allies among the starving tribes further south in the valley of Mexico. And eventually they may have even won support among the disaffected subjects within the city-state. Around A.D. 750, just a few centuries after it reached its golden age, Teotihuacan was devastated. Theories include overpopulation, rampant disease, internal power struggles, and rebellion of the masses, however systematic burning of ceremonial buildings points to the purposeful destruction of the city.
It was about this time that the two other great Mexican civilizations – the Oaxacans and the Maya – also collapsed. All those were civilizations that expanded to the point of ecological disaster and carried intensive agriculture to its natural limit. So thoroughly did the Teotihuacanos destroy their environment that the center of their civilization failed to regain the population density of their era of splendor until modern times.
Jorge and I parked the car, paid the fees and accessed the archeological site near Entrance #4. There are three things that become obvious the moment you see the site – its scale, order and perfect alinement. Framed by the looming mountain Cerro Gordo (“mother stone”) and built on an almost geological scale, the ceremonial architecture echoes the shapes of the surrounding landscape. Two vast quadrangles lie in the middle of the urban zone, symmetrically arranged on an east-west axis. On the eastern side the Ciudadela (Citadel) is dominated by the Feathered Serpent Pyramid; this was the ritual seat of government, commanding the broad expanse of the open plaza with its flanking pyramid platforms and ranged stairways. The western quadrangle is believed to have been the central marketplace. Running on a north-south axis between these two enclosures, a wide Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) traverses the length of the city. Lined by the remains of ritual platforms and walled apartment compounds, this ceremonial avenue leads north past the immense Pyramid of the Sun before ending in a broad plaza at the foot of Pyramid of the Moon; the line of sight extends beyond to the summit of Cerro Gordo. The southern end lacks monumental definition, where the avenue leads into an open zone of springs and agricultural fields. The Pyramid of the Sun is aligned to the place on the eastern horizon where the sun rises on the equinox. This orientation, together with that of the Avenue of the Dead, determined the layout of a grid-like system of residential and manufacturing compounds, covering a 20 sq.km area. The abandoned pyramids and plazas were viewed with awe by the Aztecs. Teotihuacan was invested with mythological significance, portrayed in Aztec creation stories as the place where time began. The narrative describes a primeval setting of silence and darkness; a council of gods was convened and a great bonfire was lit; two of the deities cast themselves into the fire to be immolated, before being reborn as the sun and the moon. Hence the Aztec names “Piramide de Sol” and “Piramide de la Lune”, for the buildings they saw as memorials to the god’s self-sacrifice in the remote time of beginnings. This cosmological layout of Teotihuacan, expressed by the east-west line of the Pyramid of the Sun, and the north-south line, visually stretching from the top of the sacred mountain to the Pyramid of the Moon and down the Avenue of the Dead through the city to the agricultural fields, was to remain a fundamental feature of highland urban planning, to be expressed again at Tula and eventually in the design of Aztec’s capital of Tenochtitlan.
Centuries ago, Calzada de los Mortos (Avenue of the Dead) – a broad (some 40 m wide), straight avenue paved with volcanic stone, set with dazzling mica and aligned with the stars – must have seemed absolutely incomparable to its inhabitants, who were able to see the fine palaces and temples adorn with bas-relief sculptures at their best. It was so called because the later Aztecs believed that the buildings lining it were vast tombs, built by giants for Teotihuacan’s first rulers. The design, seen in the many reconstructions, is fairly uniform: low 3-4 storey platforms consisting of vertical panels (tableros) supported by sloping walls. They were often covered in lime and colorfully painted; some of them contained elegant frescoes. Today, many of the ceremonial buildings have been partially reconstructed, although without their colorful stucco facades.
At the southern end stands La Ciudadela (The Citadel), the enormous sunken square, surrounded by stepped platforms and with a low square altar in the center. It formed Teotihuacan’s administrative and ceremonial center and also the principal secular royal palace for generations of unknown kings. Across the open space stands a tall pyramid construction, inside which, during excavations, was found the Templo de Quetzalcoatl, built around A.D. 250 in honor of the Feathered Serpent, worshipped as the god of water, the dawn, and agriculture. Skeletal remains of 137 human victims have been found under and around this temple, showing that they were brought from diverse parts of Mesoamerica to be sacrificed. With the back of the newer pyramid demolished, the elaborate temple structure was revealed. Pyramid aside, this is one of the most impressive sections of the whole site, rising in four steps (of an original six), each sculpted in relief and punctuated at intervals by the stylized heads of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc. Imagine their eye sockets laid with glistening obsidian glass and the pyramid painted blue, as it once was. Although fanged serpent sculptures originally covered the lower level, those on three sides were pulled down not long after its inauguration. The intact west wall is impressive, with rows of stone serpent heads interspersed with images of Tlaloc and feathered shells. This theme – with goggle-eyes, almost abstract mask of Tlaloc and the fanged snake Quetzalcoatl, its neck singed with a collar of feathers – recurs in later sites throughout the country.
At the far extreme of the 4 km avenue is the second largest pyramid of Teotihuacan – Piramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), a royal funerary monument with tombs dating back to the first century A.D.; the oldest of these may be that of the founder of the royal dynasty. Completed around A.D. 300, its summit is nearly the same height as Pyramide del Sol because it’s built on higher ground. The Pyramid of the Moon has 6 layers of construction; in contract, the earlier Pyramid of the Sun was built mostly during a single phase. A slope in front of the staircase gives access to the Avenue of the Dead, a platform atop the pyramid was used to conduct ceremonies in honor of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, the goddess of water, fertility, the earth, and even creation itself. This platform and the sculpture found at the pyramid’s bottom are thus dedicated to The Great Goddess. It is worth scaling just over a hundred tall, narrow steps to the top, where you will be rewarded with a view of the Avenue of the Dead, sacred Cerro Gordo to the north, and lonely plains dotted with prickly pear cacti and pepper trees. The views from above also put into perspective just how dominating the larger pyramid is.
Opposite the Great Goddess’s altar is the Plaza de la Luna (Plaza of the Moon) – one of the most important sacred spaces within the city of Teotihuacan. It holds a strategic position in the overall urban plan, as it is the starting point of the city’s main road – the Avenue of the Dead. Another characteristic of this group is that it has an open layout, as distinguished from the Pyramid of the Sun and the Ciudadela, both of which are spaces circumscribed by a platform. In this sense, it is likely to have been an area dedicated to public ceremonies. The Plaza contains a central altar and an original construction with internal divisions, consisting of four rectangular and diagonal bodies that formed what is known as the “Teotihuacan Cross.” Plaza of the Moon consists of a handsome arrangement of 12 temple platforms. Some experts attribute astronomical symbolism to the total number of 13 (made up of the 12 platforms plus the pyramid), a key number of the day-counting system of the Mesoamerican ritual calendar.
Smaller, related structures are symmetrically arranged on both sides of the Avenue of the Dead. The most impressive is the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl (Palace of Querzalpapalotl), thought to be the home of a high priest and located to the left of the Plaza de la Luna, behind the low temples that surround it. Wholly restored, it is virtually the only example of a pre-Hispanic roofed building in central Mexico and preserves a unique view of how the elite lived at Teotihuacan. Important to mention that the Teotihuacan houses and buildings had an intricate drainage system which was designed prior to the construction, thus avoiding floods within the city. Additionally, some of the rainwater was stored in large wells to be used during dry seasons. In many places, it is easy to observe how the drainage network runs underneath the floors of the patios and rooms, but it could also be found inside the rooms, leading the experts to believe that they were used as a network for bathroom facilities.
The rooms are arranged around a patio whose elaborately carved pillars are decorated with low-relief sculptures of the building’s namesake, the Feathered Butterfly. Within the building’s rooms, open patios, and antechambers are some well-preserved murals, all very formalized and symbolic, with the themes reduced almost to geometric patterns. The remains of bears, armadillos and other exotic animals were discovered here, showing that the area was used by the elite for cooking and rituals.
The mural art was clearly very important in Teotihuacan, and almost every building has some traces of decoration, though much has been removed for restoration. Two earlier buildings, half-buried under the palace, still have substantial remains. In the Palacio de los Jaguares (Palace of the Jaguars), jaguars in feathered headdresses blow conch shells from which emerges curls of music, or perhaps speech or prayers to Tlaloc (who appears along the top of the mural).
In the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Shells), the pyramid on which the temple rests is decorated with multicolored mural on three sides, where its panels represent a procession of green birds in profile. From their orange beaks streams water curving toward three-petaled yellow flowers. The bird is found symmetrically placed with respect to the central stairway and have been assumed to be quetzal, although the shapes of their bodies lead one to believe they could be macaws or parrots. Today, the panels are found in an advance state of deterioration but were also originally painted with concentric circles.
Other murals, of which only traces remain, were found in the temples along the Calzada de los Muertos between two pyramids. For ex. Mural del Puma (The Mural of Puma), which was discovered during the archeological exploration in 1963. It is a part of a group of platforms and temples that comprises an architectural unit known as The Puma Complex. In the scene shown here, there is a profiled portrayal of a large cat, probably puma, with open jaws and large claws protruding from its paws. It is painted over a background of slanting bands alternately colored red, white and green, symbolizing an aquatic atmosphere. The panel molding is decorated with green circles that represent “chalchihuites,” or precious stones.
Templo de la Agricultura (The Temple of Agriculture) was the first building to be discovered by the archeologist Leopoldo Batres in 1886 and restored around 1922 by Manuel Gamio and his team. In the research, two fragments of wall paintings were discovered – one in front of the main facade, composed of images of seeds, plants and water streams, which gave the name to this building. It was established that the building had 3 construction stages. The oldest, from A.D. 150 is a low platform with a central staircase facing east, where its remaining 5 steps and balustrade are still preserved. Around A.D. 200 the platform was covered by a tall building with a sloping wall and its facade changed to face the west. Finally, around A.D. 250, the building acquired its current appearance, by adding a hall with four columns in front.
Across the avenue, the third largest pyramid in the world, Piramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) squats like an immense behemoth. Although its base, 222 m long, is nearly as broad of that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, at 70 m tall, it is less than half of height of the Egyptian pyramid. Underneath the tremendous structure winds a honeycomb of tunnels and caves, which the Aztec considered the birthplace of the world. Its accurate alignment with the cosmic bodies is also quite remarkable: two days a year (May 19 and July 25) the sun is directly over the pyramid at noon, and the main west facade faces the point at which the sun sets on these days. This alignment just off the cardinal points determined the line of the Calzada de los Muertos and the entire city. Equally remarkable is the fact that the 2.5 million tonnes of stone and earth used in its construction were brought here without benefit of the wheel or any beast of burden, and shaped without the use of metal tools. When Teotihuacan was at its height, the pyramid’s plaster was painted bright red, which must have been a radiant sight at sunset. The pyramid we see was reconstructed by Leopoldo Batres in 1908, in a thoroughly cavalier fashion. He blasted, with dynamite, a structure that originally abutted the south face, and stripped much of the surface in a search for a more complete building under the present one. In fact, the Piramide del Sol, almost uniquely was built in one go at a very early stage of the city’s development (about A.D. 100) and there is only a very small older temple right at its heart. As a result of Batres’ stripping of the stone surface, the temple has eroded considerably more than it might otherwise have done. He also added an extra terrace to the original four.
We approached the pyramid via a broad esplanade, the Sun Complex, where stand the ruins of several small temples and priests’ dwellings. The main structure consists of five sloping layers of wall divided by terraces – the large flat area at the top would originally have been surmounted by a sanctuary, long disappeared. Evidence of why this massive construction came to be raised here emerged in 1971 when archeologists stumbled on a tunnel (closed to public) leading to a clover-leaf-shaped cave directly under the center of the pyramid. This, clearly, have been some kind of inner sanctuary of holy of holies, and may even have been the reason for Teotihuacan’s foundation and the basis of its influence. Theories abound as to its exact nature, and many fit remarkably well with legends handed down through the Aztecs. It is most likely that the cave was formed by a subterranean spring and came to be associated with Tlaloc, god of rain but also a bringer of fertility, a sort of fountain of life. Evidence supporting this interpretation includes the presence of child burials at the building’s corners, characteristic of offerings to the water god. So much for being a Temple of the Sun! Alternatively, it could be associated with the legendary “seven grottos”, a symbol of creation from which all later Mexican people claimed to have emerged, or to have been the site of an oracle, or associated with a cult of sacrifice – in Aztec times the flayed skins of victims of Xipe Totel were stored in a cave under the pyramid.
Although the five-level, 244-step pyramid has more than twice as many steps as the Pyramid of the Moon, it is slightly easier to climb as the steps are shorter. Thousands of people converge on the structure hoping to receive a supercharge of celestial energy and enjoy the views.
Unfortunately, after 16.30 the clouds started to gather very quickly and Jorge rightly rushed us to leave, as the pouring rain began just a few minutes after we got into a car. However, there are more sites to see at Teotihuacan. The priest’ residence Palacio de Tepantitla (Palace of Tepantitla), 500 m northeast of the Piramide del Sol is home to Teotihuacan’s most famous fresco, the worn Paradise of Tlaloc. The rain god is shown attended by priests, people, animals and fish. Just above is the sinister portrait of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, thought to be a goddess of the darkness and war, she is often shown with jaguars, owls and spiders – underworld creatures. Her fanged nosepiece and spiderweb shields are quite memorable.
A group of palace lies west of Teotihuacan’s main area. Many of the murals were discovered there in the 1940s and are well preserved or restored and perfectly intelligible. Inside the sprawling Palacio de Tetitla, no fewer than 120 walls are graced with murals of Tlaloc, jaguars, serpents and eagles. Some 400 m west is the Palacio de Atetelco, whose vivid jaguar or coyote murals – a mixture of originals and restorations – are in the Patio Blanco in the northwest corner. About 100 m further northeast are Palacio de Zacuala and Palacio de Yayahuala, a pair of enormous walled compounds that probably served as communal living quarters. Separated by the original alleyways, the two structures are made up of numerous rooms and patios but few entranceways. Don’t forget to check out a small museum on premisses.
About 90% of Mexicans are Catholics and there is no more powerful image for Mexican Catholics than La Virgen de Guadalupe. She is so beloved that girls and boys are named after her, and millions of pilgrims visit her each year, some crawling the last kms on hands and knees. Her titles include “Queen of Mexico”, “Patroness of the Americas”, “Empress of Latin America” and even “Heavenly Patroness of the Philippines”, among others. Her image is everywhere in Mexico – tough looking tattooed macho guys will cross themselves as they pass her image, taxi drivers have her as a constant passenger, dangling from the mirror, and her altar protects every neighborhood market. It is almost impossible to overestimate her influence. That is why our next stop was at the Mexico’s most famous Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe, located north of Mexico City and on the way from Teotihuacan.
They say that the visions of Mary appeared to a recent Catholic convert – a local peasant named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac on December 9, 1531 (ten years after the conquest). Speaking to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl, the maiden identified herself as the Virgin Mary and asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor. Based on her words, Juan Diego then sought out the archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to tell him what had happened. As the bishop did not believe Diego, on the same day, Virgin Mary appeared before him for a second time. She told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in December and Juan followed her instructions. The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan’s tilma, or cloak, and when Juan Diego opened his cloak before archbishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The same cloak is presently enshrined at the New Basilica which is considered to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Catholicism.
Obviously, the story is hardly believable for many reasons. Though in an exceptional decision, the Church hierarchy gave its blessing to Juan Diego’s vision, but the cult remained controversial for many clergymen and white colonists of that time, who viewed it as a dangerously independent native reaction to Spanish Christianity. In addition, a fact that Nahuatl language doesn’t contain neither the “g” nor the “d” sounds, makes the story of “Virgin of Guadelupe” even less credible.
What is known is that the original Chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary was built on the sacred site devoted to a temple for Tonantzin (Tanontsin), an important indigenous mother goddess, after the Spanish conquerors destroyed the temple. In the latter year, a shrine had been constructed at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, which served the people for ninety years. It was adapted as part of the parochial sacristy of the new basilica and in 1622 a rich shrine was erected. It was replaced in 1709 by what is presently known as the old basilica. It is characterized by its doric interior and marble statues of Fray Juan de Zumárraga and Juan Diego. These are featured in the altarpiece that originally held the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe till 1974. In 1921 a bomb planted in a flower vase near the altar by an anticlerical terrorist exploded, causing great damage to the interior of the building. (In memory of this incident, the New Basilica displays an iron crucifix called “the attempt on Christ”.) However, the cloak survived undamaged. As much of Mexico City was built on a bed of former lake, the land is unstable and the old basilica eventually started to sink. A new, more spacious basilica was built right next to the old one to house the cloak and accommodate up to 10,000 visitors.
We parked in the underground parking lot, that also served as a huge religious shopping center and in order to get to the main square, we had to pass by thousands of images of the Virgin. It was getting dark and even though rain hasn’t stopped, I clearly saw a beautiful baroque-styled building…. which happened to be the sinking Old Basilica and my guide, Jorge had no desire to go there. Later, I realized that he was skipping all the sites built by Spaniards and if I showed the interest to go and visit them, he never accompanied me, but stood and waited for me outside. Well, instead we proceeded towards a huge round building that looked more like a terminal at the airport than a religious structure – the New Basilica.
I bought a few candles inside but had to go back out, as the stands for candle offerings were built outside the Basilica (which I thought was very strange). I find modern churches to lack holiness or that special spiritual presence that many old or traditional religious places possess. Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe wasn’t an exception, unfortunately. It didn’t feel godly, it didn’t smell like votive candles, it wasn’t neither miraculous nor divine. It looked very much like the Belarusian Philharmonic Hall, with a cloak of the Virgin Mary on the wall, comfortably hiding behind the bullet-proof glass! I frankly felt cheated.
After the visit to Basilica, Jorge dropped me off at my hotel – JW Marriott Mexico City. It was a nice hotel with an impressive lobby located just by the large city park – Bosque de Chapultepec, home to the Museo Nacional Antropologia – world’s largest museum of pre-Columbian heritage. Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit the museum, but we enjoyed the views of the park as it served as a wedding venue for Valeria and Jonathan.
In the evening, wedding guests all gathered for a rehearsal dinner and drinks at the Hennessy bar at the JW Marriott. It was a good opportunity to catch up with our friends and meet other guests.
The very next morning, my husband decided to stay and hang out with his friends in the hotel, while I arranged with Jorge another tour, this time of the Centro Historico with focus on the Zócalo. We left at 10 and spent about 5 hours visiting just a handful of places. Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668- block area defined as historical center was the obvious place to start my explorations. More than 1,500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a place where Spaniards’ modern Mexico City sprung out of the ruins of the conquered Tenochtitlan.
At the center of it all lies the massive Zocalo, downtown’s main square, where pre-Hispanic ruins, imposing colonial-era buildings and large scale murals convey Mexico City’s storied past. 220m long and 240 m wide, it is the 3rd largest square in the world after the Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Red Square in Moscow. Officially called Plaza de la Constitucion, the square acquired its present nickname, Zocalo (meaning “base”) in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to Independence went unrealized, leaving only the pedestal. The ceremonial center of Aztec Tenochtitlan, known as Teocalli, lay immediately northeast of the Zocalo. In the 1520s Cortes paved the plaza with stones from the ruins of the complex. And today, the Zocalo is home to the powers that be. On the east side is the Palacio Nacional (the presidential palace), on the north the Catedral Metropolitana and on the south the city government office; hotels and Portal de Mercaderes, shopping arcade, adorns the western side. The square has variously served as a forum for mass protests, free concerts, a human chessboard, a gallery of scary Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) altars and an ice-skating rink. Today wasn’t an exception as the Zocalo was full of people, military and emergency vehicles – it was September 19. That day in 1985, an earthquake of 8.0 magnitude struck Mexico city early in the morning, taking lives of more than 5,000 people. So today the square served as a training and drill ground for the earthquake responders and general population, and even though the event had a serious and important message to deliver, it looked very festive, engaging and child-friendly as whole families came out to climb the fire walls, to dress in policeman uniforms or even to take a photo with an austringer and a hawk. If you happened to be in the Zocalo in the evening, don’t forget to check out the change of flags ceremony!
The most important archeological site and museum, Templo Mayor (entrance 84 pesos) is the center of the ancient Aztec teocalli, located just northeast of the Zócalo. Over 700 years ago, the pyramid rose in the middle of the sacred enclosure, as the social, religious and geographical center of the Aztec universe. Hernan Cortes and Bernal Diaz described it with four superimposed platforms rising in stepped-back tiers and a pair of steep stairways on the west facade; the forth tier formed a broad ceremonial level at the top of the building, upon which the dual temples of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were built. These twin temples faced west. Tlaloc, on the northern side, was painted with blue and white symbols of rain and moisture. Huitzilopochtli, to the south, was colored with red and white symbols of war and sacrifice. By the time the Spanish arrived the entire pyramid rose some 45 m, offering a sweeping view of the city, the lake and the surrounding countryside. It was demolished by Hernán Cortés in the 1520s and its location was forgotten until the 20th century, when the small-scale archeological excavation began. In February 1978, workers for the electric company were digging at a place near the Zocalo then popularly known as the “island of the dogs” – it was slightly elevated over the rest of the neighborhood, and when the area was flooded, street dogs would congregate there. Just over two meters down, the workers struck a pre-Hispanic monolith. This stone turned out to be a huge disk of over 3.25 meters in diameter and weighing 8.5 metric tons. Dating to the end of the 15th century, it depicted the decapitated and dismembered Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui who, it will be remembered, was killed by her brother Huitzilopochtli on the hill Coatepetl according to the Aztec migration legend. Further excavation unearthed one of the most unusual archeological projects in the history of Mexico – the Great Pyramid built in multiple layers. This was the spot where, according to legend, the Aztecs saw their sign to settle from their wanderings, an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak.
The project, directed by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, presented an unprecedented opportunity to answer questions about the nature of the pyramid and the dynamic role it played in the development of the imperial state. The first phase of the project was to demolish and remove the 19th century buildings and colonial remains superimposed on the site. Gradually, the Aztec foundations appeared. The structure seen by Cortes, razed soon after the Conquest, was revealed to have been constructed in a succession of layers. Each of these layers completely enclosed the earlier version of the pyramid, like dolls of Matreshka. As excavations continued to disclose the concentric foundations, vast quantities of offerings, about 7,000 items, buried in foundation-caches were also unearthed.
Layering is one of the unique features of Mesoamerican pyramids. In this way an original sacred place, marked by a small construction, would later be completely enclosed – together with its sculptures, offerings, and related artifacts – by new superimposed structures. Containing vast accumulations, such buildings became living architectural fetishes in the minds of their makers. The Tenochtitlan pyramid reflects this tradition, exhibiting 7 layers of construction. The most primitive foundation thus far unearthed probably dates from the reign of Acamapichtli, as suggested by the stone date-glyph 2 rabbit (1390). This date marker was found embedded in the stairway of the Huitzilopochtli side. An earlier platform, perhaps dating from the time of the founding of Tenochtitlan (1325), has been located within this structure. This first pyramid is only known through historical records, because the high water table of the old lakebed prevents excavation. According to these records, the first pyramid was built with earth and perishable wood, which may not have survived to the present time. A sacrificial block in the platform in front of the Huitzilopochtli temple, and a crude but colorful recumbent sculpture found on the Tlaloc side, confirm that the two deities were already being worshipped at this early time.
Few changes were made to the Tenochtitlan pyramid during the reigns of Huitzilihuitl (1390-1417) and Chimalpopoca (1417-1427), when the Mexica were still paying tribute to the Tepanec city of Atzcapotzalco. The upper part of this temple has been excavated, exposing two stone shrines covered in stucco on the north side. A chacmool was uncovered as well. On the south side, there is a sacrificial stone called a “téchcatl” and a sculpted face.
It was after the formation of the Triple Alliance in 1428 that Itzcoatl commissioned a more ambitious temple for the Aztec capital. A date-glyph of 4 reed (1431) marks this construction phase. The pyramid grew and was equipped with stone figures in the form of standard-bearers, which reflect Tenochtitlan’s rising status. Two of the eight figurines have their arms crossed over the chest. The six remaining have one closed fist forming an opening. Due to the lunar nose ornament that some of them wear, they have been interpreted as representation of the huiznahuas or “stars”, siblings of Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui.
The next addition corresponds to the reign of Motecuhzoma Ihuilcamina, as is indicated by the fate-glyph 1 rabbit (1454) incorporated in a new wall on the rear of the Huitzilopochtli temple. At this time the pyramid was embellished with large-scale incense braziers and offering-cysts on all four sides, and a new grand stairways was added over the old one on the west facade. The next excavated date-glyph 3 house (1469) corresponds to the year of Axayactl’s coronation. It is almost certain that during his reign (1469-1481) a platform was extended in front of the stairways, adorned by two serpents with enormous (6m long) undulating bodies that can be seen at either end of the stairway, displaying remains of the original coloring. In the middle of the north side of the platform, dedicated to Tlaloc, there is a Frog Altar.
This stage also set one of the most powerfully expressive sculptures of Mesoamerican art, such the disk of Coyolxauhqui carved in high relief with an assurance of design and a technical virtuosity not previously seen at the pyramid. Although it is probable that the Coyolxauhqui Stone dates from Axayacatl’s reign, the theme had already appeared by the time of Motecuhzoma Ihuilcamina – as shown by another, stylistically more primitive Coyolxauhqui carved on a greenstone slab beneath the new larger Coyolxauhqui disk. A third Coyolxauhqui, the famous greenstone head in the Museum of Anthropology was carved at a later date.
The disk of Coyolxauhqui is carved with her dismembered limbs displayed in a dynamic pose, and her ritual attire is outlines in meticulous detail. The fearsome image shows the Aztec genius, developed by the middle of the 15th century, for translating traditional two-dimensional forms seen in manuscript paintings into an extraordinary effective sculptural medium. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma first noted that the placement of the sculpture at the foot of the stairs was to commemorate the legend of Huitzilopochtli defeating Coyolxauhqui in the battle on Mt. Coatepetl. Positioned at the landing of the stairway leading up to Huitzilopochtli’s temple, Coyolxauhqui lay as the forbidden sign to the enemies of Tenochtitlan. Sacrificial victims were paraded across this terrifying monument on their way up the stairway to the block in front of the Huitzilopochtli’s grim shrine. In remembrance of the legend, the pyramid was named Coatepetl.
The north side of the pyramid supported the Temple of Tlaloc, and the structure was therefore also identified with Tlaloc’s mountain of life. Tlaloc, the rain god, has been venerated by the Mexicas and by many other groups in Mesoamerica since remote times. This deity was responsible for bringing rain, which enabled crops to grow, however, he could also bring storms, easily destroying them. The image of the god probably once stood on the bench inside the shrine. Outside the entrance, there is a polychrome sculpture of a chacmool, bearing the attributes of Tlaloc and still retaining its original color. In 1989, a tunnel was excavated in the middle of the stairway leading to this shrine, where the head of another, earlier chacmool was found. Till now, it is the oldest Mexica piece found so far in the Great Temple, dating to 1350. In this part of the building, the best preserved mural painting can be found (it is reproduced in the museum as well). Within this temple chamber stood an effigy filled with seeds of all the important cultivated plants. The pyramid foundations on both sides contained offering-caches with thousands of artifacts. Tlaloc-masked pots and ceramic vessels with the image of the water-deity Chalchiuhtlicue were used as containers of ritual water, and hundreds of seashells, different coral species, and a splendid necklace of mother-of-pearl and jade carved with figurines of aquatic animals, similarly alluded to these cults. Also recovered were miniature fish of mother-of-pearl, model canoes of greenstone with implements of a lacustrine economy, as well as the skeletons of water-birds and fish. The crocodile skeleton found brings to mind the ancient mythic image of the earth floating in the sea. The skeleton of a jaguar alluded to leadership, for the jaguar was “lord of the forest”. Trophy objects from conquered regions, antiquities such as an Olmec mask and another mask carved in the manner of Teotihuacan, alluded to the pyramid as an imperial symbol and to the Aztec nation as the heir to the past. Analyzing these objects, Matos Moctezuma and other archeologists show that the pyramid was at one a replica of Huitzilopochtli’s mountain and Tlaloc’s eternal mountain of life. In the heart of Tenochtitlan the pyramid rose as an architectural fetish, charged with the powers of all the offerings, and the blood from thousands of sacrificed human beings. The structure was the terrifying center of the Aztec world, and an architectural hieroglyph of the term atl tepetl, “water mountain”, the Nahuatl word for “city”.
The next layer (1481–1486) is dated during the short reign of Tizoc. During these five years, the platform was recovered in stucco and the ceremonial plaza was paved. The final temple was built during the reign of Ahuizotl. He finished some of the updates made by Tizoc and made his own; as shown on the carvings of the “commemoration stone of the huei teocalli”, showing the two tlahtohqueh celebrating the opening of the temple during the last day of the month Panquetzaliztli dedicated to Huitzilopochtli; day 7 acatl of the year 8 acatl (Dec 19th, 1487). At the inauguration of this Great Temple, Ahuizotl ordered the sacrifice of some 4,000 victims over a four-day period. Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza, and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood. The Sacred Precinct was walled off and this wall was decorated with serpent heads. He built three shrines (North Patio) and the House of the Eagle Warriors. The patio has several superimposed floors, laid to counteract the sinking of the land and the constant floods that plagued Tenochtitlan. The three small buildings, aligned with the wall of the Great Temple platform, have been given letter designations: A, B and C. Building A has two stairways leading to the upper part. Only stucco plaster remains on the surface.
Building B or the Tzompantli (Skull Wall) has an altar decorated with rows of human skulls carved in stone. Arranged in rows, 240 stone skulls covered with several layers of stucco decorate the back and sides of the structure. The main facade has a stairway flanked by balustrades. Its interior contained spectacular offerings, including representation of musical instruments, along with puma and wolf skeletons and other elements.
Building C or the North Red Temple of the Eagle Warriors displays well preserved mural painting. It was built in the talud-tablero system, with a sloping base surmounted by a rectangular panel, inspired by the constructions at Teotihuacan. The main facade is composed of a vestibule with a small round altar in the center. The area is limited by walls painted with red and white ribbons and topped by large stone rings also painted red. The small temple in the back is completely covered with designs painted in red, yellow, blue, black and white. This building definitely stands out for its mural painting on a stucco base, with well-preserved, finely drawn designs.
On the sides of the Templo Mayor, archeologists have excavated a number of palatial rooms and conjoining structures. One of the best preserved and most important is the Palace (or House) of the Eagle Warriors, a place where Mexica elite held their ceremonies, including meditation, prayer, penitence, and the rendering of offerings. The building was built and then enlarged three times between 1430 and 1500, but only 2nd and 3rd stages remain visible. It is a large L-shaped room with staircases decorated with sculptures of eagle heads. The construction of the second phase is the best conserved, so that we can see the stairways, porticos, rooms and a small interior patio. This patio allowed the entrance of light and rain and facilitated the circulation of air. The inner rooms reflect the influence of the Toltec style, which was dominant four centuries before this building was constructed. Some examples are the banquettes and the braziers bearing the face of the god Tlaloc. The flowers with four petals, located at the doorways to the rooms on the east of the building, symbolized the four corners of the universe. In the southern part, there is a colonial oven that destroyed part of the building. To enter this main room, one had to pass through an entrance guarded by two large sculptures – the representations of the Eagle Warriors, a privileged class who were dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli, and dressed to look like eagles. Almost all the interior walls of the House of the Eagles are decorated with beautiful paintings and contain long benches, which are also painted. These benches are composed of two panels. The upper one is a frieze with undulating serpents in bas-relief. The lower panel shows processions of armed warriors converging on a zacatapayolli, a grass ball into which the Mexica stuck bloody lancets during the ritual of autosacrifice. This palace specifically imitates much of the style of the Burnt Palace, located in the ruins of Tula. A number of important artifacts have been found in this area, the most important of which are two nearly identical large ceramic sculptures of Mictlantecuhtl, the god of death. Despite being found in fragile pieces, they were both reconstructed and are on display at the on-site museum. The house of the Eagles was destroyed during the Conquest and was buried beneath the church of Santiago Apostol (the Apostle James).
The Templo Mayor is just a part of a larger Sacred Precinct encompassing an area of almost 4,000 sq.m. and surrounded by a wall called the “coatepantli” (serpent wall). Among the most important buildings were the ball-court, the Calmecac (area for priests), and the temples dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and the sun. The temple of Ocelot Warriors, dedicated to the god Tezcatlipoca, lies under the current Museo de la Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público to the south of the Templo Mayor. The Calmecac was a residence hall and a school for priests, administrators and politicians, where they studied theology, literature, history and astronomy. Its exact location is on one side of what is now Donceles Street. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was located to the west of the Templo Mayor. It is said that during the equinox, the sun rose between the shrines dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc and shone directly on this temple. Due to the god’s serpentine nature, the temple had a circular base instead of a rectangular one. The ball field, called the tlachtli or teutlachtli, was similar to many sacred ball fields in Mesoamerica. Games were played barefoot, and players used their hips to move a heavy ball to stone rings. The field was located west of the Templo Mayor, near the twin staircases and oriented east-west. Next to this ball field was the “huey tzompanti” where the skulls of sacrifice victims were kept after being covered in stucco and decorated. The Temple of the Sun was located west of the Templo Mayor also and its remains lie under the Metropolitan Cathedral.
The on-site Museum del Templo Mayor houses a model of Tenochtitlan and artifacts from the site, and gives a good overview of Aztec civilization. By the time Jorge and I finished exploring the archeological site, the fire drills forced the people out of the museum and we had to wait for a while before entering. It gave me time to look at the site one more time and realize the irony – the sombre ruins of the Aztec empire were imprisoned by the majestic post-Conquest buildings and rising spires of the lavish Spanish cathedrals, just as Cortes would have wanted it.
Since we didn’t have much time, we decided to move on and check out the next attraction – Palacio Nacional. More the 200 m long, this grandiose colonial palace occupies the entire east side of the Zocalo. The so-called New Palace of Moztezuma stood here before Cortes destroyed it in 1521. He reused the original Aztec stones to construct himself a fortress with three interior courtyards on the exact same spot. In 1562 the crown purchased the building from Cortes’ family to house the viceroys of Nueva Espana, a function it served until Mexican Independence, and later for the presidents of the republic. The present building, for all its apparent unity, is the result of centuries of agglomeration and rebuilding – the most recent addition was the third storey, in 1927. It still holds the office of the president, who makes his most important pronouncements from the balcony – especially on September 15, when the Grito de la Independencia, signals the start of the country’s Independence celebrations. Part of this ceremony includes ringing the bell that hangs above the balcony. This bell is the original one that Father Miguel Hidalgo rang to call for rebellion against Spain. It originally hung in the church of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, but was relocated here. In the niche containing the bell, there is the Mexican coat of arms. On each side there is an Aztec Eagle Warrior and his Spanish counterpart. These were sculpted by Manuel Centurion and symbolize the synthesis of Mexican and Spanish cultures.
The Palace has fourteen courtyards but only a few of these, such as the Grand Courtyard beyond the central portal, are open to the public. The National Palace also houses the main State Archives, with many interesting historical documents, and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, one of the largest and most important libraries in the country. The facade is bordered on the north and south by two towers and include three main doorways, each of which lead to a different part of the building. The southern door leads to the Patio of Honor and presidential offices (no public access). The northern door is known as the Mariana Door, named in honor of Mariano Arista who had it constructed in 1850. The area next to this door used to be the old Court Prison, with courtrooms and torture chambers. It is now occupied by the Finance Ministry and contains the Treasury Room. The central door leads to the main patio which is surrounded by Baroque arches.
Only the balustrade of this area has been remodeled, conserving the murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the main stairwell and the walls of the second floor. This is the only area accessible to tourists (free of charge), though you have to submit your officially issued document and check your bag before entering. In the stairwell is a mural depicting the The History of Mexico from 1521 to 1930, that covers an area of 450 m2. Rivera painted these murals between 1929 and 1935, jointly titled “The Epic of the Mexican People”, and they rank among the best of his work. The mural is divided like a triptych with each being somewhat autonomous, containing an unbelievable wealth of details with savage imagery and a masterly use of space.
The right-hand wall contains murals depicting pre-Hispanic Mexico and centers around the life of the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl. Quetzalcóatl appears in the mural as a star, a god, and a human being. Created by serpents, he sails through space as a star that accompanies the sun at night. Quetzalcóatl then assumes a human body to teach the Aztec people as their king and patriarch. Last, when he sacrifices his blood to give life to men, he returns to the sky having completed his earthly cycle. Once he leaves the earth, Quetzalcóatl assumes the shape the morning star, called Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. The cycle that he undergoes signifies the continuous cycle of life.
In the middle and largest panel depicts the Conquest with its ugliness, such as rape and torture, as well as priests defending the rights of the indigenous people. It also portrays oppression, war, Inquisition, invasion, Independence and eventually Revolution. Almost every major personage and events of Mexican history is here, from the grotesquely twisted features of the conquistadores to the national heroes; balding, white-haired Hidalgo with the banner of Independence; squat, dark Benito Juarez with his Constitution and laws for the reform of the Church; Zapata, with a placard proclaiming his cry of “Tierra y Libertad“; and Pancho Villa, mustachioed and swaggering. The battle for independence occupies the uppermost part of this panel in the arch. The American and French invasions are represented below this, as well as the Reform period.
The left-hand panel is dedicated to early and mid-20th century and the future (as Rivera envisaged it), with Karl Marx pointing the way to adoring workers. Businessmen (Plutarco Elías Calles, John D. Rockefeller, Harry Sinclair, William Durant, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellon) stand clustered over their tickertape in front of a somewhat ironic depiction of the metropolis with its skyscapers and grim industrial waters. Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, is depicted, too, behind her sister Cristina (with whom Rivera was having an affair at the time) in a red blouse with an open copy of the Communist Manifesto.
A series of smaller panels was intended to go all the way round the upper (now middle) floor, an over-ambitious and unfinished project. The uncolored first panel lists the products that the world owes to Mexico, including maize, beans, chocolate, tobacco, cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, prickly pears and chicle (the source of chewing gum). The remainder of the 11 completed paintings reach halfway around and mostly depict the idyll of aspects of life before the Conquest – market day (“Tianguis of Tlatelolco”), dyeing cloth, hunting scenes and so on. The last, completed in 1951, shows the arrival of the Spanish, completed with an image of La Malinche bearing Cortes’ blue-eyed baby – the first Mexican mestizo! This mural reflects Diego’s own personal views about Mexico’s history and the indigenous people of the country in particular. According to Jorge, this Rivera’s creation of a Mexican identity helps to continue the reform that began with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 dismissing any idea of inferiority based on somebody’s origin.
Those murals were unquestionably one of the most impressive pieces of art I have ever seen! Not only did it make me almost effortlessly see the story of Mexico in its entirety, but also did it make me feel it with my eyes, ears and even my skin. On the upper floor is what once was the Theatre Room of the viceroys, which became the Chamber of Deputies from 1829 to August 22, 1872, when the room was accidentally destroyed by fire. In this parliamentary chamber the Reform Constitution of 1857 was written. This and the Constitution of 1917 are on display here.
Before leaving the Zocalo, we stopped by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the Americas, and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico. Mexico City’s most iconic structure, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 100m long, 59m wide and 65m high. As I mentioned earlier, Jorge refused to accompany me inside so I ventured there on my own.
Mexico City’s cathedral, like so many of the city’s older, weightier structures, has settled over the years into the soft, wet ground beneath – the tilt is quite plain to see, despite extensive world to stabilize the building. The first church on this site was constructed only a couple of years after the Conquest, using stones torn from the Temple of Huitzilopochtli, but the present structure was begun in 1573, to provide Mexico City with a cathedral more suited to its wealth and status as the jewel of the Spanish Empire. The towers weren’t completed until 1813, though, and the building incorporates a plethora of architectural styles. Even the frontage demonstrates this: relatively austere at the bottom where work began soon after the Conquest, it flowers into full Baroque as you look up, and is topped by Neoclassical cornices and a clock tower. The main facade of the cathedral faces south. The main portal is centered in the main facade and is the highest of the cathedral’s three portals. Statues of Saint Peter and Paul the Apostle stand between the columns of the portal, while Saint Andrew and James the Just are depicted on the secondary doorway. In the center of this doorway is a high relief of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. The coat of arms of Mexico is above the doorway, with the eagle’s wings outstretched. There is a clock tower at the very top of the portal with statues representing Faith, Hope and Charity, which was created by sculptor Manuel Tolsá.
The first thing you notice upon entering is the elaborately carved and gilded Altar de Perdona (Altar of Forgiveness). There are two stories about how the name of this altar came about. The first states that those condemned by the Spanish Inquisition were brought to the altar to ask for forgiveness in the next world before their execution. The second relates to painter Simon Pereyns, who despite being the author of many of the works of the cathedral, was accused of blasphemy. According to the story, while Pereyns was in jail, he painted such a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary that his crime was forgiven. There is invariably a line of worshippers at the foot of the Senor del Veneno (Lord of the Poison), the dusky Christ figure attained its color when it miraculously absorbed a dose of poison through its feet from the lips of a clergyman to whom an enemy had administered the lethal substance.
Inside, although the size of the cathedral is striking, the main impression is that it is a rather gloomy space, with rows of dimply lit side chapels. It is enlivened mostly by the Altar de los Reyes, a vast gilt reredos built of wood between 1718 and 1735. It’s located behind a main altar that features effigies of European kinds and queens as well as two early 18th century oil paintings, the Asuncion de la Virgen and Adoracion de los Reyes by Juan Rodriguez Juarez. Also quite impressive are the detailed gold-and-wood work of the Choir and the sound of the two of the largest 18th-century organs in the Americas.
El Sagrario (the Metropolitan Tabernacle), despite its heavy, grey Baroque facade and squat, bell-topped towers, feels both lighter and richer inside, with exuberant churrigueresque decoration and liberal use of gold paint. Situated to the right of the main cathedral, it was built by Lorenzo Rodríguez during the height of the Baroque period between 1749 and 1760, to house the archives and vestments of the archbishop. Today it performs most of the day-to-day functions of a local church, such as baptism and marriages. La Piedra del Sol, the 22 ton Aztec “calendar” stone now seen in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia was discovered in El Sagrario’s courtyard.
From the Cathedral we proceeded west via Ave 5 de Mayo, towards the Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles). The streets were very crowded and even though it was a short walk, it took us more than 10 minutes to get there. Center of Mexico City looked like a small town sunday market with happy local people shopping and getting together, but on an exaggerated scale! The Casa de Azulejos is currently on the Callejón de la Condesa, between 5 de Mayo Street and what is now Madero Street. It is hard to miss it as it really stands out from the rest of the architectural ensemble and because of the dozens of tourists with cameras gathered around it. Dating from 1596, it was built for the Counts del Valle de Orizaba. Before 1793, there were two houses on this site, which were joined through the merger of two rich and noble creole families of New Spain, when Graciana Suárez Peredo and the second Count del Valle de Orizaba married. The mansion was remodeled a bit later, and was covered on three sides by blue and white tile of Puebla state (another version is that most of the tiles that adorn the outside walls were produced in China and shipped to Mexico on the Manila naos – Spanish galleon used until the early 19th century). This caused a sensation and gave the house its popular name.
There are two conflicting explanations of how this building got its current appearance. The more reliable version states that the fifth Countess Del Valle de Orizaba, who resided in Puebla, decided to return to the capital after her husband’s death and remodeled the house with Puebla tile in 1737, to show the family’s immense wealth. The other version is more colorful and tells of a son whose lifestyle caused his father to state that if he didn’t change his ways he would “never build his house of tiles,” meaning that he would never amount to anything. As an act of defiance, the young man had the tiles put on when he inherited the house.
The Casa’s windows, balconies and doors are framed in carved stone and French porcelain crowns on the Callejón de la Condesa and Madero Street facades. Inside, the main courtyard contains a fountain crowned with mosaics. The fountain is surrounded by highly decorated columns and topped with more French porcelain crowns as well as a stained glass roof that was added in the 20th century. The overall look to the courtyard is generally Baroque but also somewhat Oriental or Moorish. There are two large murals in the interior. The first one is a peacock mural by Romanian painter Pacologue done in 1919. In the main stairway is one of the earliest works by José Clemente Orozco titled Omniscience and done in 1925. The three symbolic figures appearing in it represent masculine values, with their feminine counterparts and Grace presiding over them both. On the second floor, the facade of what was the chapel has a set of gold frames bedecked with angels, it also contains a collection of porcelain art.
The Counts of the Valley de Orizaba sold the house to attorney Martinez de la Torre in 1871. Upon Torre’s death, the Russian de Yturbe Idaroff family moved in, the last to keep the building as a private residence. Near the end of the 19th century, the house lost 90 sq.m. on the north side, to make way for 5 de Mayo Ave. In 1881, the top floor was rented to the Jockey Club, the most exclusive social club between 1880 and 1914, and the lower floor housed an exclusive women’s clothing store. In 1914, supporters of Porfirio Díaz held a banquet here in honor of Victoriano Huerta to celebrate the assassination of Francisco I. Madero after the Decena Trágica. An indignant Venustiano Carranza then seized the property in 1915, holding it for a number of months. However, the original owner, Francisco-Sergio de Yturbe managed to regain possession of the house before government-hired workers were able to finish remodeling it. In 1917 the building was bought by the Sanborns brothers who expanded their soda fountain/drugstore business into one of the best-recognized restaurant chains in Mexico. Today the house serves as their flagship restaurant and a popular place to have a meal in luxurious surroundings. The restaurant looked very busy, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to brunch there. Jorge recommended me to take a few minutes and wander around, checking out the shopping stalls dating to the early 20th century. So yes, don’t miss this opportunity, and spend some time just browsing around and enjoying the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the first half of the 20th century.
Right across from the main entrance to the Case de los Azulejos, the Church of San Francisco and its monastery complex slowly sink in the earth. The building is stunning and perhaps, has one of the finest baroque facades in the city. This complex was the headquarters of the first twelve Franciscan monks headed by Martín de Valencia who came to Mexico in 1524 after receiving the first authorization from the Pope to evangelize in New Spain. Built on the site of the Moctezuma II’s zoo, in the early colonial period, this was one of the largest and most influential monasteries in Mexico City, at its peak, covering a total area of 32,224 sq.m. In the patio of the first cloister, there was a cross that was reputedly taller than the highest tower in the city and made from a cypress tree from the Chapultepec Forest.
The church and monastery saw a number of historic events in its time. A funeral mass for Hernán Cortés was here when it was thought that he died in Central America. In 1629, the Marquis of Gelves arrived in disguise to hide after quarreling with the archbishop. In 1692, the Count of Galve and his wife were granted refuge there due to a large-scale rebellion in the city. The end of the Mexican War of Independence was celebrated with a Te Deum at the monastery as the Trigarante Army of 16,000 troops marched past on Madero Street headed by Agustín de Iturbide. After the Reform War, the monastery of San Francisco, like many others, was disbanded and most of the property seized by the government. Much of the old monastery was demolished for the construction of new roads and those buildings that still exist, do so only because it was more expensive to demolish them than to leave them standing.
The today’s church is the third to be built on the site. The first two sunk into the soft soil underneath Mexico City and had to be torn down. This church was built between 1710 and 1716. Although the entire building is known as the San Francisco Church, the entrance on Madero Street is actually the entrance to the Balvanera Chapel, then into the main church. In front of this is an atrium with several sets of stairs leading down to the church building because it, too, is sinking. The church’s main facade, dating from 1710, is walled in and cannot be seen. The facade of the Balvanera chapel was constructed in 1766 and it is not sure who constructed it but most think it was the work of Lorenzo Rodríguez, best known for his work on the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The chapel’s statues were removed when the chapel was in the hands of an Evangelical sect, but it kept other decorative elements such as volutes, sculpted leaves and flowers and the estipite (inverted truncated pyramid) columns with medallions. Inside there is an 18th-century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as the entrance to what was once the Chapel of the Second Station of the Stations of the Cross. In the main church, there is a large gilded main altar, reconstructed based on the drawings of Jeronimo Antonio Gil, an artist who built the original Baroque one. The old cloister on Gante Street has survived but it is now a part of Methodist church that stands there.
It was already afternoon, so Jorge and I had enough time to explore just one more site, and of course, it had to be the Palacio de Bellas Artes – the wedding cake of a building containing the most delicious filling – murals by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. While struggling to push through the crowds, we ran into a topless demonstration of several thousand people. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, (and people weren’t chanting anything) the giant signs with portraits of, what I rightly assumed, local Mexican politicians, spoke for themselves. The square before the Palacio got very crowded with the protesters and with even larger group of onlookers. I could tell that Jorge felt embarrassed and tried to pull me away from the scene, but for me it was just as much of experience as anything else, so I stuck around for 20 minutes to watch them peacefully dance.
Palacio de Bellas Artes is Mexico’s main venue for opera, concerts and ballet. The earliest known structure here was the Convent of Santa Isabel, which it its turn was built on top of the Aztec sacrificial site. In the late 19th century the Convent was torn down and replaced by the National Theater. During the late 19th century and very early 20th, this theatre was the site of most of Mexico City’s high culture, presenting events such as theatre, operettas, Viennese dance and more. It was then decided to replace this building with a more opulent one for the upcoming Centennial of Mexican Independence celebrations in 1910. The old theatre was demolished in 1901, and the work on the new theatre, preliminary called the Gran Teatro de Ópera, has began by the Italian architect Adamo Boari in neoclassical and art nouveau styles. The first stone of the building was placed by Porfirio Díaz in 1904 and despite the 1910 deadline, by 1913, the building was hardly begun with only a basic shell standing. One reason for this was that the project became more complicated than anticipated as the heavy building sank into the soft spongy subsoil. The other reason was the Mexican Revolution when full hostilities suspended construction of the palace completely. The project would sit unfinished for about twenty years, until 1932, when construction resumed under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal. Mariscal completed the interior but updated it from Boari’s plans to the mixture of Art Deco style with Aztec and Maya influence. The building was completely finished in September 1934.
The first floor is decorated with crystal lamps, created by Edgar Brandt and hold murals by Rufino Tamayo. The Adamo Boari and Manuel M. Ponce halls hold music and literature events, while the National and International halls are for exhibitions. The second floor has smaller exhibition halls as well as murals by José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Jorge González Camarena, Roberto Montenegro and Manuel Rodríguez Lozano. The third floor is occupied by the Museum of Architecture. Then it gets confusing! At the entrance of the theatre, there are mascarons in bronze with depictions of Tlaloc, and Chaac Mol, the Aztec and Maya deities of water, meanwhile the arch over the stage is decorated with various Roman mythological personas such as the Muses with Apollo. The stage “curtain” which is a stained glass foldable panel and a glass dome were created out of nearly a million pieces of iridescent colored glass by Tiffany’s in New York. The design of the curtain has the volcanos Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in the center, around them is a Mexican landscape surrounded by images of sculptures from Yautepec and Oaxaca. I told you, it is confusing!
Palacio is truly the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico” as it hosts all important cultural events from music, dance, theatre, opera and literature as well as exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography. However, we didn’t come there to experience an opera, but check out the floors dominated by a number of murals painted by most of the famous names of Mexican muralism (entry – 45 pesos). On the 2nd floor are two early-1950s works by Rufino Tamayo: México de Hoy (Mexico Today) and Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality), a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (person of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry) identity.
At the west end of the 3rd floor is El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. A giant vacuum sucks up the riches of the earth to feed the factories of card-playing, hard-drinking white capitalist thugs, including John D. Rockefeller himself while workers rally behind the red flag of socialism and its standard-bearer, Lenin. The Rockefellers were not happy with the painting and had it painted over and destroyed. Rivera recreated it here in 1934.
On the north side of the third floor are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part La Nueva Democracía (New Democracy) and Rivera’s four-part Carnaval de la Vida Mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life).
To the east is José Clemente Orozco’s La Katharsis (Catharsis), depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects.
Those impressive murals were the perfect way to whet my appetite for future visits and conclude a short tour of central Mexico city. Jorge drove me back to the hotel, where I had an appointment with a make up artist. For some reason JW Marriott concierge couldn’t find my reservation, even thought I called a few months in advance to make it. Luckily, everything got resolved and after a few hours by the pool and a make up session, I was ready to attend a wedding.
The wedding took place at El Lago Restaurant inside the Bosque de Chapultepec. It was a great fun to celebrate this special day with Valeria and Jon, learn about all the props that Mexicans use during their weddings and dance the night away. The special and so much awaited treat was a performance, at 3 o’clock in the morning, by a Mariachi Band. A perfect ending to our short trip to Mexico City.
The very next morning we had just enough time to pack up and leave for the airport! And I want to end my review with the words of Carlos Fuentes, as they reflect the exact feeling I had while visiting Mexico City: “What I thought was the dead had come back to life. I realized that while I had believed that I was walking over a cemetery of a culture, the culture had been abiding beneath my feet.”