Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chichen Itza Part 2: Warriors, merchants, astronomers, and priests

A fierce snake bares its fangs on the Temple of Warriors. At the top step of Temple of Warriors, a pair of snakes representing Kukulcan, also known as Quezalcoatl the Feathered Serpent, stand on either side of a grand staircase. On top of the snakes' heads are small Atlantean Toltec warriors who once held banners. This temple was apparently a key structure related to the warrior societies which conquered and ruled Chichen Itza. They included the Eagles and Jaguars. In this second part of my Chichen Itza series, we will look at the Temple of Warriors, the Court of a Thousand Columns, the Market, the Observatory, the living quarters of common people, and the site called the Nunnery. You can see a site map by clicking here.

Front view of the Temple of Warriors. The Temple stands a short distance away from El Castillo also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan, and across the central plaza from the Ball Court and its associated structures such as the Tzompantli (Platform of Skulls) and the Jaguar Platform. All of these structures glorify warriors and warfare and are associated with human sacrifice. The people who built The Temple of Warriors and other buildings of the great plaza were not the peaceful stargazers they were thought to be a few decades ago. At the top of the staircase of the Temple of Warriors, a Chacmool gazes out over the wide plaza. Chacmools are stone-carved human figures reclining on their backs, while leaning on their elbows. On their stomachs are bowls carved into the stone which may have been receptacles for still-beating human hearts cut out of living chests with sharp obsidian blades. The Temple of Warriors is a bigger, grander, version of Temple B found at the Toltec capital of Tollan north of present-day Mexico City. I have visited both temples in the ruined cities and the resemblance is startling. The relationship between these two cities is still a matter of conjecture.

On the south end of the Temple of Warriors is the Court of a Thousand Columns. While there aren't really 1000, there are at least several hundred. The columns stand in several parallel rows surrounding most of a large plaza area, as well as running the length of the front of the Temple of Warriors. At one time they were roofed, but the covering has long since fallen. The use of such columns to support roofs and separate rooms was an innovation of the ruling warrior class who may have taken over the already ancient Maya city around 800 AD. The previous style, called Puuc, used few if any columns. At the base of the steps leading up to the columns is another open-mouthed snake.

North Colonnade looking south. This colonnade runs north to south along the front of the Temple of Warriors (see picture #2 above). Most of these columns had tumbled to the ground centuries ago, but in 1926 Carnegie Institution restored their grandeur, along with many of the other great structures of Chichen Itza.

Many of the columns on the south side are square and carved with reliefs. Toltec warriors, grim faced and armored, look back at us across the centuries.

The rulers of Chichen Itza were not only warriors, but merchants. On the south side of the Court of a Thousand Columns is the Market, a structure that must have been splendid in its own right. Above you can see the broad staircase leading into the Market area. There is evidence that merchants and artisans transported their wares here from as far away as Tikal in Guatamala.

Slender columns line the sunken quadrangle of the Market. I could imagine hundreds of people milling here, examining various wares such as bird feathers, carved wood, shells from the coast, jade and obsidian, and cotton cloth. The Toltecs were skilled artisans and their name means "artificers" or "those that make things".

Feathered warrior in a stone relief found in the Market area. I found the concept of "warrior-merchants" an odd one, until I remembered the fur trappers of the American Northwest. They also were great fighters as well as tradesmen.

The elite of Chichen Itza also contained great astronomers. The building above is called the Observatory. It also gained the nickname Caracol, which is Spanish for snail. The cylindrical ruins do somewhat resemble a snail shell on end. The building is related to Quetzalcoatl, but shows strong elements of the previous Puuc style, which indicates it may have been constructed during the rule of the Maya priests, before the coming of the warrior cults.

It is called the Observatory for a reason. You can see from the design above what the building may have originally looked like. Many of the openings in the upper, cylindrical structure align with the sun, Venus, or other astronomical features. From the observations made by the astronomer-priests, predictions could be made for practical purposes such as when to plant crops, as well as for mystical religious reasons.

How the common people lived. Of course, the people who lived in and around Chichen Itza were not just the warriors and priestly elite. The Maya commoners tilled the land and performed all the services the elite needed and wanted. They lived in snug huts called chozas in Spanish or nah in Maya, like the reconstruction shown above. The roof is thatched and the walls are made of upright posts plastered with mud. On the facade of the South Building of the Nunnery in Uxmal are stone carvings of nah exactly like the one shown above.

Interior of the choza. The choza is actually quite roomy inside. Forked posts with cross pieces hold the roof in place. It is high-peaked so that even a tall norteamericano like me could walk around comfortably. As our bus made its way through the back roads of the Yucatán State, we saw people living in structures identical to this, sometimes with a small satellite dish on top. 8th Century AD meets the 21st Century!

The Nunnery complex contains a two-story structure called the Church. The Spanish had no frame of reference but their own to understand and name the ancient ruins they found. The Church and an adjacent ruin called the Nunnery appeared to the Spanish to resemble the convents they remembered from Spain. Religion may have be practiced here, but it was far from anything known in Spain. The style of this part of Chichen is clearly Puuc, and this seems to be the oldest part of the city. Notice the "roof comb" on top of the Church. This sort of stone lattice work was very popular in Puuc structures, but is absent in the buildings constructed after the warriors took over.

Profile of Chaac, the rain god. Masks of Chaac, with the long elephant-like trunk and bared teeth are another typical element of Puuc style. Chaac is not to be confused with the Chacmool, which was introduced by the Toltec. In the Yucatán rainfall is very uncertain, so Chaac was an important deity.
Part of the Nunnery complex, next to the Church. Puuc buildings were typically two story, with intricate geometic designs on the stone facade, and Chaac masks on the corners.

Detail from the Nunnery building. A figure with crossed arms and legs, richly adorned with a feathered head dress, sits over the doorway. This may be a representation of a high priest or other elite figure. Interestingly, the entire front of the building forms a giant Chaac mask. The figure above forms the nose and the door below is the mouth.

The Ossuary, or High Priests Grave. Along a forest trail, we suddenly encountered this small pyramid called the Ossuary. Although smaller than El Castillo, it too has nine levels, which correspond to the nine levels of the Maya underworld. It is a cross-over building, with Puuc-style Chaac masks, as well as Kukulcan snake heads at the bottom of the staircases.

What the Ossuary may have looked like originally. Missing today is the temple on top. An opening inside the temple leads down into a limestone cave complex that goes on for miles. The Ossuary is part of the complex of structures which relate to the Xtoloc Cenote, the main water supply for Chichen Itza. This pyramid pulls it all together: Kulkulcan, Chaac, the reverence for water and cenotes, and the mystical significance of caves in Maya religion.

After our visit to Chichen Itza, we lunched at the Hacienda Chichen. This beautiful old hacienda was owned by Spanish and later Mexican aristocrats who gave scant thought to the great ruins in their back yard. Some of the structures of the hacienda were built with stones taken from Chichen Itza.

Ruins of the old gate house at Hacienda Chichen. Founded as early as 1523, the hacienda is the oldest in Yucatán and one of the oldest in Mexico. The main economic activity was cattle-raising.

Well at Hacienda Chichen. The main hacienda house, called the Casco was built near the permanent well or Noria so as to control the water supply of the area, and therefore the Maya.

The Hacienda Chichen became an early base for archaeologists. Sylvanus Morley (1883-1948) may have been the model for the Indiana Jones character of the movies. US Consul Edward Thompson (1856-1935) actually purchased the Hacienda Chichen and the ruins it contained so he could pursue his interest in archaeology. He spirited some of his finds out of the country to museums in the US, causing an uproar. They were finally returned, many years later. Many other important archaeologists stayed here in later years. In the 1930s a Mexican family bought the hacienda and its ruins from the Thompson family and turned it into an elegant hotel for those visiting Chichen Itza.

This completes Part 2 of my 2-part series on Chichen Itza. It's massive popularity detracts a bit from the serenity I like in ancient ruins, but I suppose that is inevitable given its close proximity to an international resort like Cancun. Still, it is definitely worth a visit by anyone interested in Mexico's ancient heritage. There are few sites as impressive. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Chichen Itza Part 1: Yucatan's ancient enigma

El Castillo, also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan is the centerpiece of Chichen Itza. Carole and I visited Chichen Itza last February. The ruined Maya city is an icon of Mexico, and El Castillo is its most easily recognizable feature. Chichen Itza is located in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula, a large, flat, thumb-shaped sheet of limestone which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Located on Highway 180, the ancient ruin is 120 km (74.5 mi) east of Merída, about 1/2 way to Cancun. For a map of the area, click here.

Cenote Sagrado was extremely important to early inhabitants of Chichen Itza. Cenote Sagrado means "Sacred Well". Cenotes are a result of the limestone formations that cover Yucatán. Because there are no above-ground rivers on the Peninsula, secure water sources are critical to survival. Rainwater percolates down through the porous limestone and into underground lakes and rivers. The limestone roofs of some of the underground lakes have eroded and collapsed, creating deep, wide wells called cenotes. As people settled around them for easy access to water, the cenotes and associated cave complexes began to assume mystical significance. In fact, the name Chichen Itza means "Mouth of the Well of the Itza (people)". Another important quality of limestone is the ease with which it is shaped and carved, making it a wonderful material for building and decorating long-lasting cities. Maya architects and sculptors made full use of this property. (Photo courtesy to Wikipedia)

Major sites within Chichen Itza. We visited a number of the sites above, some of which are identified in Spanish. For your convenience: Juego de Pelota = Ball Court; Los Guerreros Temple = Warriors Temple; Caracol = The Observatory; and Iglesia = The Church. Ironically, the question of who built the city, and when it fell, is still open. Originally thought to be purely Maya, later archaeologists thought Toltec invaders from Central Mexico were responsible. More recent opinion has credited the Itza, an ethnic group originating on the Gulf coast north of Yucatán who migrated to the area in the later stages of Chichen Itza's history, giving the city its name. There is even some speculation that the influence may have worked in reverse, with Chichen Itza providing the Toltecs with architectural inspiration for their capital of Tollan, far to the north. The most recent archaelogical discoveries indicate that Chichen Itza fell almost 200 years earlier than previously thought, throwing many carefully assembled chronologies into disarray. There is presently some agreement that Chichen Itza may have peaked in the 10th and 11th Centuries AD. Even though it is one of the most heavily visited tourist attractions in Mexico, a curtain of mystery continues to surround the history of this ancient city.

El Castillo of today was built over a previous pyramid. It was common practice throughout Mesoamerica to build new pyramids on top of old ones, and El Castillo is no exception. The Pyramid of Kukulcan contains at least one other pyramid within it. Inside the buried pyramid archaeologists discovered a Chac Mool, associated with human sacrifice, and a throne in the shape of a jaguar. The final pyramid that we see today is 30 meters (98 ft.) tall, and 55.3 meters (181 ft) across. The structure is built in 9 platforms, that correspond to the Maya conception of a nine-stage underworld. There are 91 steps on each of the four staircases, and one additional step to the temple, making 365 steps, equal to the days of the year. The ancient Maya were great astronomers and mathematicians, as well as architects. They utilized all of these sciences to express their mystical world-view.

The serpent Kukulcan frames each of the staircases. The name Kukulcan corresponds to Queztacoatl, the famous feathered serpent common to many ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs. The ancient architects created a remarkable effect with El Castillo that appears each March 20th, the Vernal Equinox. As the sun hits the stepped corners of the 9 platforms, a sinuous shadow is cast on the sides of the staircases which slope at a precise 45 degree angle from the temple down to the heads of the serpents at the bottom. The serpent Kukulcan's shadow appears to writhe his way down the side of the pyramid. Think for a moment of the mathematical, astronomical, and engineering sophistication it took to create this immense effect. Yet, the Maya had no metal tools, no draft animals, and did not use the wheel! It's no wonder that thousands of people come each Vernal Equinox to witness the Maya achievement, as countless thousands did many centuries ago.

On-going investigations continue to reveal new secrets. While we were there, archaeologists were cutting deep trenches around the base of one side of El Castillo. Their efforts revealed that the grassy surface on which the pyramid appears to rest actually covers a additional great platform that extends out from the base of the El Castillo. It's like peeling an archaeological onion. Who knows what lies even deeper?

El Juego de Pelota (The Ball Court)

Ancient athletes played for high stakes. The player shown in relief above is clothed in protective armor with a helmet strapped to his head. The protection may have been necessary because the balls were large, solid rubber, and quite heavy. Injury in play wasn't the only risk. It is clear from the various illustrations around the Ball Court that the game was associated with human sacrifice. In fact, some carvings illustrate beheadings of players. It is unclear whether the players were from the losing side, as has been generally assumed, or from the winning side, as some archaeologists now speculate. The game is closely related to the Maya creation myths in which the Hero Twins sacrifice themselves to help mankind. It may have been a great honor for the winners to give up their lives. The Maya had their own way of looking at things.

Scoring involved propelling the ball through this ring. The ring is mounted 6 meters (20 ft) above the ground, and the hole is a bit smaller than a soccer ball. The precise rules of the game are unknown, but illustrations indicate that the use of hands or feet was forbidden. The primary parts of the body used in play were the hips. It boggled my mind to think of getting a heavy rubber ball through this rather small hole from 20 feet down without the use of hands or feet.

Shaped like an immense "I", the court is bounded on both sides by high stone walls. The size of the court is 146.3 meters (480 ft) long and 36.6 meters (120 ft.) across. It is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, and its very size has led some to speculate that it may have been intended for strictly ceremonial use rather than actual play. In fact, there are about a dozen other, normal sized Maya ball courts at Chichen Itza. You can see the ring set high on the wall directly above the man in black. There is another ring set in a parallel wall across the court.
Temple of the Jaguars sits atop of the wall at one end of the Ball Court. Priests and other officials could get a commanding view of the play on the Ball Court from this perch. Jaguars were powerful symbolic creatures in Mesoamerica, and particularly among the Maya. In addition, the highly militarized Toltec society had several important warrior cults, one of which was associated with jaguars.

Rear of the Temple of the Jaguars. It was through this entrance that the elite climbed to their perch over the playing field. Notice the small stone figure in the middle doorway.

Closeup of the Jaguar Temple's throne. This appears to have been used as a throne by high priests and rulers when they sat viewing the games. It is small enough to have been easily carried up to the front porch of the Temple. A similar throne can be found at Uxmal, a sister city, in front of the Governor's Palace. Behind the throne, on the interior walls, you can still see red pigment from paintings of warriors in brilliant costumes who brandish weapons in a show of military might.

The Tzompantli (The Wall of Skulls)

The Tzompantli is a large platform devoted exclusively to death. The platform was used to display racks of impaled human skulls. The name is actually from the Nahua language of the Aztecs, since the Spanish first observed tzompantlis in active use among them. They are often closely associated with ball courts, as I have seen at both Chichen Itza and at Tollan, the Toltec capital. Archaeologists believe that the heads of the losers (winners?) of the ball game decorated the Tzompantli shown above, as well as war captives. When you consider its impressive size, the Tzompantli could accommodate a lot of skulls.

Decoration on the corner of the Tzompantli. A carved-stone human skull grins cheerfully from a distant time. The rows of stone skulls, stacked 4-high, stretch off into the distance. At one time, before the Maya hieroglyphs were deciphered in the 1970's, many archaeologists believed that the Maya were peaceful astronomers who didn't conform to the pattern of ritual warfare and widespread human sacrifice found elsewhere in Mesoamerica. This is astonishing to me, given that Chichen Itza was thoroughly explored and illustrated by Stephens and Catherwood as early as the 1840s. Anyone who spends even a few minutes examining the Tzompantli and the other illustrations around the Ball Court will leave with the suspicion that something pretty sinister happened here.

Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars.

Warrior cults may have used this platform for military ceremonies. The Eagle and Jaguar cults were elite Toltec-style military groups who ruled Chichen Itza collectively. Unlike many other Maya sites such as Palenque, Chichen Itza has no statues, carvings, or paintings of single rulers. Apparently, leadership of the city came from a council of warriors from the elite warrior societies, in conjunction with the priestly class. The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars sits about 1/2 way between the Ball Court and the Temple of the Warriors and is overlooked by El Castillo. Everything about this platform exhudes power.

The jaguar, a major power symbol, adorns several sides of the Platform. Above, a relief of a jaguar eating a human heart. Jaguars were the most powerful non-human predator of the forest. They are third in line among the big cats, falling only behind African lions and Indian tigers. They carried deep symbolic meaning to Mesoamerican cultures going all the way back to the Olmecs of 1000 BC and earlier. That a warrior cult would adopt such a creature as its key symbol is not surprising.

The Platform's eagles shared the jaguars' dining tastes. There are also several relief carvings of eagles on the Platform, and all appear to be lustily consuming human hearts. The eagle is the most powerful bird of the air and is thus a fitting symbol for a warrior cult.

Pairs of snake heads adorn the top of the Platform's steps. There are four sets of steps, one on each side of the platform, and each topped by two snake heads. These aggressive-looking snakes portray another version of Kukulcan, the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl. Toltec legends speak of a great leader, closely associated with the hero/god Quetzalcoatl, who left their capital of Tollan in Central Mexico after an intense power struggle. He and his followers traveled to the Gulf Coast and set sail, supposedly on a raft of snakes. Maya legends speak of the arrival of a great figure known as Kukulcan on the coast of the Peninsula at about the same time. He and his followers are supposed to have conquered the Maya city Uucil-abnal which later became Chichen Itza. They rebuilt it into a larger, grander, version of their lost capitol of Tollan. I have seen both Tollan and Chichen Itza and the similarities are truly remarkable. However, wonderful as this old tale sounds, recent discoveries indicate that Chichen Itza may have declined prior to the rise of Tollan, and that the influence may have flowed in the opposite direction. The story keeps changing, so stay tuned for the next version.

The archaeology continues

Palapa covers an ancient wall under reconstruction. The palm fronds of the palapa protect the structure as archaeologists attempt to reconstruct it. The wall is in the area known as the Hall of a Thousand Columns, and the stones are covered by Puuc carvings. Puuc is an abstract style that pre-dated much of the more militaristic Toltec influence. Some of the best examples of Puuc style are at Uxmal, southwest of Chichen Itza, which can be seen in one of my previous postings.

More digs reveal more platforms from earlier incarnations of Chichen Itza. Some archaeological studies indicate that the city, which extends well beyond the restored areas seen today, may have covered an area of 6 square miles. Connecting the different parts of the city, and also Chichen Itza with other great centers, were the sacbeob. These were wide roadways, paved with crushed stone. Some have been found running straight as arrows through wild and remote jungle which was once settled Maya territory.

A limestone cave near the Xtoloc cenote. We stumbled upon this cave entrance on a path near the smaller of the two cenotes within Chichen Itza. The Cenote Xtoloc ("Shtol-ok") provided water, while the Cenote Sagrado was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, including human sacrifice. Caves were places of special significance to the Maya. It was in a cave that the Hero Twins gave up their lives in a contest with the Lords of the Underworld. Caves were believed to be the source of all-important water. The Maya World-Tree sinks its roots into caves, while its trunk grows in the world of day-to-day reality, and the branches connect with Heaven. The limestone of Yucatán provided an ample supply of deep and mysterious caves for the Maya who lived in this area in ancient times.

This completes Part 1 of my 2-part series on Chichen Itza. There is so much material on this spectacular ancient ruined city that I couldn't possibly do more than scratch the surface. I hope you will follow up with some of the links I provided for more information. As always, I appreciate feedback. If you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, July 12, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 9: The Dynasty of Time

Time for flowers. Zacatlán's Plaza de Armas contains one of the most unusual clocks I have ever encountered. It has two large clock faces, inclined at low angles to face in opposite directions but meeting at the top, with a single mechanism between them operating both. The faces of the clocks are large flowerbeds. The only non-living parts of the clock faces are the hands and numbers.

Roque Leonel Olvera Charolet (1924-2010) created and donated the floral clocks to Zacatlán. Sr. Olvera died just before we arrived for our visit to Zacatlán. I am very sorry I never had a chance to meet him, as he seems to have been a remarkable and well-loved man. He was the second of three generations involved in his family's clock-making businesses. Sr. Olvera's family is a Zacatlán dynasty that stretches back more than 100 years. For more examples of family's huge floral clocks, click here. Photo by Dick Davis.

Relojes Centenario is located about 2 blocks from the plaza. The original family clock business is called Relojes Centenario (Century Clocks), and is run by Sr. Olvera's brother, José Luis Olvera Charolet. The clock dynasty was founded by Alberto Olvera Hernandez (1892-1980), father of Roque Leonel and José Luis, in 1909. The small tower pictured above contains 4 "monumental" clock faces, a specialty of the company. They have built more than 1500 monumental clocks for public buildings, churches, plazas, etc. throughout Mexico, Colombia, Guatamala, El Salvador, Venezuela, Cuba, and the United States. Notice the line of 7 small balconies on the second floor with french doors behind each. Several times a day, something very unusual happens here.

Dancing dolls appear "like clock-work". Periodically each day, the french doors open, one by one, and full-size human figures move out onto the balconies. Six of the figures are women, one is a man, and all are dressed in colorful regional costumes. Most remarkably of all, they dance, moving their heads and arms to the tune of a famous song from their own region!

The doll from Oaxaca wears a gorgeous costume from the colonial era. We knew nothing of this amazing show until a break during the Flower Festival, when Christopher was almost literally dragged down the street by a group of bystanders who insisted that they wanted to show him "something you have never seen before." We had no idea at the time that the spectacle was part of a store owned by Mary Carmen's family. The regular performance of the dolls, controlled by a clock mechanism in the store, just as regularly draws a crowd of spectators. Christopher came back to find me, and insisted that we had to return later that evening so I could witness the next performance.

Closeup of the Oaxaca muneca (doll). Both Christopher and I remarked upon the resemblance to Mary Carmen. Mexico has 31 states, but only 7 are represented among the munecas: Oaxaca, Puebla, Yucatán, Chiapas, Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Jalisco. Those states were chosen because their traditional clothing is the most colorful in Mexico, and has become internationally recognized.

El Jefe (the boss) makes his appearance. The climax of the performance occurs when the last door opens and a male figure dances out dressed in the charro outfit of a Mexican cowboy. Charros have become a symbol of Mexico and charro associations are found throughout the country, but they originated in Jalisco State, where I live. Quite naturally, this muneca danced to "Guadalajara," one of the most famous of Mexico's traditional songs. Guadalajara is the capital of Jalisco. For more information on charros, click here.

Closeup of El Jefe. The muneca is, of course, modeled on Mary Carmen's father as a young man. Throughout his life, he loved to dress up in his charro outfit and was active in the Zacatlán area's official charro association. The first public exhibition of the dancing dolls was on March 27, 2010, only a few weeks before Roque Leonel died. I imagine that he hugely enjoyed the ingenious performance, and appreciated that people would remember him through it for many years to come.

Interior of the clock store, with some of its beautiful wares. The store sells everything from large tower-clocks to small wrist watches. The clock shown above is faced with beautiful talavera-style tiles painted with floral designs. Talavera tiles originated in Puebla, the capital of the state, about 90 miles south of Zacatlán.

A visit to the clock factory and the Relojes Centenario museum. Just outside the blue entrance door, we encountered a lovely flower bed and some molds with a pre-hispanic design. The molds were going to be used to create a large clock the factory was building.

The 3rd Generation. Jesus Clemente Olvera Trejo, who likes to be called Clemente, stands by one of the many antique clocks in the small Relojes Centenario museum adjoining the clock factory. Mary Carmen's 8o-year-old mother, Maria Julita Trejo VDA. de Olvera, gave birth to Clemente, as well as two other brothers and 8 sisters, including Mary Carmen. Among them, Doña Maria Julita's children have produced 32 grandchildren, and 35 great-grandchildren. Clemente joined the family business in 1990, and now runs Relojes Olvera III Generacion, the second of the family's clock businesses. When Mary Carmen took us for a visit to the factory, Clemente graciously acted as our guide through the fascinating little museum and the adjoining factory. Clemente was born in 1967, and has been making clocks for 20 years. One of his special creations has 12 bronze bells which play the melody of "Peregrina."

Where it all started. In 1874, Mary Carmen's great-grandfather Don Juan Olvera y Manilla bought an old rancho outside of Zacatlán. The rancho itself may date back before 1791, the earliest date in the family records. Mary Carmen's sister and brother-in-law (see Part 3 of this series) still operate the rancho as a B&B called Tonatzin Spa Hostal. In 1892, her grandfather was born and grew up on the rancho. When, as a young man, his mother's clock stopped, he asked her permission to attempt a repair. Growing fascinated with clocks and their intricate mechanisms, he decided in 1909 to try to create one from scratch. His only training was his experience with his mother's clock. His uncle told him that if he succeeded the uncle wanted his first clock. He set to work in April of 1909, and in August, 1912, he finally finished. His uncle was probably as amazed at the achievement as I was when I heard the story. The clock shown above is a replica of the original. Thus Alberto Olvera Hernandez began the family clock dynasty.

Display of some of the tools and mechanisms used in making early clocks. Don Alberto had 11 sons, one of whom was Roque Leonel, whom he took into the business. Together they built Relojes Centenario, and incorporated the business in 1944. Clemente, Roque Leonel's son, has introduced modern elements, such as digital mechanisms and solar power, to the making of his family's clocks.

Trying my hand at clock-making. Several antique metal lathes are on display in the museum. Since they are still perfectly functional, Clemente encouraged me to take a try. I was game, although I hadn't operated a lathe since metal-shop class in junior high school. As I recall, I didn't get a very good grade then, but on Clemente's lathe I at least managed to avoid cutting off any fingers. Photo by C. Jordan English

Clemente shares a laugh with a clock worker. Porfirio Becerra Santiago is one of several highly-skilled workers we met during our tour. I was impressed by the factory, which was clean, well-lit, and very well-organized.

Feliciano González Márquez takes a measurement. Clock-making is delicate work, requiring careful measuring of all the parts. Notice the safety goggles, and the rack in the background with a specific place for each tool. This is a place where everyone takes their work very seriously.

The factory casts many of its own parts. We got to see a bit of the process where parts are placed in a wooden frame, sprinkled with a powder which inhibits sticking, and are then covered with finely-ground silica. The parts are then removed, leaving their impression in the sand and molten metal is poured into the frame. The boxes to the right in the photo contain newly cast parts that are still hardening.

Tamping the sand around the parts. Enrique Sánchez Hernández tamps silica around the parts he placed in the box in the previous photo. To make a good impression for the casting, the tamping has to be firm but very careful so as not to disturb the parts in their places.

La Casa del Tiempo, a good description of this family dynasty. I thought this sign, which means "The House of Time," perfectly exemplifies Mary Carmen's family, a dynasty of time which for more than 100 years has played an important role in their wonderful little city.

As they say in the movie business: "its a wrap!" When I started on this adventure last May, I had little idea of what to expect, and no idea that it would turn into a 9-part series in my blog. While I am ready to move on to other topics (and believe, me I have a backlog) I close out this series with bit of a pang. I enjoyed every part of the visit, the photography, the writing, and the positive feedback I have gotten from so many people. I am happy that many have expressed interest in visiting Zacatlán to see its wonders for themselves. I want to especially thank Dick Davis who originally invited me to participate, Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo who was our splendid guide and hostess, and the countless warm and friendly people she introduced to us during our visit.

As always, I welcome comments, corrections, and general feedback. If you want to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim