Monday, October 29, 2012

Mexico City Part 2: The Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlán and its Templo Mayor

A giant stone snake writhes along the base of the Templo Mayor. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the Mexica (Aztecs) were at the peak of their power and wealth. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, was larger in size and population, as well as more splendid and clean, than most of the cities of Europe at the time. The conquistadors were stunned by what they saw. In this and the following posting, we'll take a look at how this now-vanished world appeared to them, and also at some of its long-buried but recently unearthed fragments. Unlike many other ruined cities of Mesoamerica, we have the advantage of first-hand reports from Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his goggle-eyed soldiers. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


Tenochtitlán as the Spanish found it

As the Spanish descended through the surrounding mountains, this view greeted them. Spreading out below was the vast Lago de Texcoco. Close to the southwest shore was a great island city, connected to the mainland by four large causeways and two aqueducts. The center of the city was dominated by a Sacred Precinct full of temples and palaces. In his book "The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain," written after the fall of Tenochtitlán, one of Cortés' young officers named Bernal Diaz del Castillo remembered it this way:

"When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about."

(Photo of painting in the National Anthropological Museum)


As the Spanish approached along a causeway, the city sparkled from the water of many canals. The canals enabled the easy transport of goods and people throughout the city. The structure that dominated all others was a great twin-temple, called by the Spanish "el Templo Mayor" (the Main Temple)It was devoted to the rain god Tlaloc and the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochitli. The Mexica founded their city in 1325 AD, and in less than 200 years had transformed a deserted island into one of the great urban centers of the world. In a letter to the King of Spain, Hernán Cortés described what he saw:

"This great city of Tenochtitlán is built on the salt lake, and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges..."

 (Photo from Diego Rivera mural at the Palacio National)


The Templo Mayor was literally and figuratively the center of the Mexica world. Above, in the top center of the model, you see the great twin-temple surrounded by many other beautiful buildings. It went through at least seven enlargements over 200 years, one on top of the other. The Templo Mayor reached a final height of 45 m (148 ft). The Mexica emperors seem to have been afflicted with the same infirmity suffered by modern politicians known as an "edifice complex." There were 78 major structures in the Zona Sagrado (Sacred Precinct). Bracketing the bases of the Templo Mayor's two great staircases were huge stone snake heads like the one in the first photo. Directly in front of the Templo Mayor was the Templo Quetzalcoatl, with its unusual curved base and conical top. In the bottom center is the huge wooden rack upon which hundreds of skulls were mounted, products of the human sacrifices conducted regularly at the top of the Templo Mayor. Cortés' letter to the King continues:.

"There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings.... Amongst these temples there is one, the principal one, whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts, which are surrounded by very high wall, a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built. All round inside this wall there are very elegant quarters with very large rooms and corridors where their priests live. There are as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of it and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville...".

(Photo from in the National Anthropological Museum)

El Templo Mayor as it is today


The ruins of the Templo Mayor lie adjacent to Mexico City's Catedral and Zócalo. In 1521 AD, Mexica Emperor Moctezuma II cautiously greeted Cortés and his Conquistadores. Initially, the emperor thought they might be the fulfillment of the ancient Toltec prophesy about the return of the god/hero Quezalcoatl. Cortés, after a short time, launched a coup d'etat and put Moctezuma under house arrest. This situation continued uneasily until, in Cortés' absence, Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado massacred a large number of Mexica nobles, claiming they were plotting a counter-coup. The Mexica, already disturbed by Spanish control over their emperor, were enfuriated and rose up in revolt. The Spanish were driven out of the city in the famous Noche Triste (Night of Sorrow). They suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat to Tlaxcala, the land of their indigenous allies. During this conflict--depending upon whose account you believe--Moctezuma was killed either by the Mexica or the Spanish. Cortés returned with more Spanish soldiers and thousands of indigenous warriors who were eager to overthrow their former masters. In the ensuing house-to-house battle for Tenochtitlán, the city was reduced to rubble. What the Mexica built in 200 years, the Spanish took only weeks to utterly destroy. Descriptions of the aftermath sound like Berlin in 1945. Using the rubble, the Spanish started building the capital of Nueva España (New Spain), which ultimately became Mexico City. Although they gloried in their triumph, some of the Spanish regretted the destruction of this enchanting, dream-like city. Perhaps the best epitaph was that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo:

 "I stood looking at {the Mexica capital} and thought that never in the world would there be discovered lands such as these...Of all the wonders that I then beheld, today all that I then saw is overthrown and lost... nothing is left standing..."

(Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


Stone warriors lean against the Templo Mayor's great double staircase. The Sacred Precinct was guarded by numerous figures like these. Many of the stone warriors have hands that once gripped poles from which banners waved. The building you see in the upper left is from the colonial period. The Spanish were eager to assert their authority and to show all of Mesoamerica that the Mexica were no longer in power. They quickly dismantled what was left of the many public buildings and temples and used their materials to build churches, palaces, and other official structures in their own style. Stone from the Templo Mayor itself was used to build the Metropolitan Cathedral. Tenochtitlán completely disappeared from view and even the location of its old structures was forgotten. Over the centuries, periodic renovations occasionally revealed an artifact such as the "Aztec Calendar", discovered in 1790. During the regime of Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, much work was done to "spiff up" the Centro area of Mexico City. This process resulted in many more archaeological discoveries. By then, however, wealthy neighborhoods covered many of the suspected ruins and the inhabitants were not eager to have major excavations disrupt their beautiful neighborhoods. In addition, they gloried in their Spanish heritage and disparaged indigenous history. Why should they, literally, "dig up the past"? Then came the Revolution and a revived interest in Mexico's ancient history.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)



The twin temples on top of the Templo Mayor, as they may have looked in Cortés day. The temple of Tlaloc is on the left. He was a very ancient god, going back at least to Teotihuacan, 500 years before the founding of Tenochtitlán. To the right is the temple of Huitzilopochitli, a god who did not become a major player until the Mexica arrived on the scene. He was the god of the sun of the 5th Age, the one in which the Mexica lived. In a mystical game of "musical chairs", other gods, including Tlaloc, had dominated the suns of the four previous ages. The Mexica believed that it was only because of Huitzilopochli's strenuous efforts that the sun made its way across the sky, then through the dark underworld, to fnally rise again each morning. As you might imagine, such a task required a great deal of energy, and the energy came from offerings of human blood. Since not many people could be expected to volunteer for such a dubious honor, most of the blood came from war captives, or people delivered as tribute by cities the Mexica had conquered. Therein lies the connection to Huitzilpochitli's other major area of responsibility, war. One of the incarnations of this war god was the eagle, probably because this great bird is a fierce predator who flies across the sky. This fit very nicely with the Mexica's military ambitions, and desire to emulate the militarized Toltec State. One of the two great Toltec military cults was that of the Eagle Warriors. Before moving to the next photos, take a look at the roof decorations on both temples above, and also the pillars framing the doorway of Tlaloc's temple. (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)


Large stone flowers decorated the tops of the twin temples. It at first seemed odd to me, given the blood-thirsty natures of both Tlaloc and Huitzilopochitli, that these decorations should be flowers. Perhaps it is not so odd, after all, when you consider that the Mexica conducted special wars, called Xōchiyāōyōtl ("Flowery Wars") to collect captives for sacrifice. They went so far as to allow independent, hostile states such as Tlaxcala to exist within the overall boundaries of their empire. The maintenance of these human "game preserves" was not unlike a rich man who keeps a pond full of trout on his property so he can catch fresh fish and feed them to his guests. Needless to say, the Tlaxcalans were not enamored of their part in this arrangement. They became extremely xenophobic, and were at first fiercely antagonistic to the Spanish. However, once Cortés convinced them that the Mexica were an enemy they had in common, the Tlaxcalans became loyal and valuable allies. Clearly, the few hundred Spanish troops with Cortés could not possibly have conquered an empire of millions on their own. With out the help of the Tlaxcalans, and many other former Mexica subjects, Cortés and his men would have left their bones to bleach white under the bright sun of Mexico, probably after they paid their final visit to the top of the Templo Mayor.  (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)


This pillar once stood on the right side of the doorway to Tlaloc's temple. Above the horizontal blue and red stripes on the pillar are a row of circular symbols about the size of a dinner plate. These features are called chalchihuites and represent jewels. They are an architectural feature that can also be found at the ruins of Teotihuacan, as well as at Cacaxtla, a city north of Puebla that thrived in the centuries following the collapse of Teotihuacan. Like many Mexica deities, Tlaloc had a dual nature. He could be beneficial, by providing rain to grow the all-important maiz (corn). He could also be destructive, bringing violent storms with their thunder, lightning, and high winds. Tenochtitlán was subject to periodic floods as Lago de Texcoco rose, which may also have been seen as one of Tlaloc's bad moods. An image of the rain god once stood on a bench inside the temple, and other images can be found in many other places and artifacts that I will show in future postings. To ensure adequate rain, and to avoid violent storms, it was believed necessary to provide Tlaloc with regular sacrifices, apart from those that were provided to his blood-hungry neighbor.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


This stone, known as a Techcatl, was a place where human sacrifices occurred. The black stone is made of tezontle, a volcanic material common for buildings in Mexico City. The Techcatl was set in the floor in front of the Huitzilopochitli shrine. Many a human heart beat its last before being summarily cut out of its living owner while he or she was stretched across this stone. Inside the shrine on a small altar stood an image of the sun/war god. According to historical reports, the image was made of seeds. On either side of the temple entrances were huge braziers in which fires blazed which were kept constantly burning to symbolize eternity. The only Europeans ever to witness Mexica human sacrifices were the Conquistators. Bernal Diaz del Castillo described how they watched helplessly from afar as the ceremony was performed on some of their own comrades who had been captured in battle:

"The dismal drum of [Huitzilopochtli] sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue[temple-pyramid] from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols, we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of  [Huitzilopochtli]. Then after they had danced, the papas [Aztec priests] laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them."

 (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)



A chacmool reclines in Tlaloc's doorway. The slant of the floor is due to the subsidence into the mud of the former lakebed. This was a problem that plagued the Mexica, and continued to plague the Spanish and Mexican authorities after them. In addition to gradual subsidence, the mud underlying the city tends to liquify during earthquakes, causing much more damage than if the city had been built on solid ground. The great Metropolitan Cathedral across the street from the Templo Mayor needs almost continuous work to keep it stabilized. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


Tlaloc's chacmool still wears much of his original 500-year-old paint. Both Tlaloc and chacmools were elements of Totlec culture adopted by the Mexica, although they may have also noted Tlaloc's presence in the ruins of Teotihuacan. It is believed that, following a sacrifice, the heart and blood were placed in the bowl the chacmool holds on its stomach. I was not able to determine the purpose of the pit just beyond the chacmool, or whether it was ancient or of modern origin. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


The Plaza around Templo Mayor

In front of the Templo Mayor is a plaza where excavations have yielded numerous treasures.  Visible is another of the several great snake heads that adorn the front of the Templo. Early in the 20th Century, the location of Templo Mayor was rediscovered, but again little was done archaeologically. In 1979, at the base of the great staircase of the Templo Mayor, construction workers discovered a huge carved disk 3.25 m (10.5 ft) in diameter. On it was carved the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. After this, scientific excavation began in earnest. According to Mexica cosmology, Coyolxauhqui ("Face Painted With Bells") was the daughter of Coatlicue, "The Mother of Gods", or "Mother Goddess of Earth". Coatlicue was an important deity with a truly monstrous appearance. Her head was a double-headed serpent, and she wore a necklace of human heads and hearts. Her skirt was a mass of snakes and she wore a human skull for a belt buckle. In spite of this appearance, she had apparently had suitors enough to give birth to at least 400 god and goddess children, including the treacherous Coyolxauhqui. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


The great stone disk of Coyolxauhqui, showing her dismembered body. It seems that Coatlicue became pregnant from contact with a ball of hummingbird feathers. She subsequently gave birth to Quezalcoatl ("The Plumed Serpent") and Xolotl ("God of Lightning and Death"). Coatlicue's daughter Coyolxauhqui incited her hundreds of brothers and sisters into jealousy, and they and attacked the Mother of Gods, decapitating her on the mountain called Coatepec (in some versions, she survived). The Mexica pantheon appears to have been a violent and very overpopulated place, probably not unlike the Mexica emperor's court. Instantly upon Coatlicue's death, Huitzilopochitli sprang from her womb fully armed and armored and killed many of his new brothers and sisters. He dismembered Coyolxauhqui, leader of the disloyal pack, and threw her head into the sky to become the moon. This was a gesture to his decapitated mother so she wouldn't pine for her treacherous daughter. The rest of Coyolxauhqui he threw to the base of the mountain which his mother was killed. Archaeologists believe this is why her disk was found near the bottom of the great staircase of the Templo Mayor. This may also have originated the tradition of tossing the bodies of sacrificial victims down the stairs. According to the legend, every month since this dramatic event, the sun defeats the moon and cuts it into pieces (phases), replicating Coyolxauhqui's dismemberment by Huitzilopochitli. The discovery of the great disk of Coyolxauhqui set off a series of excavations at the Templo Mayor that continues to this day. The museum at the site, opened in 1987, beautifully displays thousands of the artifacts recovered, and is a must-visit for any Mexico City tourist interested in its ancient history.  The photo above had to be taken from a gallery one floor up because the disk is too large to capture shooting from its own level. (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)


Excavations in the plaza show how layer after layer was added over the centuries. Because of repeated flooding and soil subsidence, various emperors ordered additional levels added, in order to keep the Sacred Precinct above the water level. The plaza filled an area of 4000 m (2.48 mi) square, and contained more than six dozen temples, pyramids, palaces, and other buildings. The whole area was surrounded by a stone wall called a coatepantli which was decorated with snakes in carved relief. A very similar wall once surrounded the Toltec Temple of the Warriors at their capital of Tollan. In my next posting, I will show some of the other buildings that once occupied this area. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


Like many other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mexica built over previous structures. Above you can see some of the various layers of buildings constructed over 200 years. The ancient people, rather than tear down an old, unwanted, or deteriorating building, simply built a bigger version on top. There were good reasons for this practice. In addition to the difficulty of building an entirely new pyramid from the ground up, it must be remembered that Tenochtitlán was an island, with limited space. The object covered by the roof in the corner was some sort of mythical animal that was part of an altar. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


Tenochtitlán had a sophisticated water system for its time. Above is a water channel discovered under several layers of the plaza. Two large terracotta aqueducts fed the city fresh water from springs at the on-shore hill of Chapultepec.  Each aqueduct possessed a double channel and each was more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long. Lago de Texcoco itself was brackish (salty), although fed by fresh underwater springs. In 1453, during the reign of Moctezuma I, a dike was completed that separated the frresh, underwater springs from the broader, brackish areas of the lake. This was a considerable engineering accomplishment, given the lack of draft animals, wheeled vehicles, or metal tools. The levee of Nezahualcoyctl, when completed, was between 12 and 16 km (7.5 to 9.9 mi) in length. The new areas of fresh water adjacent to the island were used to create the famous chinampas, or floating gardens, some of which still exist. These were artificial islands created by driving stakes into the lakebed and then fencing them with wattle. Layered with mud and decaying vegetation, the fenced portion eventually reached above the waterline where it could be planted. The stakes themselves sometimes took root and became trees. The Mexica thus created their own arable land. The chinampas were easily accessible from the city and--just as important--easily defended by the moat created by the lake. Tenochtitlán had no sewers, but it did have an extensive system of public and private toilets where waste was collected in canoes to be used as fertilizer on the chinampas. The Mexica waste system, along with the frequent baths enabled by the fresh water from the aqueducts, created a remarkably healthy environment for a large city. It was certainly far superior to anything existing in Europe at the time. Unfortunately none of this afforded any defense against the diseases the Spanish brought.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)


The tilted plaza and snake head are another example of Mexico city's sinking base.  After their city began to grow in power, the Mexica decided to reorganize it physically and administratively. They divided Tenochtitlán into five quadrants. The Sacred Precinct was surrounded by the other four. These four quadrants may have originated with four large communal structures that the original nomads built after their arrival on the then-deserted island. In the re-organization, each of the four non-sacred precincts was formed around its own central plaza containing a market and homes for the nobles. The common people lived on the outskirts of these plazas. All this was laid down in a strict grid pattern, based on the four cardinal directions. The Mexica apparently modeled this pattern after the nearby ruins of Teotihuacan. The canals that criss-crossed the city followed this same grid pattern, as did the streets and major causeways. Viewing all this superb organization, the Spanish were dumbfounded. They came from crowded, dirty cities with narrow, crooked streets that followed ancient Medieval lines. The resulting filth and disease made for short lives, but did create a certain immunity to the diseases they brought with them. Though they wanted to see these New World people as savage, uncivilized barbarians, it was difficult to make the charge stick, except for the issue of mass human sacrifice. The Spanish seized on this as a justification for much of what they did, though the depredations of the Inquisition were as bad or worse. Where you stand depends on where you sit. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)



A huge snake slithers along one of the Templo Mayor's lower steps. Snakes were one of the three most sacred animals of the Mexica world, along with jaguars and eagles. Many other animals, including frogs, turtles, and rabbits, appear in the mythology, but they seem to have lesser roles. Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent) was one of the most important gods, going all the way back to Olmec times, almost 3000 years before the Mexica appeared on the scene. Part of a snake's power (at the least the deadly kinds) was its ability to strike suddenly from ambush, inflicting a mortal wound. In addition, snakes regularly shed their skins, so they also became symbols of rebirth, a powerful concept in Mesoamerica. Since the body of the snake above connects to the head of the same snake that first appears in this posting, perhaps this is the right place to close this segment. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

This completes Part 2 of my Mexico City series. Next week we'll take a look at some of other interesting structures that have been unearthed in the area of the Templo Mayor. I hope you found this posting of interest. If you'd like to comment or offer any corrections, I encourage you to do so by using the Comments section below or emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mexico City Part 1: Aztec Origins

Eagle Warriors belonged to one of the two most important warrior cults. The Mexica, popularly known as Aztecs, were the most militaristic of the ancient pre-hispanic civilizations. This posting begins my series on Mexico City, and I thought it appropriate to begin with the people who actually founded this great metropolis in the early 14th Century AD. I confess that I have held back on this series for a couple of reasons. One was logistical. We have visited Mexico City twice, in 2010 and again in 2012. During those two visits, I accumulated more than 2000 photos of its wonders. Even sorting through that number of shots is a monumental task, much less sizing, cropping, and adjusting the light and color on each one that is useable. Then, there is the often agonizing process of choosing from among them the 200 or so I will actually display. Finally, there is all the post-adventure research to ensure that my comments will be both insightful and accurate. My second reason for hesitation has to do with the Aztecs themselves. As my regular readers must know by now, I am attracted to what is ancient. However, the Aztecs were relative latecomers on the Mesoamerican scene. I was also a bit put off by their blood-lust. Most of these ancient civilizations practiced some form of human sacrifice, but the Aztecs, as we shall see, practiced it on an industrial scale. However, there was also much that was beautiful and remarkable about their civilization. Even the dark parts were not just mindless cruelty, but related to their beliefs about the nature of the cosmos. All that having been said, here goes! (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Mexica migration legends


The Mexica arrive at their "promised land." The nomadic people who wandered out of the northern wastes never called themselves "Aztec." That was an early 19th Century invention of German explorer Alexander Humboldt. He based the name on Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Mexica. In the cases of some of the more ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, like Teotihuacan or the Toltecs, we don't know that they called themselves. We only know the names given to them by people who arrived centuries after their great cities were already in ruins. With the Mexica, we have the Spanish historical record telling us that this was the name used by their contemporaries, both friends and enemies, and by the Mexica people themselves. The people shown in the sculpture above have just reached the island in Lake Texcoco where they would found their capital. At this point they were simple, nomadic, hunter-gatherers. They had no experience in urban living, and their only possessions were those that they could easily carry as they migrated from place to place. The obvious wonder and joy they express is the result of a prophesy fulfilled.


Near the Mexica nomads stands a statue of an eagle eating a snake while sitting on a cactus. Over thousands of years, pre-hispanic Mexico experienced recurrent waves of nomadic migrants from the northern deserts. When great empires like Teotihuacan (100 AD-650 AD) arose, they kept the nomads in check. When they weakened, the nomads pushed in and sometimes took over. The first Nahuatl speakers (the language of the Mexica) arrived about the time of Teotihuacan's fall. Its successor, the Toltec State (700 AD-1100 AD), may have been founded by a mixture of those early nomads and Teotihuacan refugees. The Mexica themselves didn't leave their northern homeland of Aztlan until around 1100 AD, and they wandered through central Mexico for more than a hundred years seeking a place to settle. Along the way, one of their chiefs named Tenoch prophesied that when they found an island with an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a snake, they would know they had reached their destination. The lush shores of Central Mexico's Lake Texcoco looked enticing to these desert nomads. However, there were already large populations of sophisticated, urbanized people living in powerful city-states on the Lake's shores. These people treated the Mexica with contempt, as uncivilized interlopers. Eventually, the nomads sought refuge on an island not far off shore. It was on this island that, to their boundless joy, they spotted the eagle eating the snake. Home at last! In honor of their prophet, the Mexica named their new city Tenochtitlan.


The Toltec Connection

This Mexica "atlantean" figure is almost identical to those found in the Toltec capital at Tollan. At Tollan, much larger atlanteans still stand atop the Temple of the Warriors where they once supported its roof. These figures represent the ideal of the noble warrior. Like the Romans, the Mexica were not so much innovators as imitators and assimilators. They adopted much of their culture almost wholesale from their Toltec predecessors. They then carried out the Toltec ideas to their logical, but often rather grim, conclusions. Of course, the Toltecs themselves incorporated much from their predecessors, the Teotihuacans. The Mexica were aware of Teotihuacan, and called its ancient ruins "The Place Where The Gods Were Born." However, that great empire had fallen 500 years before and was already lost in the mists of time. The Toltecs provided a more recent example to follow, although the temples and palaces at Tollan had already been in ruins for 200 years by the time the Mexica wandered through. The unsophisticated nomads were enormously impressed by Toltec statuary, wall carvings, monuments and other imagery. The nomads felt that if they could emulate these people, they would certainly improve their status in the world. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Mexica imitated the Toltecs with a vengeance. (Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)


This chacmool is another Toltec symbol appropriated by the Mexica. Chacmools are statues related to war, rain, and human sacrifice.This chacmool was found at the Templo Mayor, the chief pyramid of the Mexica at Tenochtitlán, their capital. The Templo Mayor had twin temples on top, one for the rain god Tlaloc, and the other for Huitzilopochitli, the god of the sun and of war. Chacmools may have originated with the Toltecs and many have been found at Tollan. They could also have originated with the Maya, since many have also been found at Chichen Itza, a Maya city with a mysterious and as-yet unexplained relationship to the Toltecs. Chacmools are instantly recognizable. They always appear as a male figure reclining on his back, knees raised and head turned questioningly. The figures always hold a bowl or disk on their stomachs which may have been where human hearts and blood were deposited after a sacrifice. The posture of the chacmool is submissive, very similar to how war captives are often portrayed, and the usual fate of such captives was sacrifice. The figures are most often found in the vestibule of a temple or the palace of a ruler, placed in front of a dias or throne. They are closely related to Tlaloc, the god of rain that the Toltecs adopted from Teotihuacan, and that the Mexicas in turn got from the Toltecs. Regular, dependable cycles of rain were essential to these civilizations, based as they were upon agriculture. Tlaloc, an extremely irascible sort of god, would not be impressed by just any old sacrifice. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


An eagle and a jaguar trade war stories on this Mexica relief sculpture. Carved on the side of a stone seat, both the animals stand in human-like postures. The curved symbols emerging from their mouths represent speech. Another important aspect of the Toltec culture was the warrior cult. The elite among these were the Eagle and Jaguar cults, whose emblems appear at the Temple of the Warriors at Tollan, as well as at similar structures in Chichen Itza. The newly-settled Mexica were treated contemptuously and pushed from hither to yon by their urbanized neighbors. They decided to adopt Toltec-style militarism as the way to improve their status. In doing so, they closely copied the Toltec model of organization, among other things creating their own eagle and jaguar warrior cults. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Carved stone skulls line the sides of the Mexica tzompantli at the Templo Mayor. A tzompantli was a large wooden rack on which hundreds of human skulls were displayed after sacrifice. The racks would have been placed on top of stone pedestals, the sides of which were decorated like the one above. Similar tzompantlis stand adjacent to the Ball Courts at both Tollan and Chichen Itza. Ball games were often associated with human sacrifice, although it is a matter of some dispute whether it was the losing or the winning team that was afforded the honor of decapitation. In the case of the Mexica tzompantli, the skull rack was near the base of the great staircase of the Templo Mayor. Over time, many thousands trudged reluctantly up those stairs to their doom. While the Toltecs may have sacrificed many people in their time--and they were no slouches in this process--the Mexica took human sacrifice to a level never before seen in Mesoamerica. According to the Spanish, Mexica leaders proudly told them that when the Templo Mayor was inaugerated in 1487 AD by the great Emperor Ahuizotl, 1000 people were ritually killed each day over a 20-day period. The Mexica reported that a river of blood flowed down the great staircases of the Templo Mayor and into the plaza. The Nazis of the 20th Century would have been impressed. (Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)


The Role of Human Sacrifice


This great stone disk of Tizoc was the scene of sacrifice by ritual combat. The stone is all one piece and is huge, almost 1.22 m (4 ft) high and 3.05 m (10 ft) in diameter. On top is a great star-shaped carving with a circular pit in the middle, possibly a repository for hearts and blood. All around the sides are panels showing the Emperor Tizoc conquering the warriors of various cities. He reigned in Tenochtitlán and was the seventh Mexica emperor. However, his reign was short (1481 AD-1486 AD) and most of the victories depicted appear to have been achieved by previous rulers. There were various forms of human sacrifice, and one of them was a gladiatorial contest. The warrior being sacrificed would be tethered to the stone disk with a rope. He would then be confronted by five Mexica warriors, all carrying deadly hand weapons lined with razor-sharp obsidian. The victim would be armed with the same weapon, but in place of obsidian would be feathers. On the shelf in the background are statues of Michtlantecuhtli, the god of death and lord of the underworld. Human sacrifice was conducted for both political and religious purposes. Its most obvious political value was to intimidate both external enemies and current allies, as well as to awe the underlying Mexica population. There may also have been a public entertainment value. Huge crowds once gathered to watch Roman crucifixions and gladiatorial contests. In other eras they came to watch people burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition, and hung from the gallows in the US up until the last half of the 20th Century. Demonstrations of power through the spectacle of public executions can a very effective political technique. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Tizoc wins again. The Emperor Tizoc is one on the left and he has the upper hand, quite literally, as he grasps the forelock of his opponent on the right. In Mesoamerican art, those victorious in battle are often shown dragging defeated warriors by their long hair. This is one of the side panels on the giant stone disk. The details of such carvings are always interesting to me. Tizoc carries a round shield, similar to one I will show later in this posting. He wears an elaborate head dress with what appears to be an bird on the front. He also wears a bracelet, a necklace and large ear rings, which in life would all have been jade. Across his chest is a butterfly-shaped breastplate, very similar to that seen on the Mexica atlantean in a previous photo. Such breast plates can also be seen on all the Toltec atlanteans at Tollan's Temple of the Warriors. Tizoc's opponent carries a large club in his left hand and clutches a bundle of arrows with his right, but doesn't brandish either weapon. He looks toward the ground, in a posture of submission. His heart will no doubt end up in the center bowl of the gladiatorial platform stone. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Another sacrifice disk shows an unusual feature. This one has a similar star-burst carved in the top, along with the circular pit in the center. However, extending out from the pit is a groove, apparently to drain off the blood for further use. All this fixation with blood relates directly to Mexica beliefs about  how the cosmos functions. Blood was considered the very essence of life. Huitzilopochitli, the god of both the sun and war, needed to be fed regularly with human blood because he was in a constant struggle to keep the sun moving across the sky and to defeat the forces of darkness. From the Mexica point of view, they were performing a public service with their massive killings. After all, who wouldn't want to ensure that the sun comes up every morning. It was a small price to pay, always assuming you didn't have to pay it yourself. I should note here that what I describe in a few paragraphs of this section is an extremely abbreviated version of a very complex cosmology. Although they certainly had their political agendas in their use of human sacrifice, the Mexica also seem to have genuinely believed in their view of the cosmos. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


An jaguar statue carries a small container for human blood on his back. A container like this may have been used to collect the blood flowing down the drainage slot on the stone disk seen in the last photo. Alternatively, since this piece is rather small to handle the copious amounts of blood from a killing, it may have been used for another sort of blood sacrifice. Sometimes people drew blood from themselves as an atonement or while making a special request of the gods. The person would use the sharp spine from a maguey leaf, or sometimes one from a manta ray, to pierce the tongue or genitals. This would not only produce sacrificial blood, but also excruciating pain. This, in turn, could induce a trance-like state in which the person could make contact with the world of the spirits. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


The skulls of two victims rest among other, less ghastly offerings. The large oval blade in the upper right is typical of the instruments used in the sacrifice process. Obsidian blades can be brought to a sharpness greater than modern surgical scalpels. The individual to be sacrificed would have been grasped by the arms and legs and held down while facing the sky. The priest would slice through the chest with the blade, reach in to pull out the still beating heart, and turn to display it to the waiting crowd before placing it in the bowl of a chacmool or that of a gladiatorial platform stone. The body would then be thrown down the long staircase of the Templo Mayor. Sometimes the skin of the victim was flayed (peeled off) and worn by the priests, symbolizing life emerging from death and corruption. At other times the body might be fed to the animals in the emperor's zoo, or even used in cannibalistic rituals. Resting against the oval blade is a spine used for self-piercing blood sacrifices. Also present are shell beads, jade ear rings, coral, and many smaller, non-lethal offerings.

The only Europeans ever to witness Mexica human sacrifices were the Conquistators. Bernal Diaz del Castillo described how they watched helplessly from afar as the ceremony was performed on some of their own comrades who had been captured in battle:

"The dismal drum of [Huitzilopochtli] sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue[temple-pyramid] from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols, we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of  [Huitzilopochtli]. Then after they had danced, the papas [Aztec priests] laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them."

(Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)


The Warror Cults and Mexica warfare

A full size statue of an Eagle Warrior was found in the ruins of the Templo Mayor in 1978. Eagle Warriors (in Nahuatl: cuãuhtli) wore elaborate costumes over cotton armor. Their open-beaked headdress/helmets were made of painted wood and the entire outfit was decorated with feathers. Along with the Jaguar Warriors, the Eagles were the elite of the Mexica army. They were the best trained, fiercest, and most respected fighters of the empire. Another indication of the Eagle Warriors' special status is that, in the Mexica mythology, eagles were symbols for the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochitli. Most of the Eagle Warriors came from the nobility, but a commoner could gain membership through battle prowess and especially by capturing prisoners. In fact, a warrior gained much more status from a live prisoner than a dead enemy. Huitzilopochitli was always hungry for blood, famished as he was from the effort of keeping the universe from running off the rails. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


A Jaguar Warrior wore the skin and head of a jaguar as his uniform. Called ocelõtl in Nahuatl, Jaguar Warriors were named after the largest, fiercest, and most cunning animal predator of the Mesoamerican world. Jaguars hunt at night, a fact giving them a special status among the ancients who believed the big cats were connected with the underworld and with Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky. The Jaguar Warrior above carries a round shield in his left hand and brandishes the basic Mexica hand weapon in his right, the deadly Macuahuitl. Both the Jaguars and Eagles were intensively trained in its use, much as medieval knights trained with the sword. The basic Macuahuitl was a flat, rectangular paddle about 1 m (3 ft) long with a handle on one end. There were also some longer versions, intended to be wielded with both hands. The edges of the paddle were fitted with razor-sharp obsidian blades. Spanish soldiers who faced warriors wielding a Macuahuitl claimed that they could decapitate a horse with one blow. Like the Eagles, the Jaguar Warriors gained their status by capturing enemies. To become a Jaguar, a soldier had to capture at least 12 opponents in two consecutive battles. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Mexica soldiers were equipped with an extensive armory. While the elite units wore costumes representing their animal totems, the basic soldier wore little clothing other than a loin cloth and sandals.  Some of his weapons are shown above. On the left is a spear, generally about 2.13 m (7 ft) long and tipped with a flat wooden point edged with obsidian, much like a Macuahuitl. These could be thrown or used for stabbing. Next is the bow, about 1.5 m (5 ft) long and capable of firing an arrow as much as 137 m (450 ft). The Mexica also used two other long-range weapons: the sling (not shown) and the atlatl, seen in use by the soldier above. The sling had a range of 198 m (650 ft), even greater than a bow, and was a powerful weapon. It should be remembered that the Hebrew David was supposed to have slain the giant Goliath with just such a sling. The atlatl is a truly ancient weapon, invented long before the bow and arrow. Used properly, it can propel a short spear or dart with much greater force and range than if the weapon was thrown by hand. A Macuahuitl can be seen just under the elbow of the soldier. A soldier might also carry smaller weapons for close fighting such as the hand ax, seen above, or a dagger. For defense, the basic soldiers used relatively small, round shields. As previously noted, the elites protected themselves with cotton armor as well as shields. Notice, in particular, the shield with the yellow and black design next to the Macuahuitl.


Mexica shields were made of perishable materials, so only a few survive. Shields were made of wicker and wood, covered with leather or animal hide as shown above. They were then painted in various designs. Variations of the design shown above appear again and again in the the literature. Apparently these kinds of abstract designs were popular in the Mexica army. Shields were sometimes further decorated with feathers attached to the rims. Wicker shields and cotton armor were adequate defenses against pre-hispanic weapons, and Mexica Macuahuitli and other arms could be used with devastating effect against the empire's opponents. Unfortunately for the Mexica, they could not generally prevail against Spanish armor or weapons made of steel. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


This unidentified obsidian weapon may have functioned like a European halberd. The weapon appears to be a combination of a spear and and a curved ax. That would suggest a similarity to the halberd, a weapon mounted on a long pole and used by European foot soldiers against mounted troops in the 15th and 16th Centuries. I was somewhat puzzled by this weapon, which was unaccompanied by any explanatory sign, because the pre-hispanic world contained no horses or other riding animals, and thus no cavalry or mounted troops to defend against. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Trade and Commerce within the Empire

Mexica and Totonac leaders meet to talk politics and trade. The Mexica diplomat/trader called a Pochteca stands on the left, identified by his typical Mexica shield. The Totonac leader bears gifts and wears a type of head dress which is still worn by indigenous dancers called Quetzalines whom I have seen perform in Puebla State. Some 60,000 Totonac-speaking people still live in Mexico's Gulf Coast area, and as far inland as Puebla. Their civilization once extended all the way down the Coast to the Maya areas bordering the Yucatan Peninsula. However, by the time of the Spanish arrival, the Mexica had extended their control over much of this area and many Totonac city-states paid regular tribute to the empire. The Mexica did not usually lay waste to cities they conquered, nor even station troops there when they moved on. They allowed the local people to administer and police themselves, but required regular delivery of tribute consisting of the community's best products, including people for sacrifice. This, of course, was not popular within the conquered areas and resulted in periodic revolts. However, the establishment of the empire did promote trade and commercial activity. (Photo from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)


The Pochteca transported high-value goods throughout the empire. Pochteca were Mexica traders and merchants who traveled throughout the empire and beyond. Given the lack of draft animals in Mesoamerica, everything had to be carried by the trader or by his servants. Goods therefore needed to be relatively light and compact. These might include conch shells which could be made into trumpets, jade jewelry, and copper axes as seen above. Other suitable items might include cacao beans, (sometimes used as currency as well as to make chocolate), obsidian blades, and beautifully woven cloth. The Pochteca were commoners, but achieved a higher status than any other non-nobles. They organized themselves into guilds and lived in their own neighborhoods. They even had their own god, Yacatecuhtli, who was the patron of trade. Because they traveled throughout the empire, and to other places not under Mexica control, they were also used as an intelligence network. The Pochteca were also trained as warriors, and needed to be, because they were sometimes attacked by people who viewed them--and rightly so--as an arm of the Mexica oppressors. These traders were important enough to the Mexica State that their traveling parties were sometimes protected by military escorts, if the threat was great enough. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


The great tianguis of Tenochtitlán was a market of amazing diversity. Tianguis is the Nahuatl word for street market, and many are still held all over Mexico, 500 years after Cortés first saw this one when he entered the Mexica capital. The Spanish were astounded by the variety, quantity, and quality of goods flowing into the seat of the empire from all points of the compass. The Mexica viewed Tenohtitlán as the center of their world, and the Pochteca saw the tianguis as the center of Tenochtitlán. The original tianguis was located in an area southwest of the Templo Mayor called Tlatelolco. In the background above, you can see Tenochtitlán spreading out into the distance, dotted with pyramids and temples. The tianguis above looks like many I have visited, except for the clothing of the participants. (Photo from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)


Toy wooden boats indicate the importance of this form of transportation to the Mexica. Living on an island as they did, water transportation was essential. Some goods could come by road and over the several causeways that led into the city. However, water transportation enabled a Pochteca to transport goods more quickly and economically among the various communities lining the shores of Lake Texcoco. As they approached the city for the first time, the Spanish reported seeing great fleets of such boats plying the areas around Tenochtitlán. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Two Mexica barter over maiz, using cacao beans as money. This painting provides a good sense of the clothing and adornment of Mexica merchants and their customers, as well as the interactions between them. Although modern, urbanized people now think of maiz (corn) as uniformly yellow, it was not originally that way. Maiz came (and in a few places still comes) in a wide variety of colors and possessed different qualities, depending on where it was grown and how it was cultivated. Most of this variety has been lost to the standardization techniques of modern agribusiness. Cacao beans had intrinsic value as the source of the luxury drink we know as chocolate. However, because of their small and relatively uniform size, they could function as a medium of exchange. Other kinds of currency included small copper bells, jade beads, and feathers. (Detail from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)


The Famous "Aztec Calendar"

The huge "Aztec Calendar" dwarfs visitors to the National Anthropological Museum. I used the quotes because, contrary to popular belief, it is apparently not a calendar at all. This carved stone disk is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Mexico. It was discovered in 1790 during construction at Mexico City's main plaza, called the Zocalo. The disk weighs 24 tons and is about 3.7 m (12 ft) across. There are various theories about the purpose for which the stone was created. An early theory proposed a calendar, and that seems to have stuck with the public regardless of more recent archaeological interpretations. In fact, there are date glyphs within some of the concentric rings on the stone, and also some symbols relating to the five ages the Mexica believed the world has passed through since its beginning. However, the most recent theory is that the disk had political and religious functions. Politically, it may have represented a reaffirmation of the Mexica capital as the center of the universe. The stone, according to this interpretation, marks the actual geographical center of the world. As usual in the Mexica world, politics related to religion, and vice versa. Just as the stone marks the center of the world, politically and geographically, the center of the stone disk itself glorifies the sun god Tonatiuh, who ruled the fifth (or current) age. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


Detail of the disk showing the face of Tonatiuh. One of the things I find most baffling about the well-populated pantheon of Mexica gods is how often they overlap one another. This may be a product of the Mexica's hodge-podge assimilation of the cultures of others. We have already met the fearsome Huitzilopochitli, god of war and the sun, whose symbol was the eagle. Meet Tonatiuh, who shares those same attributes. Unfortunately, they are not simply the same god with two names, but are definitely two different gods, with different histories. I have been unable to find any explanation for this strange overlap, other than that they are "related" to one another. To the Mexica, both were immensely important deities who were making desperate efforts to keep the sun moving across the sky, thus requiring constant refreshment with human blood. Currently prevailing archeological opinion is that the actual use of the stone disk was for gladiatorial sacrifice rituals, similar to the other stone disks seen earlier. Above, Tonatiuh's rather skeletal face peers out, while his tongue drapes down his chin. It is believed that the tongue represents a sacrificial knife. The sun god's two hands extend out from each side of this head, holding human hearts. Also surrounding his head are four boxes containing symbols that represent the four previous ages replaced by the one now ruled by Tonatiuh. Just to further confuse the matter, some archaeologists believe that the image in the center is not Tonatiuh at all, but Tlaltecuhli, an earth monster who had a role in the Mexica creation myth. Have you got all that? And remember, there are dozens of Mexica gods, each with its own history and attributes, all arranged in a complex hierarchy of importance. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)


A member of an Aztec dance troupe performs for the crowd near the Templo Mayor. Many of these troupes take great pains to accurately model their costumes from historical records and sketches made by Spanish soldiers and priest, as well as the Mexica themselves. In my next posting, I will continue with my examination of the Mexica culture, showing their beautiful art, jewelry, and other artifacts, as well as the ruins of the great Templo Mayor.

This completes Part 1 of my Mexico City series. I welcome and encourage your comments and any corrections. If you would like to 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 I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sierra del Tigre Adventures Part 3: Ex-Hacienda Toluquilla & its 17th Century aqueduct

A rushing stream passes under the 17th Century aqueduct of ex-Hacienda Toluqilla. I found the ruins of this hacienda by accident. Sometimes, when you are in search of one treasure, you stumble across others. In this case I had come into possession of a hand-drawn map showing the location of a large waterfall in the heart of the Sierra del Tigre. This turned out to be Las Cascadas Paraíso (see previous posting). My friend Larry drives a high clearance 4X4, and is always up for an adventure, so I recruited him and three others to see if we could find the as-yet-unnamed waterfall. At that point it was little more than a few squiggles on the map. As we scoured Google Earth to determine the waterfall's precise location, we kept finding mention of an old colonial aqueduct located in the same general area. A bit more internet research revealed that the aqueduct had once provided water to a 17th Century hacienda that had played a role in the founding of the nearby town of Concepción de Buenos Aires. We decided to include a search for ex-Hacienda Toluquilla on our waterfall expedition. However, finding the physical ruins proved easier than finding their history. My information is still a bit sketchy, and if any of my readers can supply more (or corrections), I would appreciate it. For a map to locate Toluquilla, click here.


Ex-Hacienda Toluquilla

The crumbling adobe ruins of the hacienda's Casa Grande stand in the center of the tiny town. Sometime during the Revolution, or not long after, the hacienda's lands were broken up and shared out among the former peones (farm workers) whose families had worked there for centuries as little more than serfs. In many such cases, former peones cannibalized hacienda buildings for materials to improve their own homes. That appears to have happened at Hacienda Toluquilla. Contrary to popular conception, a hacienda was not simply a house where a rich man lived. The word hacienda means "place where something is done or made", and refers to a large economic operation. Haciendas were generally devoted to raising livestock such as cattle and horses, or cash crops such as wheat or sugar cane. The casa grande (great house) of a typical hacienda was both the residence of the hacendado (owner) and the center of an administrative complex called la casca (the helmet).  Generally, Mexican haciendas possessed at least 2000 acres and were relatively self-sufficient. However, some were huge, comprising 65,000 acres or more. Some of these even possessed their own railroad stations. The original size of Hacienda Toluquilla is not clear, but it appears to have occupied a good part of El Llano de San Sebastian, a large rolling plateau in the heart of the Sierra del Tigre, south of Lake Chapala. There was apparently enough land in 1869 for the owners to set aside a substantial portion in order to found the town of Concepción de Buenos Aires.


Next to the ruins of the Casa Grande is the old capilla. Virtually every hacienda possessed its own capilla (chapel). It was usually located very near, or even attached to, the casa grande. From the earliest days of Spanish rule in Latin America, Catholicism provided the ideological justification for the domination by a small wealthy elite over millions of indigenous and mestizo people. The hacendados always kept a watchful eye on the religious messages received by their peones, hence the proximity of the capilla to the casa grande. Under the hacienda system, the meek were unlikely to inherit anything more than their peon father's debts, and the hacendados wanted to keep it that way. Occasionally a hacienda would have its own priest in residence, but in the case of Hacienda Toluquilla, the priest was based far away and faced a long journey to service his flock. In the early 1860s, Padre Ignacio Romo rode a circuit that extended from Hacienda Huejotitánnear Jocotopec on the western tip of Lake Chapala, to Hacienda Toluquilla, deep in the Sierra del Tigre mountains. At the time, primitive roads would have required many days of rugged travel by horse or mule. If he was lucky, the padre may sometimes have had access to a two-wheeled ox cart (unsprung, of course). Not relishing the prospect of continuing this arduous circuit, the padre took the opportunity of a pastoral visit to speak to the owners of Hacienda Toluquilla, the brothers Pablo and Benito Echuari. Padre Ignacio proposed a new town,  to be built on their land, which would have a school, a market and--best of all--a church. To his delight, Don Benito agreed. The town became Concepción de Buenos Aires, and the new church was called Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción. While we found Toluquilla's Casa Grande to be in ruins, the little chapel appeared to be functional. This is not unusual, since the country people remain deeply religious. After the demise of the old haciendas, the capillas began to serve as community churches and social centers for villages like Toluquilla.


The remains of a graceful old arch were among the few clues of former grandeur. When we entered the village, it soon became clear that the old hacienda had been scavenged almost beyond recognition. In such cases, I have found the best thing to do is to approach a local resident, the older the better. We soon encountered a gentleman with a very weatherbeaten face who was dressed in blue jeans and a battered straw hat. He seemed a bit puzzled by our quest, but readily agreed to show us around. As he warmed to our search, he began to point out easily missed details, including the ruins of this old arch, which apparently led into the stable area of the Casa Grande.


Another local resident monitors our progess. This handsome rooster poked its head out of the undergrowth that is slowly overwhelming the Casa Grande's ruins. Village chickens in Mexico are seldom confined, and wander freely in the streets, pecking at whatever they can find. As I outlined in Part 1 of this series, much of the Sierra del Tigre south of Lake Chapala was taken over by Conquistador Alonso de Avalos in the 1540s. He received encomiendas (the right to the forced labor of  indigenous inhabitants) for broad areas including El Llano de San Sebastian. In the early 1600s, these rights passed into the hands of Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari. Encomiendas granted the right to forced labor, but not necessarily ownership of the land. In the 17th Century, the encomienda system was phased out and replaced by Royal land grants through which the great haciendas were created. The land was seized--forcibly if necessary--from the local inhabitants whose forebears had worked it for thousands of years. The former owners of the land became the peones working for the hacendados. The Echuari family kept possession of Hacienda Toluquilla at least until the last part of the 19th Century, and possibly until the final breakup during or after the Revolution.


Maiz now grows inside the adobe walls of one of the casca buildings. Maiz (corn) has been a staple of the rural Mexican diet for thousands of years. Unfortunately, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) US grain companies have been able to dump huge amounts of surplus corn on the Mexican market. These surpluses, which are subsidized by US government agricultural policies, have depressed maiz prices and undercut small family farms throughout Mexico. This, in turn, has forced the migration of those farmers to work in the fields of US agribusiness north of the border. A large number of those migrant farm workers found it necessary to enter the US illegally in order to feed their families back home. This, of course, makes them easy targets of exploitation by US employers, who profit from low wages and the ability to avoid paying for any benefits such as worker's compensation or unemployment insurance. Just as the old hacienda system turned indigenous farmers into peones, US agribusiness has turned millions of modern Mexican small farmers into "illegals" hunted by US authorities and despised by some (but by no means all) Americans. 


This cut stone provides another hint of the past. We found the stone atop a rough wall surrounding a corral. The walls surrounding Mexican fields are usually built from uncut stones picked up as the fields were cleared. The presence of this carefully cut stone, complete with a rounded edge, indicates that it was originally part of one of the hacienda's casca buildings, possibly the Casa Grande. The lichens growing on the store mean that it was probably cut long ago, perhaps as early as the 1600s. Left undisturbed, lichens can have a lifespan of several centuries.


Mike inspects the Casa Grande. Mike was one of our party of five. He lives in Ajijic full time and owns one of the local real estate agencies. Although we could tell the general orientation of the building, the state of the ruin was such that little else about its interior could be determined with any certainty. By this time, our presence in their pueblo had attracted the attention of a small group of locals. They seemed as curious about us as we were about the hacienda. The kids were the boldest of the lot, as they often are. I had no doubt that our visit would be the talk of their town, since things tend to be a bit slow in this mountain back country. We were happy to provide some free entertainment.


Our local guide pointed out this old stone water trough as one of the original features. What is new is the piped water. In earlier times, water arrived via the stone aqueduct, built in the 17th Century. Today, all homes in Toluquilla are connected to the piped public water supply. According to official government records, the population of the pueblo of Toluquilla is 155 people, with women slightly outnumbering the men. About 40% of the total are children, and 13% are over 60. Of the 37 homes in town, 3 are without floors, and two consist of only one room. While only 29 of the 37 homes have indoor toilets, all have electricity. There are no computers in any of the homes, but 30 have washing machines and 36 have TVs. Although Toluquilla has not quite caught up with the 21st Century, it has at least made it into the 20th.


A sleek horse kicks a hind leg against persistent flies as it munches the thick, juicy grass. This is horse country and kids learn to ride from an early age. We encountered the horse near the gated entrance to the property where the old colonial-era aqueduct is located.


El Acueducto

The aqueduct cannot be seen from the road. It was not until we closely questioned our local guide that we discovered how to find the aqueduct. This gate stands directly across the highway (to the south) from the entrance to Toluquilla. There was no sign indicating an historic site, or forbidding entry, so we parked and walked on through. Not far beyond the gate, you can see a path leading off to the right toward the aqueduct. On the upper left is the creek bed of the stream that used to feed the aqueduct.


Martin and Larry mounted a rough stone path to the top of the aqueduct. By the latter half of the 19th Century, Hacienda Toluquilla was apparently no longer getting its water supply from the aqueduct. I deduced this from information indicating that, in the mid-1860s, the Echuari family donated stone from the structure to help build Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción, the new church in Concepción de Buenos Aires.


This stone trough once carried the water from the rushing stream down the hill to the hacienda. A steady water supply being essential to agriculture as well as to organized community life, aqueducts are some of the oldest civic structures in human history. In the Old World, they date back to at least the Assyrians of the 7th Century BC. The earliest evidence of aqueducts in the New World is in Peru, a development of the Nazca culture around 540 AD. Upon their arrival in 1520 AD at the Mexica (Aztec) capital of Tenochitlán, Hernán Cortéz and his Conquistadors discovered two major aqueducts feeding water to the city. Cortéz conquered Tenochitlán in part by destroying its aqueducts.


After crossing the creek bed, the aqueduct makes a sharp turn up a hill to the right. Notice the heavy growth of moss and liches on the old stones. This structure was built to last, and it certainly has. I have no doubt it would still be providing water if the Echuaris had not found another source, probably a well. If it kept on in the direction you see above, the aqueduct would intersect the creek in another 33 m (100 yds) or so. Out of sight at the upper left is the home of the farmer who owns the land around the aqueduct. 


Mike walks across the aqueduct where it passes over the creek. This has to be one of the most picturesque ruins I have encountered. Before our visit, the hacienda and its aqueduct were virtually unknown within expat community at Lake Chapala. I doubt it is known even by most Mexicans, except those who live in the immediate area. It would be a great place for a picnic, or just to laze away a warm afternoon.


Side view of the aqueduct after it crosses the creek. The arch originally appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the 2nd millenium BC. The Romans were the first to use it widely as a key feature of their architecture. That was how it made its way to Spain, a Roman province, and from there to New Spain in the 16th Century. The true arch is an architectural form never mastered by the indigenous civilizations of the pre-hispanic Western Hemisphere, although they had developed a precursor called a corbel arch


Another side view of the aqueduct, looking downhill toward the creek crossing. Although I have very little direct information about this aqueduct other than the century in which it was built, it probably functioned in a similar manner to those of other haciendas. One of these was the Espada Aqueduct, built in 1745 in the Texas province of Nueva España. It used a system of floodgates controlled by the mayordomo, or ditch master. He used them to feed water to one field or another, or to provide for bathing, washing, or to power a mill.



Phil peers through one of the arches from across the creek. The great estates of the Echuari family, including this hacienda, extended from the border of Michoacan to the Pacific beachs of Zacoalco, a vast area. Today, the ruins of this old, lichen-covered aqueduct, hidden in the undergrowth near a tiny, backcountry pueblo, provide some of the few clues to the fall in the fortunes of that once powerful family.


Red Bird of Paradise, also known as Pride of Barbados, grew by the road near the aqueduct. One can always depend upon Mexico to provide a burst of color wherever you go. I noticed this plant, formally known as Caesalpinia purcherrima, growing wild beside the road.  I was able to identify it thanks to my flower expert, Ron Parsons.

This completes Part 3 of my Sierra del Tigre series and also the series itself. This area of the Sierra del Tigre is lovely year-round and is relatively untouched by the more negative aspects of tourism which have (in my opinion) somewhat blighted other places in the area like the resort town of Mazamitla. I always appreciate feedback and if you would like to contribute some, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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