Posts Tagged ‘pyramid’

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Murals and Pyramids in Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Mural de la BatallaWhether you recognize Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl as one of the more significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, or your interest is simply piqued by the sight of the hilltop ruins as you cruise by Huejotzingo on the Mexico-Puebla highway, these sister sites merit a closer look. Here’s why: Cacaxtla houses some of the best-preserved pre-Columbian murals in Mesoamerica, and Xochitecatl rewards anyone who climbs its pyramids with a panoramic views of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and neighboring volcanoes.

Cacaxtla: A Confluence of Cultures

Located in the town of San Miguel del Milagro, the Cacaxtla site was initially surveyed by Spanish archaeologist Pedro Armillas in the 1940s. But its excavation didn’t begin until the 1970s, after looters dug a tunnel into its main building and found an elaborate painting of a “birdman.” They reported their discovery to local priest, who subsequently alerted Mexican authorities at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Official digging thereafter unearthed a grand platform, or gran basamento, which was built in various stages, the first as early as 300 BC. The structure appears to have been used by civic leaders for myriad activities, with distinct spaces dedicated to living, worship, and conducting business.

Gran basamento, CacaxtlaExperts at the INAH say that very little is known about Cacaxtla’s inhabitants, except that they were meticulous builders and warriors who organized their society into different social strata. The city was primarily home to the Olmeca-Xicalanca people, who prospered between 650 and 900 AD, thanks in part to their strategic location on regional trade and transit routes. It’s believed that their forebears migrated to the area from the Gulf Coast, where anthropologists suspect they came in contact with Mayans. This is due to the artistic style of, and Mayan imagery in, the Cacaxtla murals. However, writing and artifacts found at the site suggest other influences, including Mixtec, Zapotec, and Teotihuacan.

A view of Xochitecatl from CacaxtlaVisitors to Cacaxtla today can view its remarkable murals and construction first-hand by walking an interconnected series of wooden planks and stairs across the gran basamento. Eleven paintings have been found to date. The site’s focal point — and its most famous artwork — is the Mural de la batalla, or “battle mural,” which spans more than 72 feet along the base of a temple platform. The mural covers nearly 270 square feet of surface area, making it the largest ever recovered in Mexico. The painting depicts well-armed jaguar warriors defeating defenseless bird warriors, some of whom are naked and dismembered.

All of Cacaxtla’s paintings (and visitors) are shielded from the sun and rain by a 118,500-square-foot suspended metal roof, which the INAH claims is the second largest of its kind, right after the one protecting the Terracotta Warriors in China. In May 2007, a fierce hailstorm prompted the south end of the roof to collapse, forcing the INAH to close the site for nearly a year; fortunately, the ruins suffered minimal damage and the roof received steel reinforcements. During the repairs, the INAH discovered that the gran basamento — which is 656 feet long, 361 feet wide, and 82 feet high — was built, layer upon layer, in more stages (five) than they’d originally thought (three).

Restaurante CacaxtlaThe site also maintains a modest museum of artifacts and scale models, as well as a gift shop, restrooms, and a mom-and-pop restaurant. Restaurante Cacaxtla serves delightful sangria and chilaquiles and affords patrons a wonderful view. The proprietor even lent our party of four several pairs of binoculars, so we could examine the volcanoes and valley floor from our table.

Xochitécatl: Pyramids With a View

A short drive — or a long precarious walk, which is discouraged — from Cacaxtla lies the even more prominent Xochitécatl. Built around 700 BC atop an extinct volcano, Xochitécatl predates Cacaxtla by at least four centuries, if not a millenium. The site appears to have been a purely ceremonial center for the surrounding area and, for us, has several interesting characteristics, namely loads of female idols and two exceptional pyramids.

Dozens of feminine figures were discovered at the Pyramid of Flowers.With its long pathways of lava rock and sweeping valley views, Xochitécatl is a little reminiscent of Cantona, albeit far more compact and less remote. Its one-room museum contains a fine selection of the dozens of clay figurines that archaeologists recovered on the steps of the site’s main structure, the Pyramid of Flowers. (This is the pyramid you can see from the highway.) The figures represent women of all ages, many dressed in elaborate costumes, and some with babies in the womb, suggesting tributes to Xóchitl, a goddess of flowers and fertility. In addition, about a dozen stone statues representing humans and animals are on exhibit outside.

Spiral BuildingJust past the museum and to the left is the Spiral Building, a circular stepped pyramid (rare in Mexico) made up almost entirely of volcanic ash inside. A modern staircase enables visitors to go to the top without following the spiral in laps around the outside, the ancient way. According to the INAH, the building was probably a temple to a wind god named Ehécatl. In 1632, a Christian cross was erected on top; many sources say that the stone symbol has stood there for centuries, but during our visit it was notably absent. Apparently, the cross is removed for celebrations in the town of San Rafael Tenanyecac below. Marco A. Mena, the secretary of tourism in Tlaxcala, explains that this year the cross was taken down in April for a May 3 church celebration and returned to its perch on June 12.

The view of La Maliche volcano from the Pyramid of Flowers.Directly across the open plaza from the Spiral Building sits the larger, more traditional-looking Pyramid of Flowers. Built from rounded boulders, the pyramid is believed to have served as a place of ritualistic sacrifices; the bodies of nearly 30 children were found here. Perhaps the most memorable part of our visit to Xochitécatl was standing on this pyramid’s summit, from which we could enjoyed unobstructed view of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and its Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Maliche. We suspect that, on a extremely clear days, Pico de Orizaba is visible in the distance, too.

Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl are located about 21 miles northwest of the Puebla capital, off the federal highway to Mexico City. (See map.) Both sites are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. General admission is 49 pesos per person Monday through Saturday and free on Sundays; if you buy a ticket to one site, you may visit the other on the same day for no additional charge. Parking in the lot outside Cacaxtla’s entrance costs 30 pesos; at Xochitécatl, it’s free. Bring water and wear sunscreen.

Post updated June 16, 2011.

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Finding Archaeological Treasure in Cantona

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

One of the volcanic-rock pyramids at Cantona.Cantona is one of the largest urban settlements ever discovered in Mesoamerica, sprawling across nearly five square miles of remote, arid land in northeastern Puebla. Yet the remarkable ruins are rarely visited, despite being described by people who have been there as well-preserved, mysterious, beautiful, and relatively easy to get to by car from the capital. In fact, on the afternoon that our small group toured the site, we were the only ones there (aside from a few workers). This meant we had the grounds — and the breathtaking views — to ourselves, which is not something most travelers would complain about.

Cantona was once an active commercial center in central Mexico. Experts believe that the fortified metropolis, perhaps founded by the Olmecs or the Chichimecs around A.D. 50, thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries. At its peak, some 80,000 people lived there. “Its prosperity depended to a great extent on the mining and trade of obsidian extracted from the Oyameles and Zaragoza deposits, located only [three miles] from the city,” Mexican archaeologists noted in their application to have Cantona designated as an official UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2001. “In this sense, it was competing with Teotihuacan, which mined and traded obsidian extracted from the Sierra de las Navajas, in the state of Hidalgo.” (Obsidian was used to produce arrowheads, knife blades, and other tools throughout central Mexico.)

French explorer Henri de Saussure claimed to have discovered Cantona in 1855, but the site was a secret only to outsiders; locals had known of its existence for centuries. Indeed, the name Cantona may be derived from the Nahuatl word caltonal, or “sun house,” which seems to make sense, given the site’s location on a desert-like plain near the Puebla-Veracruz border. Nonetheless, formal excavation didn’t begin until the 1990s and remains far from complete today.

“It’s difficult to decide which aspect of this old city is the most amazing: the intricate network of streets and avenues lined with sidewalls, the ingenious way it takes advantage of the topography … or the combination of volcanic rock with yucca or pine for construction.” —Mexico Desconocido

Cantona is a maze of patios, pyramids, and ball courts connected by walkways.Cantona comprises many small pyramids built from volcanic rock and features at least two dozen ball courts, the most ever recorded in ancient Mexico. Nearly half a million ceramic vessels have been found to date. The site also contains more than 100 civic and religious plazas, 2,000 patios (living spaces), and 20 different known gateways or points of access.

“Cantona possesses an extensive and complex network of communication routes, from large avenues to small alleys,” Jimena Acevedo wrote recently in the national travel magazine Mexico Desconocido. “There are around 500 streets that perfectly connect all of the points in the city and lead to its highest part, where the important structures, like temples, ball courts, and rulers’ houses stood. Some of the avenues are actually more than a kilometer long and others connect this old city with diverse towns nearby.”

The Cantona site today is located between the towns of Tepeyahualco and Coyoaco. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is less than 50 pesos. To get there by car from the city of Puebla, take Highway 150 east to the Amozoc toll booth, then Highway 129 north (toward Teziutlán). When you get to Oriental, take the local road toward Tepeyahualco and then follow signs to Cantona. Public transportation is not a great option of reaching this isolated area. Hint: You’ll need take buses as far as you can, and then hire a taxi to go the distance. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) appears to be offering some expert-led tours in English; inquire ahead.

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Burning Man Meets County Fair in Cholula

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Conquering a continent isn’t easy, especially when its indigenous people do not subscribe to your belief system. Back in the 16th century, the Spaniards decided that the best way to overcome religious dissent in the New World was to dismantle or diminish important indigenous structures. In Cholula, one of the oldest continually occupied sites in the Americas, Cortes and his cohorts built a Catholic church on top of the Great Pyramid and started honoring their own patron saint (in this case, the virgin of the remedies) on the same day that the locals paid homage to their most revered gods.

Fast-forward a few hundred years and ancient and modern beliefs have fused into a single, glorious celebration. The festivities begin a week prior, when Cholutecans from various neighborhoods lead a midnight procession through town, bearing lanterns and images of the virgin. Much to everyone’s relief, we imagine, the practice of sacrificing a local resident to Quetzalcoatl or another pre-Hispanic god on Sept. 8 — now the virgin’s feast day in Cholula — has evolved into an entirely symbolic gesture. After the final Mass celebrated at the church, worshipers today burn a chubby paper-mâché doll with fireworks instead of offing a real person. This human stand-in, called el panzón for its big belly, is stuffed with apples that fall out as the doll goes up in flames.

A vendor sells regional breads at the Cholula street fair.

“The annual fair of Cholula is a sample of the folklore and the way of life of the people from this area,” city officials say.

People from all parts of Puebla and adjacent states travel to Cholula to pay their respects to the virgin and the ancient religious site. The market that centuries ago naturally occurred at the base of the pyramid, as the result of so many merchants and farmers coming to town, in 1950 evolved into an annual regional fair. The 2010 Feria Milenaria runs through Sept. 16 in San Pedro Cholula. The line of street vendors literally stretches from the pyramid, up the main drag, to the zócalo. Visitors can sample all sorts of regional specialties, from pan de nata to pulque, purchase arts & crafts and household wares, and enjoy carnival-style thrill rides. The city’s tourism chief told local press that he expects 100,000 people to attend this year.

Photo credit (El Panzón): Isabel Muñiz Montero, 2007

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Cholula: More Than Just a Hot Sauce

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

From a distance, the Great Pyramid of Cholula looks like a grassy knoll.It’s one of the longest-inhabited sites in the Americas, home of the world’s largest pyramid, and one of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos.” Yet more people may recognize Cholula for the popular hot sauce (made in Jalisco, not Puebla) that’s named after it than for the historically significant place it is. Even Mexicans have been known to overlook it. In a 2010 special edition about the country’s “most spectacular” archaeological zones, Dónde Ir de Viaje magazine neglected to even mention Cholula.

“Cholula is not only the oldest continuously occupied ceremonial center in the western hemisphere, but in some respects, one of the most enigmatic,” John Pohl wrote for the Foundation of Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “The Acropolis, even larger than Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun, is a confounding mass of Pre-Classic to Early Post- Classic brick and masonry that defies conventional excavation, while a Late Post-Classic city is buried beneath the ever expanding urban growth of the modern community.”

In fact, it’s quite possible to miss the massive Great Pyramid of Cholula even if you’re staring right at it. The structure, overgrown with natural vegetation for centuries, looks like a grassy knoll from a distance. Archaeologists can’t unearth the monument, which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest ever constructed, because Spanish conquerors built a church on top of it in 1594. Today, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is both a protected Colonial monument and a destination for Catholic pilgrims. To study the pyramid, whose Nahuatl name is Tlachihualtepetl or “artificial mountain,” archaeologists dug nearly 5 miles of tunnels. Visitors may pass through a portion of them, though anyone prone to claustrophobia should stick to the exterior grounds, which are partially exposed. The MX$30 entry fee also includes admission to the site’s museum, which features a scale model of the pyramid’s multistage construction, reproductions of the two large murals found deep inside the structure, and other artifacts. Most of the signs and descriptions are translated into English. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. To get to the museum from the ticket booth, head across the street and down the stairs to the right of the public restrooms.

You can, of course, also go up to the Church of Our Lady of the Remedies, which is a steep but relatively quick climb. On a clear day, the views of the surrounding metropolis and the volcanoes in the distance are breathtaking. If Mass is not being celebrated, visitors may pass through the sanctuary, where you’ll find a collection of dolls representing virgin saints and can peer through the unusual glass-backed altar out into the nave. (Note that flash photography is strictly forbidden.) On weekends, the area behind the pyramid is a hub of activity: Street vendors often set up arts and crafts booths, and a team of voladores regularly treats onlookers to their flying ritual. If you’re in town this weekend, May 15 and 16, don’t miss the hot-air balloon fair, Festival Globo Mágico, which takes place here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is MX$35; balloon rides cost MX$200 (a quick lift) to MX$2,000 (hour-long tour).

The Area’s Backstory, in Brief

Experts have long disputed the timeline of Cholula’s evolution, but it’s now believed that the area has been inhabited since at least 100 A.D., possibly much earlier. Through the ages, various indigenous groups established Cholula as an important religious, economic, and political center. Between 600 and 700 A.D., the site appears to have grown from a small settlement into a regional hub. Then from 750 to 950 A.D., Cholula expanded rapidly as Olmeca-Xicalanca rulers “exploited a power vacuum created by their fallen rival, Teotihuacán,” Pohl notes. The acropolis thrived, alongside contemporary sites like El Tajín, until the Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples moved into the area and relocated the ceremonial altar around 1100 A.D. “Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador,” Pohl explains.

Between 1150 and 1500 A.D., Cholula emerged as the region’s power center — one so important that Aztec royalty traveled there to be anointed by Cholulan priests. The area’s population had swelled to nearly 100,000, making it the second-largest city outside of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, a.k.a. Mexico City. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his army (and its indigenous allies, including the Tlaxcaltecans) took over with a bloody massacre, burning much of the city and killing thousands of people.

These days, Cholula comprises three municipalities — San Andrés, San Pedro, and Santa Isabel — which some 200,000 people call home. Over the past decade, the once mostly rural area has developed into the major suburb of Puebla. And, thanks in large part to the 7,000 students from affluent families who attend the University of the Americas Puebla each semester, Cholula also has a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants, cantinas, and nightclubs abound along the main drag, which changes names several times (14 Oriente, 14 Poniente, Morelos) as it stretches from the Periferico highway to the heart of San Pedro Cholula.

In October 2012, Cholula (a zone around the pyramid that encompasses the archaeological site and the main squares of San Andrés and San Pedro) was named a “pueblo mágico” by the federal tourism board.

Post updated on December 23, 2012.

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