Saturday, November 26, 2016

Mexico City's Original Villages | Tlatelolco: Where Empires Clashed

When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish troops arrived in the Valley of Anáhuac (now the Valley of Mexico) in 1519, Tlatelolco was the sister city of Tenochtitlan. Its excavated remains are located two kilometers (about a mile) north of Tenochtitlán (now represented by the remains of the Templo Mayor, in Centro Histórico). Today. Tlatelolco is surrounded by modern apartment buildings and major boulevards. We might have taken Metro Line 3 to get there, but we chose a taxi instead.

Mexica temples of Tlatelolco (14th century) stand in front of Church of Santiago, St. James.
The Franciscans first built a "hermitage", a small chapel. 

It was replaced by a larger church in 1545 and enlarged further in 1609.
Convent stands to the right.

(See: Portraying Mexico City's Azteca/Mexica Origins)

A Center of the Spiritual Conquest

After the Spanish conquered the Mexicas in August, 1521, they immediately razed to the ground all the temples and pyramids of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. They claimed the center of Tenochitilan for themselves and built their own temples and palaces above the ruins. Tlatelolco was assigned as a barrio for the defeated Mexicas, so the Franciscans soon built a church and convent (monastery) at the sacred and now culturally and politically crucial site.

The convent was established as the Imperial College of the Holy Cross, a school to educate the sons of Aztec noblemen in Spanish culture and train them for the priesthood, a core strategy of the Spiritual Conquest, to convert indigenous religious beliefs and culture into a Spanish Catholic one. According to legend, it was to this convent that Juan Diego, an indigenous convert, was headed in December 1531, from Tepeyac, on the northern shore of Lake Texcoco, when he was confronted by a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the quintessential representative of the Spiritual Conquest.

It is telling that when the indigenous students began surpassing their Spanish teachers, the Spanish king and Church hierarchy found ways to restrict the curriculum. Eventually, they closed the school entirely.

Interior patio of the Franciscan convent, 
Imperial College of the Holy Cross

The convent also became a center for the study of Mesoamerican cultures. It was here that the Franciscan priest Bernardo de Sahagún wrote his History of the Things of New Spain, the seminal work on Aztec culture that remains a highly regarded source text.

Contemporary Plaza of Three Cultures

In recent times Tlatelolco was renamed Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures) because the structures there give living testimony to the cross-cultural process that created mestizaje, racial mixing, in Mexico. Most Mexicans regard themselves as mestizo, as having both indigenous and Spanish ancestors.

The ruins of the original center of Tlatelolco are dwarfed, on their south side, by a modern office tower that formerly housed the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, but today is occupied by a campus of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). On the east side sits the Church and Convent of Santiago Tlatelolco, the colonial hinge between the country's Mexica-Aztec heritage and today's Republic of Mexico.

The plaza at Tlatelolco has been the setting of three tragic events in Mexican history, one ancient and two modern, making it a symbolic place of much emotional power:
  • August 13, 1521: After their defeat at Tenochtitlán, the Mexicas fled to Tlatelolco where they again faced the Spanish and their indigenous allies seeking to overthrow Mexica domination; overrun, the Mexicas, led by huey tlatoani, "head speaker" Cuauhtémoc, surrendered; 
  • October 2, 1968: Just before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the Mexican Army opened fire on a student demonstration, killing hundreds of students; 
  • September 19, 1985: major earthquake (7.8 Richter) shook Mexico City; several Tlatelolco high-rise apartment buildings, built in the 1970s, collapsed like accordions—the tragic consequence of builders who had lined their pockets by taking shortcuts with building materials and methods; the death toll was in the thousands.
Sign reads:

"On August 13, 1521, 

heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc, 
Tlateloloco fell under the power of Hernán Cortés.
Neither a triumph nor defeat; 
it was the painful birth of the mestizo people
that is Mexico today."
Source: Eduardo Aguilar-Moreno, Aztec Architecture;
Photo: Fernando González y González.

A Short History of Tlatelolco


Tlatelolco lay about one mile north
of its sister Mexica atepetl of Tenochtitlán,
originally on a separate island.
After the Tenochtecas defeated the Tlatelolcas in 1473, 

it was politically and physically joined to Tenochtitlán.

Like Tenochtitlán, Tlatelolco was built on a muddy island in Lake Texcoco. In the middle of the 14th century A.D., a group of Mexicas split off from the main tribe who had founded Tenochtitlán in 1325.
The dissidents didn't go far. They established their new community about a mile north of their home city and named it Tlatelolco—some scholars assert that the name derives from the word tlatelli, meaning 'built-up mound of earth'. And, after all, they were still Mexicas. So it's not surprising that their founding myth parallels Tenochtitlán's:
...a whirlwind had led them to an island with a sandy mound upon which rested a round shield, an arrow, and an eagle—strongly reminiscent of Tenochtitlán's cactus, eagle, and snake.
They petitioned Tezozómoc, the tlatoani, chief speaker of Aztcapotzalco, a Tepanec atepetl on the west side of the lake, for a king who would link them to the historic dynasties of central Mexico. From Aztcapotzalco, the Tepanec, another Nahuatl speaking group, controlled the west side of Lake Texcoco. Tezozómoc gave them his son, Cuacuapitzáhuac, who was also kin to Tenochtitlán's dynastic clan [Andrew Coe, Archaeological Mexico, p. 86].

Under their new ruler, Tlatelolco became part of the Valley of Mexico's intricate network of tribute relationships. In return for its protection, its rulers had to pay tribute to Aztcapotzalco in both staples and luxury goods. The Tlatelolcans also had to fight for Aztcapotzalco against its rivals.

Tlatelolco Finds Its Niche: Trade and Tribute


Tenochtitlán was Tlatelolco's major rival. Fortunately, Cuacuapitzáhuac cannily identified an empty niche: trade. He established the first large-scale market and instituted what would become the Tlatelolcan tradition of pochtecas, or long-range merchants.
At first, the pochtecas confined their trips to the Valley of Anáhuac (now Valley of Mexico), but eventually they ranged to the very edges of Mesoamerica: east to the Gulf of Mexico (Veracruz); west to the Pacific Ocean; south to Oaxaca and Chiapas—even as far as present-day Guatemala and Honduras; and north as far as the deserts inhabited by the "Chichimeca" ("barbarian", hunter-gatherer) tribes. Not only did the pochtecas learn the language and customs of foreign tribes, but they often acted as spies by collecting strategic information in advance of the Mexica-Aztec army.
Eventually, Tlatelolco's pochtecas controlled long-distance trade in the luxury goods (quetzal feathers, turquoise) deemed essential for Mexica political and religious life. After the Mexica-Aztecs and their allies of Texcoco and Tacubaya defeated their principle rival, the Tepanecs of Aztcapotzalco, the Aztec hegemony spread throughout central Mexico spearheaded by Tenochtitlán warriors and Tlatelolco merchants, who established trade routes from newly conquered peoples back to the Valley of Mexico.
Cuacuapitzáhuac's son Tlacatéotl moved the city market into a large plaza near the main ceremonial center. At its new location, the market soon became the hub of an extensive trade network; quite probably, it was the largest market in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The level of activity in the market strains credulity. Every day, as many as 20,000 vendors and market-goers crowded into the market square. Every five days, it is estimated that closer to 50,000 or even 60,000 people passed through the market!

The stalls were similar to those seen on Mexican streets today—mats covered by fabric shades for protection against sun and rain. Vendors were of two types, artesans bringing the labor of their own hands and merchants bringing wares from outside the city.

There was no money as such. Exchanges were arranged either by trueque (barter), or by using cacao seeds or salt as the medium of exchange. The Tlaltelolco market also had a tecpan, or house of judges, that resolved disputes and dealt with robberies, or whatever other issues that might arise. Punishments were severe and swift. The punishment for robbery was mandatory death by stoning.

Tlatelolco Loses Its Independence


In the 1420s, the Tenochtecas formed their famous Triple Alliance with the the Tepanec atepetl of Tlacopan, just south of Aztcapotzalco, and the atepetl of Texcoco, developed by the originally Otomí-speaking Acolhua people on the east side of the Lake. Together, they defeated Aztcapotzalco and took control of its tributary atepetls and villages. Tlatelolco remained an independent sister city-state.

However, in 1473, Tlatelolco was taken over by Tenochtitlán and then administered by a military governor. The new arrangement didn't affect the Tlatelolcan merchants, who continued to travel and bring back wares from throughout Mesoamerica. But Tlatelolco did lose important rights as an independent city-state—most significantly, the right to collect tribute and the right to perform important religious rites. In war, Tlatelolco's proud warriors were demoted to porters.

Tlatelolco, however, continued to play an important role for the dominant Tenochtecas. In fact, on Hernán Cortés's first visit to Tenochtitlán, the ruler Moctezuma the Younger took the Spaniards to visit the Tlatelolco market. Bernal Díaz, a soldier with Cortés, later wrote:
"...we were astounded at the great number of people and good quantities of merchandise, and at the orderliness and good arrangements that prevailed, for we had never seen such a thing before."
Taken to the top of Tlatelolco's great pyramid, the Spaniards enjoyed an excellent view of the entire city and the surrounding lake. Díaz wrote:
"We saw [pyramids] and shrines in these cities that looked like gleaming white towers and castles: a marvelous sight."
In the face of the Spanish incursion, Tlatelolco remained loyal to Tenochtitlán. When, in 1521, Hernán Cortés and his soldiers returned to attack Tenochtitlán, along with thousands of warriors from other city-states fed up with harsh Mexica rule, Tlatelolco remained on the side of Tenochtitlán.

Tlatelolco: A Walk Through Space and Time

Serious archaeological work began at Tlatelolco in 1944 and continues to the present day.

Archaeological investigation at Tlatelolco:
Worker cleaning an artifact—Yes, he's using a Q-Tip!

Like other indigenous ceremonial centers in Mexico, Tlatelolco was designed to reflect the Mesoamerican cosmovision. The diagram below shows the layout. The yellow line is the walkway that visitors follow through the site. The site is oriented to the four cardinal directions: visitors enter at the southwest corner; both the Great Temple and the altar of Santiago-Tlatelolco Church face east. The modern office tower rises on the south side (lower right).

Site map of Tlatelolco ceremonial precinct (green) with
Santiago (St. James) church and Franciscan convent (red).

In our amble through the site we pay particular notice to: (1) Temple of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl; (3) Tzompantli Altar - south; (4) Temple of the Calendar; (5) Priest's Palace; (7) core Great Temple Pyramid; (8) Successive pyramid walls constructed over time. The unnumbered blue rectangle in front of the convent is the Sacred Well, discussed below.

Temple Of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl (1)


The first temple we encounter is one that was dedicated to Ehécatl, the wind deity, who was a manifestation of Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent. The temple consisted of a semicircular base that wound into a circular staircase, platform and cone-like roof.

Its entrance was shaped like a snake’s mouth, symbolizing Quetzalcóatl. Construction of this temple dates back to the early times of Tlatelolco. Other structures were subsequently built over it.

Temple of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl
Ehécatl is the manifestation of Quetzalcóatl as the wind.

Temples dedicated to Ehécatl, god of wind, are generally of a circular shape to reflect the swirling wind. Since winds come just before the rains, Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl and Tlaloc (god of water) often appeared together—as they did, for example, at the dual pyramid, Temple of the Feathered Serpent, at Teotihuacán. Here at Tlatelolco, deposed from his primal role at Tlaloc's side, Quezalcóatl was assigned his own, secondary temple space.    

Spiral from the back wall of Great Temple.
Spirals symbolize the whirling winds of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl.

Tzompantli Altar - South (3)


This altar is one of two; the other is on the north side of the site.

Tzompantli, site of a wooden skullrack.
White columns in the background belong to office building.
Its construction involved razing some smaller temples on the site.

According to Mary Miller and Karl Taube (The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p. 176):
"One of the more striking structures of Mesoamerican public architecture was the tzompantli, or skullrack. This was a wooden scaffold containing human skulls pierced horizontally by crossbeams.... 
"In the Quiché Maya popul vuh [story of the origins of the Maya, beginning with Creation], the severed head of the hun hunapu [father of the legendary twins who created  corn and humanity] was hung in a gourd tree next to the ballcourt. This gourd tree is clearly a reference to the tzompantli filled with human skulls. In Nahuatl, the term for head is tzontecomatl, with tecomatl signifying gourd tree. It appears that, like the Sumbanese skull trees of Indonesia, the tzompantli was considered as a tree laden with fruit."

Temple of the Calendar (4)


The next structure that greets us is the Temple of the Calendar. It was an especially significant structure because one of the primary duties of the priests was establishing and maintaining the temporal structure of life and the culture.

The Temple of the Calendar bears the symbols of the Tonalpohualli (divinatory) calendar. The Mexica-Aztecs, as did all the peoples of Mesoamerica, used two calendars:
  • The Xiuhpohualli was the Solar Calendar, which consisted of 360 days divided into eighteen, twenty-day "months"—each month presided over by a god, whose festival was celebrated that month. The Solar Calendar was also used to organize commerce and date the all-important tribute collections. 
  • The Tonalpohualli was the Divinatory Calendar, which consisted of 260 days—possibly based on the human gestation period—created by combining a sequence of twenty day-names with the numbers one to thirteen in rotation. This calendar was used to foretell the fate of individuals based on their date of birth. 
Priests also consulted the Divinatory Calendar in advance of government or family actions to be taken—to wage war, for example, or to celebrate a royal wedding—in order to determine the day's balance of favorable and unfavorable energy. When a date was characterized by unfavorable energy, the energy balance could be ritually addressed to influence a more favorable destiny.
    Temple of the Calendar 

    Representations of day-names, inscribed on three sides, were originally painted in blues, reds and whites. Following are some of the inscriptions of day-names and number combinations. The number is indicated by circles at the margin.

    One-Itzcuintli (One-Dog)


    Two-Tochtli (Two-Rabbit)

    Four-Ollín (Four-Motion, or Life-Force).
    The center of the symbol is a circle 
    representing the axis mundi, world axis, 
    which links the heavenly plane (above) 
    with the earthly plane (horizontal 'bar') 
    and the underworld (below).

    Cuauhtli (Eagle)

    The temple base also had multi-colored paintings with figures that relate to Tlatelolco's history. 

    Priests' Residential Complex (5)


    Each deity in the ceremonial precinct had its own priests, who were housed within the ceremonial precinct. Priests were responsible for maintenance of the temples associated with the cult of the deity to which they belonged.

    The residential structure for the priests consisted of an altar and two sections adjoined by a central corridor with a chimney like area for burning wood.

    Priests' Residential Complex

    Behind (east of) the priests' complex was the sacred well:
    "[It] resembles a ... swimming pool, [with a staircase] that leads to the sacred well...approximately 3 meters [almost 10 feet] wide. Scholars believe it may have been used for ablution practices or as a sacred spring." Eduardo Aguilar-Moreno
    Because of Mesoamericans' dependence on agriculture, water has been a primary concern from earliest times. Oceans, mountains and springs were worshiped as sources of water.

    Tlatelolco's Great Temple (7), (8)


    Tlatelolco's ceremonial complex was dominated by a typical Mexica double pyramid similar to the Great Temple at Tenochtitlán in Centro Histórico:

    Following the walkway, we pass the 'layers' of expansions (8) 
    to Tlatelolco's Great Temple, added by successive rulers. 
    The large rectangular platform at the back is the original Temple (7).

    Double Staircase of Great Temple.
    The near staircase (which has a split to show yet another level beneath)
    ascended to the temple of Huitzilopochtli (sun god and god of war); 
    on the far side is the staircase to the temple of Tlaloc (water god).

    Since 1978, the prominent Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma has been in charge of excavation of Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor. Writing in 1988, Matos observed that the pairing of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli represents the essential duality fundamental to the Mesoamerican cosmovision in general and to the Mexica-Aztec cosmovision in particular. As a pair, Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli represent key dualities: water and war; food and tribute; hence, life and death. Stated differently,
    • Tlaloc (Water God) = Water yields yields Food (maíz, corn) which yields Life
    • Huitzilopochtli (Sun God, God of War) = War yields Death and Tribute 
    This duality represents a tectonic shift in the Mesoamerican cosmovision. Before the late-arriving Mexica-Aztecs ascended to power in 1430, the Mesoamerican deities were forces of nature—Tlaloc, god of water; Quetzalcóatl-Ehécatl, god of wind, etc. But the Mexica-Aztec god Huitzilopochtli is a political god, a god of war—hence, a god of power based on military conquest and, as noted earlier, a god of economic power grounded in tribute. The parallels between the basic assumptions of the Mexica-Aztec empire and how the Spanish king would come to view Nueva España, as a souce of imperial income, are striking.

    Double Staircase of Great Temple.

    Note the short 'runs' and steep 'rises' of the stairs. 
    The steep pitch was intentional, 
    to remind climbers that they were ascending 
    to where they would encounter the gods.

    The modern tower in the background formerly housed
    Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs;
    today it is a campus of Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM)
    and houses the new, outstanding Site Museum of Tlatelolco

    Back and side walls of Great Temple pyramid. 

    Stones and Symbols of a World Transformed

    Our amble though Tlatelolco has given us as direct an encounter as is possible with representations of the indigenous political, cultural and religious foundations of Mexico and their attempted replacement by the parallel political, cultural and religious world of imperial Catholic Spain. All of this is surrounded by high-rise office towers and apartment buildings that bespeak modern Mexico. The space is aptly named the Plaza of the Three Cultures.

    It is sobering and moving to come face to face with the landmarks of these confrontations and transformations, so vividly manifested in timeless stone and changing symbols.

    Tlatelolco's ruins are marked by yellow star.
    Blue area around it is contemporary Colonia Tlatelolco.
    Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor is marked by blue star.
    Yellow area around it is Centro Histórico and its four adjacent subdivisions.

    See also:
    Tlatelolco: Twin City of Aztec Capital, an earlier version of this post, on Jenny's Journal of Mexican Culture, which contains additional references to source materials.
    Aztec Stone of the Five Suns for more information on the Mesoamerican calendars, (Jenny's Journal of Mexican Culture). 

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