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Mayan Magic and Aztec Amazements


“Look!  It must be one of the most breathtaking sights in the world!  You know!  It was the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán!”  Pedro, my Mexican relative, motioned with his hand at the panorama of Mexico City’s huge Plaza de la Constitution, better known as the Zócalo. 

I looked in astonishment at the sweeping vista before us.  From our vantage point, the roof top restaurant of the Hotel Majestic, the gigantic Square before us, teeming with life and hugged by historic buildings, was a stunning picture of Mexico’s heart.  Built atop the ruins of a large temple complex, the Zócalo has witnessed a continuum of historic development since the 14th century, when it was first settled by the Aztecs – the last of the great Indian civilizations in the Americas. 

On this site, the Aztecs developed the heart of their majestic capital.   When Cortez, the Spanish conqueror, came in the 16th century, it was a city of 300,000 with 80 palaces and temples – larger than any contemporary urban centre in Europe.

After the Spanish conquest, the Aztec town of palaces and pyramids was razed and from its stones a new city was built around the Square.  The structures were erected by the conquerors on the exact sites and used for the same functions as the demolished buildings. 

The small town grew and evolved until today it is one of the world’s great capitals and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere.  The builders of that first colonial town in the Americas, in their wildest dreams, would never have visualized today’s city of some 22 million – the largest city on earth. 

Today, the Aztec age is being uncovered in the Temple Mayor archaeological site at the northeast corner of the Zócalo.  Here, in the heart of the once dazzling city of Tenochtitlán, was the main ceremonial pyramid of that Aztec city.

Two square city blocks have been excavated but work is continuing.  The most recent discovery were two large chambers containing over 61 m (200 ft) of decorative carvings painted over five centuries ago.  In addition to the remains uncovered on the site, 3,000 unearthed artifacts are on display at the excellent nearby museum. 

Exploring the Aztec remains inspired me to look further into Mexico’s indigenous past.  Hence, the next morning I was excited and in an up-lifted mood as our bus left for the ruins of Teotihuacán, the remains of the first true urban centre in the Americas.

“Today, we’re going to the abode of the gods”, Jorge, our guide grinned as we boarded the mini bus on our way to the ruins of Teotihuacán, called by the Aztecs `the Pace of the Gods’.  I was intrigued.  `Place of the Gods?’  It sounded appealing!

Soon we were passing, on both sides of the road, mile after mile of shanty towns sprawled on hillsides as far as the eye could see.  “How do the people in these huts make a living and how do they get to town?”  I asked Jorge.  He smiled, “They peddle goods or have menial jobs in the city.  They get there by subway.  We have 190 kilometres of subway lines and it costs only 1.5 pesos to any point in town, but the cars are always crowded.”  Grinning, he continued, “It’s the cheapest place in the world to have both a sauna bath and a massage for only 18 US cents.”

Some 48 km (30 mi) from Mexico City, we came to Teotihuacán, believed by the Aztecs to have been the place where men became gods.  Entering the ruins, we passed a sign stating, `Welcome to the City of the Gods’.  For visitors like us, it is an appropriate invitation to Mexico’s most popular tourist attraction and that country’s first true city.

The 34 sq km (13 sq mi) Teotihuacán, the most awe-inspiring archeological site in Mexico, was the first major city in the Western Hemisphere.  Flourishing between 500 B.C. and 700 A.D., it served as the religious, political and commercial mecca of  the country, spreading its influence well into Central America.  With 200,000 inhabitants, it was the most advanced urban centre of its time until much of the city was mysteriously burned in the late 8th century.  Thereafter, it became a ghost town and it was in ruins when the Aztecs discovered it centuries later.  They named it Teotihuacán (Place of the Gods), believeing that from this ceremonial city the gods created the world.

For visitors there is much to see and do in this oldest city in the Americas.  Included in all the tours are: the Temple of the Sun, a massive 66 m (215 ft) high pyramid, the smaller but equally awesome 111 step Temple of the Moon, the Grand Avenue of the Dead, edged on both sides by small temples dedicated to various gods, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl with its enormous ornamental snake heads.  All these reconstructed temples retain only about 20% of the original structures – the remaining 80% is restoration. 

As I huffed and puffed struggling up the steep 245 steps to reach the top of the Temple of the Sun, I thought that time had passed me by and that I should not have tried such a foolhardy climb. Nevertheless, this was soon forgotten when I heard a half dozen teenagers passing me complaining of how the climb was killing them.  Their complaints revived my sagging spirits as I followed them upward.  If they were protesting, why at the age of 74 should I complain?.

At the top, where the ancient priests once stood, I breathed the clean cool air – a great relief from Mexico City’s smog – and surveyed the scene.  Downward below me, the Avenue of the Dead looked like a thin line edged by tiny structures and dominated at one end by the Temple of the Moon – dwarfing all other structures.  Beyond, the green hills of the countryside hugged the ruins in a loving embrace.  It was a fantastic adieu to the ancient city where it is said `the gods were born’.

Continuing on my odyssey, the next day I flew to Villahermosa, capital of the Mexican State of Tabasco – no connection with the fiery Tabasco sauce said to have been invented in the U.S. State of Louisiana.  The city’s proximity to the ruins of Palenque and, above all, its Olmec past had for years made it a mecca for which I longed.

The Olmecs, one of the oldest and most important cultures in the Americas, flourished  during the pre-classic period – 2000 B.C. to 200 A.D.  Honoured as the mother culture of Mesoamerica and the model for future `Indian’ civilizations, they invented the pyramid, ball courts and the numerical and cylindrical systems in the Americas. 

Their civilization became known as the culture of the jaguar and jade due to the jaguar theme running through all their sculptures and a collection of jade found in their ruins at La Venta in Tabasco.  They established the first art style in the Western Hemisphere, chiselling their monumental works without the use of metal tools. 

No vestige of their writings have been found and their history and lifestyle remains an enigma.  However, they have left behind enormous sculptures, especially those found at La Venta, one of their once important, but now lost cities of earthen pyramids – some 100 km (61 mi) west of Villahermosa .          

The main Olmec treasures found in this city have been transplanted to the superbly designed Parque La Venta – a world of tropical gardens just outside Villahermosa.  In a small museum and amid a variety of animals, lush greenery, orchids and other flowers are now located these Olmec ceramic figurines, mosaics, sculptures of jaguars and priests, stelae, tombs and ceremonial stone altars – reminiscent of those of ancient Mesopotamia.  Topping all these ancient treasures are three colossal stone heads – the largest over 22 tons – carved out of basalt rock.

For me, it was a gratifying experience exploring these Olmec treasures before travelling the next day to Palenque, the most famous ruins of the Maya, some 149 km (93 mi) from Villahermosa. 

My first glimpse of Palenque, one of the most celebrated and spectacular of Maya archaeological sites, took my breath away.  The ruins rose up on artificial terraces from a fertile plateau in a majestic postcard of beauty.  An enchanting relic from the Maya past, it gripped my very soul. 

Palenque’s monumental roof-combed structures of white rock, semi-hidden by the luscious rainforest, have inspired many travellers to write that `they are the most haunting and dramatic ruins  in all of Mexico’.  Called the `Jewel of Maya Cities’, its setting is incomparable.

Palenque’s architecture and sculptures, unique in beauty and technical perfection among the Maya remains, glisten like jewels against the emerald velvet of the countryside.  To many historians, they mark the architectural apogee of the Western Maya Empire.  The ruins are so impressive that they have for over 150 years dazzled countless travellers.  Possessing a mesmerizing quality, they make Palenque the most magical of Maya cities.

The ruins cover 65 sq km (25 sq mi), but only 15% – 34% of the city’s 500 major structures – have been excavated.  The town was named Palenque by the Spaniards when they saw the trees growing out of the ruins like tall stakes – the Maya called it Na-Chan or Gho-Chan (Head of the Snake).  These great Central American builders erected it as a ceremonial centre for high priests during the Maya Classic Period – 300 to 900 A.D.  Reaching its peak between 600 and 700, it was for some, as yet, unknown reason, deserted in the ninth century. 

Today, among the most important buildings excavated are the Temple of the Count; the Temple of Inscriptions, the most famous of the structures; the Temple of the Sun, with the best preserved roof combs; the impressive Palace with over 176 items of stone carvings; the Temple of the Jaguar with bas reliefs and motifs similar to Oriental art; and Temple XIV, containing stucco reliefs associated with the death of Pakal.

The Temple of the Inscriptions comprises a nine-tiered pyramid 23 m (75 ft) high and contains a famous royal mausoleum – the only pyramid in Mexico built specifically as a tomb.  Well preserved and restored, the temple was named after a series of stone panels covered with 620 hieroglyphic inscriptions which were found inside the top storey walls.  They contained Palenque’s history and the family tree of King Pakal whose crypt was unearthed in 1952 by the archeologist Alberto Ruíz Thuller inside the temple.  The tomb, the first ever discovered inside a Maya pyramid, had lain untouched for a millennium.

Palenque’s rise from a small ceremonial centre to a renowned Maya city owes much to  the most celebrated of its rulers, Pakal (603 to 683) and his successors, Bahlum and Kuk. Called the `Mesoamerica Charlemagne’, Pakal, after ascending the throne at the age of 15, reigned for some 67 years.  His burial vault, covered by a monolithic sepulchral slab, 3.5 m (10 ft) long and 2.5 m 7 ft) wide, was found below the temple floor.  A plaster pipe ran along the stairway to the tomb and was meant for air for the four men and a women who were to accompany him on his journey through the underworld.  They were killed and left at the entrance to the crypt – to the modern mind illogical.  Why would air be needed for the dead?.  

One of the most famous of the Maya kings, his burial vault yielded many fine objects.  From among the jewels and other exquisite objects found in the tomb were the famous diadem and majestic jade and obsidian masks, now in Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology.

At the tomb we bid adieu to Palenque and the end of following the trail of Mexico’s indigenous Indian civilizations.  Without doubt, it added the finishing touch to the remembrance of the greatness of America’s indigenous peoples who once strode the Americas with heads held high.

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