Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 5: Plaza Xicoténcatl and the Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

Plaza Xicoténcatl is named for a famous warrior-general. Xicoténcatl Axayacatzín (also known as the The Younger) was the chief military leader of the Tlaxcalteca when the Spanish arrived. The Plaza Xicoténcatl is adjacent to Plaza de la Constitution, at the larger plaza's southeast corner. In this posting, we will take a look at this lovely plaza, as well as Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and the Jorge Aguilar Bullring.


The tree-shaded plaza contains a large fountain on one end. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, stores, and museums. When the Spanish marched into Tlaxcalteca territory, Xicoténcatl the Younger led two weeks of bitter fighting in an attempt to stop them. After repeated defeats, the ruling council of Tlaxcala, called the Four Lords, realized that they couldn't stop Cortés. Instead, they decided to become his allies against their traditional enemies, the Mexica (Aztecs). One of the Four Lords was the young military leader's father, Xicoténcatl the Elder.

Restaurante La Tavola occupies part of the east side of the plaza. This eatery has an awning-covered area that includes a large wooden burro. It is a magnet for visiting children. Unlike his father, Xicoténcatl the Younger never trusted the Spanish. During the fight to conquer the Mexica, he resisted their domination. As a result, Cortés ordered the young general to be hanged. There is no record of his father's reaction to this drastic action. However, the alliance between Tlaxcala and the Spanish continued. After their Revolution of 1910, Mexicans took another look at their native roots. Today, Xicoténcatl's spirit of resistance is honored by this plaza and by other statues and buildings, as well as in the formal name of the city itself, Tlaxcala de Xicoténcatl.



Restaurante La Casa Azul occupies the other half of the plaza's east side. The restaurant's name means "Blue House". Originally a 19th century Neo-Classical mansion, today it specializes in coffees and traditional Mexican dishes. Until about twenty years ago, the plaza in front of the restaurant was the site of Tlaxcala's tianguis, or open-air public market. In colonial times it served as a slave market.


Pulqueria La Tia Yola projects from the south side of Casa Azul. The name means "Aunt Yola's Pulque Place". A pulqueria serves a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant. Pulque has deep historical roots and was the main alcoholic drink of the pre-hispanic people of Mesoamerica. It remained popular among working class and rural people all through the colonial and early national period. However, in the late 19th century, German immigrants set up breweries. Cerveza (beer) is now more popular than pulque, but the traditional drink is still consumed all over Mexico.


Calzada San Francisco

Restaurante Yiandro and the entrance to Calzada San Francisco. Directly across from Pulqueria La Tia Yola is Restaurante Yiandro, on the south side of the plaza. Between them is the entrance to Calzada San Francisco, the tree-lined, cobblestone walkway that leads up to the Ex-Convento. 


Carole trudges up the Calzada. Although it is wide enough for vehicles, it is normally only used by pedestrians. We always enjoy finding serene andadores like this, where we don't have to dodge busy traffic. The Calzada is paved with a double line of cut cantera stone, set in a broad pathway of cobblestones. You can feel time dissolve as you make your way up to the 16th century convent complex.


The Cazada leads up to a triple archway that is the entrance to the Ex-convento. The arched entry is known as the Paso de Ronda. It connects the main Ex-Convento buildings with the stand-alone bell tower, out of view to the right. The Paso de Ronda contains a passageway to the tower. This architectural arrangement is unique in Mexico.


The bell tower at the end of the archway overlooks the city. It was built in three sections, with spaces for six bells in the campanario (belfry). The broad open space beyond the arches, called an atrium, was used in early colonial times to perform religious plays as a means to educate Tlaxcala's indigenous population in Catholicism.


Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

Scale model of the Ex-Convento. The model is located in the Museo de Memoria, located on the west side of Plaza Xicoténcatl.

At the lower left, you can see the top of the Calzada San Francisco and the three arches of the Paso de Ronda, extending out to the bell tower. The other end of the arched passage connects to convent buildings which now house the offices of the Catedral de Tlaxcala.

Near the center of the photo is the former cloister of the convent. Its entrance is framed by another three arches leading to a small atrium. The cloister now contains the Museo Regional de Tlaxcala.

To the right of the museum is Iglesia de la Señora de la Asunción (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption). This structure is one of the oldest parts of the Ex-Convento. Three parallel chapels extend out from its right side. To the right of the church entrance is the small Capilla del Tercero Orden (Chapel of the Third Order).

Across the atrium from the museum, church, and chapel is another small set of buildings called the Capilla Abierta (Open Chapel).

In the center of the right side is a small square structure known as the Capilla Posa (Posa Chapel).

At the bottom you can see part of the José Aguilar Bullring. This area was once part of the Ex-convento.

Along the top and left sides of the photo are terraces that were once used as gardens and orchards to supply food for the friars and their indigenous servants.


The Ex-Convento's cloister is now the Museo Regional. The cloister is the area where the Franciscan friars once lived. Now, it is a museum filled with artifacts from Tlaxcala's history. These range from early pre-hispanic through the colonial and early national periods. If I had to recommend only one museum in Tlaxcala, this would be it.


To the right of the cloister are the church and the Third Order chapel. The Franciscans were dedicated to simplicity both in their lives and in their architecture. The facades of the church and adjoining chapel are examples of this. All of these structures were built very early in the Conquest era. For example, construction began on the church in 1530, only eight years after the defeat of the Mexica. The cloister was begun in 1537, shortly after the church was completed. These dates make the Ex-Convento the oldest of its kind in the continental Americas. In future posts, we'll take a look inside the museum, church and chapel.


The Capilla de Posa sits on the southern edge of the Ex-Convento's atrium. I was very puzzled by this structure, since there is no information about it at the site. After much Googling, I finally contacted my friend Richard Perry, who is an expert on Mexican religious architecture from the colonial period. Sure enough, he immediately knew the answer. The structure, called a "posa chapel", is one of four that originally existed at the Ex-Convento. The other three are now gone. According to Richard, chapels like this "were used in outdoor religious processions in colonial times - and still are in some places."


Plaque at the Capilla de Posa showing San Francisco (St. Francis of Assisi). He was the founder of the Franciscan Order of evangelical friars. St. Francis is the patron of animals and is famous for praising all creatures as brothers under God. This probably accounts for the various animals surrounding him. Notice the goose on the left, pulling on the rope around his waist. The rope/belts worn by Franciscan friars were symbolic of the ropes that bound Jesus and of their commitment. The specific event depicted on the plaque occurred during a forty-day period of prayer on a mountain, 2 years before San Francisco died. At that time, according to the legend, he miraculously received the "stigmata", which are the five wounds inflicted on Jesus when he was crucified.


Upper part of the Capilla Abierta on the west side of the Ex-Convento. Capillas abiertas (open chapels) were built in the 16th century after the military Conquest, during a period that was known as the Spiritual Conquest. The main part of the capilla is behind and below what you see here. The orange structures are used today to sell religious artifacts. Construction of capillas abiertas was uniquely widespread in Mexico, although there are some scattered examples elsewhere in Latin America.


Lower part of the Capilla Abierta. Structures like this were built specifically for the evangelization process. The Franciscans constructed this one in 1528, barely six years after the defeat of the Aztecs, making it the earliest structure in the complex. In pre-hispanic times, the public parts of ancient religious rites were practiced in large open areas, usually in front of a temple or pyramid. In an effort to make the conversion process easier, the friars associated their practices with those already familiar to the native people. Thus, the chapel and its altar are open, with a sizable area in front--also open--so that large numbers of indigenous people could be gathered for the Catholic services. Another example of a capilla abierta can be seen in my blog posting on the ancient Maya city of Dzbilchaltún, in Yucatan.

Jorge Aguilar "El Ranchero" Bullring

The bell tower on the west side of the complex overlooks the bullring. Just beyond the fence is a precipitous drop to an area once called the "low atrium" which contains the bullring. The bullring area was originally part of the Ex-Convento's property, according to a text written by Diego Muñoz Camargo in 1583. A hospital occupied the site from the 16th century until 1867. After the hospital closed, its cemetery continued to be used by the city for another ten years. Much Church property in Mexico The low atrium was seized and sold during the reforms of Benito Juarez in the 1870's, as part of his program of cutting the political and economic power of the Church


The bullring, as seen through the fence next to the bell tower. This has been described as Mexico's most perfect and beautiful bullring. The first mention of the bull ring occurred in 1886, but it was then little more than a cattle pen. Some decades later, steps and arches were added. The bullring assumed its present form when it was re-inaugurated in 1945.


Boys practicing their skills in the ring. They looked a bit young to be actual bullfighters-in-training, but who knows? That could just be my perception as an older guy. The bullring is named after Jorge Aguilar, a famous bullfighter knicknamed "El Ranchero" (The Rancher). Its capacity is 2,500 spectators. Fighting bulls are still raised on haciendas all over the state of Tlaxcala. However, Mexican public opinion about bullfighting is gradually changing. Three states, including Sonora, Coahuila, and Guerrero, have banned the sport because of its cruelty to the bull. In 2016, Baja California considered but postponed action on such a bill. There is no indication of any change in Tlaxcala, however.

This completes Part 5 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim





Monday, November 27, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 4: Palacio Gobierno's murals of Tlaxcala's conflict with the Aztecs and alliance with the Spanish

Tlaxcalteca warriors engage in a "pep rally" before going into battle. The one on the right wears the heron emblem of Tizatlán, one of the four key cities of what the Spanish called the Tlaxcala Republic. All of the warriors brandish spears tipped by razor-sharp obsidian (volcanic glass). Throughout their history, Tlaxcaltecas maintained the fierce warrior traditions of their forebears. They were one of the tribes of Chichimec nomads from the north who had invaded and conquered the area in the 13th century AD. See my previous posting for a description of Tlaxcala's early history. In this posting, we'll look at the later stages of Tlaxcala's history, up through the Spanish Conquest. I will illustrate my posting with more photos of the wonderful murals covering the walls of the Palacio Gobierno.


Tlaxcaltecas versus the Mexica

Tlaxcaltecas celebrate a victory over the Mexica (Aztecs). Two men retrieve the body of the slain Mexica general from among the corpses of his elite bodyguard of Eagle Warriors. Around them, Tlaxcalteca warriors exultantly raise their obsidian-edged maquahuitls, a hand-weapon that was widely employed in this period. Notice the heron emblem strapped on the back of the warrior on the left, using rope and a wooden frame. The apparatus must have been light or it would have inhibited his movement in combat. The Tlaxcalteca and the Mexica warred with one another more or less continuously for almost 300 years. This conflict extended from the time they both arrived in the Valley of Mexico right up to the Spanish Conquest. While the scene above shows a Tlaxcalteca victory, they seem to have lost more often than not. Over the centuries, the Mexica empire continued to expand until it completely surrounded Tlaxcala, cutting all of Tlaxcala's trade routes. This deprived its people of many important and desirable goods such as cotton and cacao from the Gulf and metal objects from the Tarascan Empire in western Mexico. The trade blockade was enough to ensure enmity, but there was an even greater cause for the Tlaxcaltecas' intense hatred toward the Mexica.


The Mexica launched regular "Flowery Wars" against Tlaxcala. While the Mexica surrounded Tlaxcala, they never conquered it. Certainly the bravery and ferocity of the Tlaxcaltecas helped them keep their independence. However, the Mexica seem to have viewed Tlaxcala as a kind of wild game preserve in which to conduct conflicts they called "Flowery Wars". The main purpose of these wars was to capture Tlaxcalteca warriors for human sacrifice. In most pre-hispanic societies, human blood was considered to be an essential element of the universe. The ritual shedding of blood through human sacrifice was a common practice. However, the Mexica were different from both their predecessors and their contemporaries. The number of their victims was exponentially greater. The chief Mexica deity was Huitzilopochtli, god of war and of the sun. In order to keep the sun moving across the sky each day, the Mexica believed that Huitszilopochtli needed regular offerings of human blood. To fail in this was to risk a halt in the sun's daily course, thus jeopardizing the very existence of the world. Mass human sacrifices were, in this view, a kind of public service. The Mexicas' great Templo Mayor pyramid. located in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, was built to worship Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, a rain god who also required human sacrifice. In 1487, as part of the the pyramid's re-dedication ceremony, more than 10,000 people were sacrificed over four days. The Mexica are estimated to have ritually sacrificed as many as 250,000 people each year during various festivals for their many gods. It is no wonder that their contemporaries feared and hated them.


A captive warrior takes on all comers in a Mexica gladiatorial sacrifice. Of all sacrifices, those of warriors were considered the most important and sacred. In the scene above, the captive is tethered to a large, circular, stone disk which is covered with ritual carvings and dripping with blood. Archeologists have unearthed a number of similar disks, the most famous of which is the so-called "Aztec Calendar". It is not actually a calendar at all, but a platform for gladiatorial sacrifices. The captive in the scene above has just dealt a savage blow to one of the Mexica's elite Eagle Warriors. Another Mexica dances with excitement as he brandishes his obsidian-edged maquahuitl. This ritual was about blood sacrifice, not a fair fight, so the captive warrior's weapon is edged with feathers, rather than obsidian. At the bottom you can see the soles of a row of sandals worn by other captives. It is not clear whether they are dead already or simply lying trussed, waiting their turn. A famous story tells of a great Tlaxcalteca warrior who was captured during a Flowery War. He was promptly marched back to Tenochitlán and tethered to the gladiatorial disk. However, even armed with an un-edged weapon, he defeated all his opponents. The Mexica were so awed by his skill and courage that they offered him his freedom. The Tlaxcalteca warrior refused, since he considered death in this manner to be too a great honor to pass up.

Arrival of the Spanish

The native people experienced consternation, fear, and awe upon the arrival of the Spanish. Not only did these new people represent an unknown race and culture, but they possessed awesome tools and weapons. To native people, an encounter with a fully armored Spaniard would have been much like a modern person coming face to face with an alien in an outlandish space suit. Some Spaniards were mounted on a horses, an animal that had become extinct in the New World tens of thousands of years earlier. At first, many natives thought the man and horse were a single animal. In addition to all this, the timing of the Spanish arrival seemed to fit centuries-old legends about the return of the god-king Quetzalcoatl. Native people, from simple farmers to sophisticated rulers, had a hard time deciding whether the Spanish were terrifying new enemies or divinities who should be welcomed and appeased. The mural above shows this mix of emotions.


When the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcaltecas fought them fiercely at first. Above, Tlaxcalteca warriors staunchly hold the line against the invaders. The people of Tlaxcala resented any attempt to intrude into their territory or impinge upon their freedom. The centuries-long struggle against the Mexica had honed their ability to mount a fierce resistance against this strange new enemy. Hernán Cortéz, the Conquistadores' leader, was a gifted military commander, but he was  also a shrewd politician and diplomat. He knew that he would need allies for his plan to conquer the Mexica. In several hard-fought battles, Cortez' forces defeated the Tlaxcaltecas, in spite of being heavily outnumbered. He then made them an offer they couldn't refuse.


The lords of Tlaxcala welcome Cortéz and his men into their city. The fighting ability of the Spanish, plus their fearsome new weapons, convinced Tlaxcala's leaders to seek peace. Cortez had learned from other native groups that the Tlaxcaltecas were not only great warriors, but also the bitter enemies of the Mexica. Wisely, the Spanish commander treated the Tlaxcaltecas with courtesy, generosity, and respect. Thus, he persuaded them to consider an alliance against their ancestral enemy.


La Malinche played a key role in the Conquest. She is the richly-dressed woman on the right of the mural. Born into a noble Nahuatl-speaking family, La Malinche had been enslaved as a girl by the Gulf Coast Maya. During her enslavement, she became fluent in several Maya dialects. When the Spanish landed on the Gulf Coast and defeated the local Maya chieftain, La Malinche was given to them as a slave. Cortéz desperately needed an interpreter to assist in his search for native allies. La Malinche excelled at this and added Spanish to her linguistic repertoire. She played a key role in the negotiations with the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. They viewed La Malinche as Cortéz' noble consort and treated her with respect. For centuries, the people of Nueva España, and later Mexico, saw her as a heroine. However, after the Revolution, attitudes changed. Many now view La Malinche as a traitor to her native people who was instrumental in bringing about their oppression. Today, in Mexico, Malinchista is a derisive term for a person who abandons Mexican culture in favor of foreign ways.


The four lords of Tlaxcala sign a formal treaty with the Spanish. They are shown here in Spanish frilled collars and capes, but they still wear their feathered head dresses. The Tlaxcalteca were loyal allies. Even after the Spanish suffered heavy loss during their initial retreat from the Mexica capital, they were warmly welcomed back in Tlaxcala. In fact, Cortez and his men could never have conquered the Mexica on their own. Armed and armored though they were, their numbers were tiny compared to the tens of thousands of warriors the Mexica could field. While Cortez' forces never exceeded 1,500 men, they were accompanied by many thousands of Tlaxcaltecas and other native auxiliaries. The Tlaxcaltecas were shrewd bargainers on their own part. In return for their support, they demanded perpetual exemption from tribute, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered Tlaxcala. Cortéz agreed and, in truth, how could he not? As a result, Tlaxcala was exempt from tribute until the end of the colonial period, when the tribute system was abolished.


In the final struggle, Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecas fought side by side. While the Templo Mayor burns in the background, Mexica Eagle warriors fight desperately, their backs to the wall. A mounted Spaniard hacks away as a Tlaxcalteca warrior thrusts forward with his bloodied sword. The sword is probably an anomaly, since it is unlikely the Spanish would have entrusted one of their limited supply of weapons to a native soldier. In any case, the Tlaxcalteca would have been more comfortable wielding a maquahuitl. The final battle for the Mexica capital took weeks of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, during which the stunningly beautiful city was leveled. The great Mexica Empire was destroyed in its prime, but what would be Tlaxcala's fate in the post-Conquest world?


Post-conquest autonomy

The Lienzo de Tlaxcala displays the political structure of the Republic of Tlaxcala. The Lienzo, a large, cotton-cloth document, was created in the mid-16th century by indigenous scribes under the supervision of a Spaniard. It records the political structure of Tlaxcala, as well as the history of the Conquest, as seen through the eyes of the Tlaxcaltecas. The green "water mountain" in the center represents Tlaxcala. It contains a coat-of-arms, granted by the Spanish king in 1535. This was awarded because of the Tlaxcaltecas' great support during the Conquest and because the four lords had allowed themselves to be baptised. The coat-of-arms symbolized Tlaxcala's status as an autonomous unit within the Spanish Empire, accountable directly to the King, without intermediaries. Above it is the emblem of the Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty, signifying the ultimate power. The four altepetls (chief cities) of Tlaxcala are also shown, along with their rulers and chief retainers. Among the Spanish figures are the first two viceroys of Nueva España, a Spanish bishop, and Hernán Cortéz. The Lienzo is, in some ways, like a Tlaxcala Magna Carta.


Tlaxcala's autonomy was reinforced by later amendments, called cedulas. Three of the lords of Tlaxcala are shown above, holding some of these documents. The yellow-framed portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, is in the upper right, over another of the cedulas. Charles was the ruler who granted Tlaxcala's coat-of-arms.


Tlaxcala's Niños Martires were killed by evangelization opponents. The three young boys standing in the center holding green feathers and crucifixes are known as Los Trés Niños Martires (Three Martyred Children). Although the four lords of Tlaxcala, along with many others, were baptised and adopted Spanish customs, there were dissenters to the New Order. In fact, when the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcala's army commander, Xicoténcatl, had opposed the alliance. He was eventually executed by Cortés for treason. The Spanish were accompanied by Franciscan missionaries, who immediately embarked on wholesale evangelization. Many Tlacaltecas held to the old beliefs and were angered when their children were placed in Franciscan schools and indoctrinated in the new faith. The three young boys were killed, one in 1527 and two more in 1529, after they followed the Franciscans' teachings and desecrated pagan idols. One of the boys was the eldest grandson and heir to Xicoténcatl. The Spanish, and some Tlaxcaltecas, viewed the three boys as martyrs for the faith. In 2017, almost 500 years later, they were finally canonized, the last step to becoming Catholic saints. On the other hand, the warrior Xicoténcatl has also been honored. Several large statues of him were erected in Tlaxcala and a city plaza was given his name. Apparently, Tlaxcaltecas continue to have ambiguous feelings have about the Conquest.

This completes Part 4 of my Tlaxcala series. Next we'll take a look at the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, the oldest religious structure in Tlaxcala and one of the oldest in all of Mexico. I hope you have enjoyed this look at the wonderful murals of Palacio Gobierno. If you would like to leave a message or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 3: Palacio Gobierno's gorgeous murals showing the city's prehispanic origins and economy

Mural showing two of Tlaxcala's most important gods. On the right is Camaxtli, the god of war and hunting. He was the chief deity of Tlaxcala and always appears with black paint across his upper face, vertical "candy-stripes" on his body, and carrying a bow and arrows. In the center, dressed in white, is the mother goddess known as Xochiquetzalli. According to some versions of Tlaxcalteca mythology, they were married. In the next two postings, I'll show you the extraordinary murals inside the Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). These include scenes from archaic times all the way to the colonial period. The artist was Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, a native of Tlaxcala. He worked on them from 1957 until his death in 1997, incorporating all the newest archeological discoveries to ensure accuracy. The Palacio is located along the north side of Plaza Constitución. To find it, click here.

Palacio Gobierno

Balcony of the Governor's office, above the front entrance of the Palacio. The beautifully carved white plaster nicely compliments the warm reddish glow of the brick facing. The style is very similar to the facade of Parroquia San Jose, (see my last posting). At the time I did that posting, I erroneously identified it as Churrigueresque. Richard Perry is a friend who publishes a blog called the Arts of Colonial Mexico. He tells me that this is Neostyle, a transition between late Baroque and Neo-Classic. The bell above the balcony is a replica of the one at the town of Dolores Hidalgo that Father Miguel Hidalgo rang to summon the people to begin the War of Independence (1810 - 1821). Every September 15, as part of the Fiesta de Independencia, the Governor stands on the balcony, rings the bell, and delivers Hidalgo's speech to the crowd below.


Below the balcony is the Mudéjar-style entrance of the Palacio. The fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1491 ended 700 years of Moorish domination in Spain. Practicing Muslims who remained in Spain were called Mudéjares, in contrast to Moriscos, who converted to Christianity. Eventually Spanish Catholic fanaticism forced both groups to leave the country. Although the Spanish Christians despised Islam, they did admire Muslim architectural styles. Mudéjar-style architecture was eventually brought to the New World. The Palacio was originally constructed  as a home for Hernán Cortez. From the colonial period through modern times, the building has been used for government offices. The Palacio has been destroyed and rebuilt several times due to floods, earthquakes, and fires.


Tlaxcala's origins


Youthful hunters take aim. The first inhabitants of what is now the State of Tlaxcala arrived some 11,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age). They were nomads who were hunting big game, including camels, mastodons, and horses. All of these animals became extinct in the New World many thousands of years ago. The oldest traces of the hunters' presence include a Clovis point spearhead and the remains of plants and animals that they consumed in the caves where they took shelter. The environment at that time was cold and humid.



Normads discover teocintle, the wild plant from which maiz originated. When the climate became warmer and dryer, the big game began to disappear. Archeologists believe this may have been accelerated by over-hunting. Increasingly, the nomads had to rely on smaller game and plants for their subsistence. Eventually, they discovered how to grow some of these plants themselves. Through experimentation over millennia, maiz (corn) was developed from teocintle. The oldest cobs of maiz yet found were discovered in a cave in Oaxaca. They have been carbon-dated to 5,400 years ago. However, DNA tests indicate that maiz probably originated much earlier in Puebla, south of Tlaxcala. Cultivation of maiz created a surplus of storable food, but it also necessitated significant cultural changes, since agriculture requires a sedentary lifestyle.



Over time, Maiz became central to the pre-hispanic economy and culture. Above, a man examines a newly sprouted maiz plant, while groups of men plant and cultivate their fields. They are using a long-handled tool called a coa, a Neolithic (New Stone Age) invention. I have observed it in use by small farmers in Mexico, as they plant and cultivate maiz in exactly the same way their archaic ancestors did. Over the millennia, the Tlaxcala area experienced waves of migration, and sometimes outright invasions, by new groups moving down from the northern deserts. Some of them built the ancient city of Xochitécatl (800 BC - 300 BC) in southwest Tlaxcala. A couple of centuries later, Teotihuacán (100 BC - 650 AD) arose. Tecoaque was a Teotihuacán military and trading outpost located just inside modern Tlaxcala's western border on an ancient trade route from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico. After Teotihuacán's demise, a period of turmoil ensued during which a Maya-related group called the Olmeca-Xicalanca arrived from the Gulf Coast. They took over the area and established Cacaxtla (700 AD - 900 AD), as their capital. It was within sight of the ruins of Xochitécatl, already ancient at that time. Cacaxtla fell, in turn, to the expanding empire of the Toltecs (900 AD - 1150 AD). When the Toltec era ended in the 12th century, it was followed by yet another period of instability. Military conflicts flared among rising city states and Chichimec invaders arrived. The name is generic for various northern-desert tribes of fierce nomadic warriors who had been kept in check by the Toltecs and, before them, Teotihuacán. After the Toltec empire collapsed, waves of these invaders swept down, taking advantage of the turmoil.



The Tlaxcaltecas arrived on the scene in the mid-14th century. Above, the Tlaxcalteca war god Camaxtli points the way for the migrants, They were part of the last great wave of Chichimec invaders. Included in this mass migration was another tribe known as the Mexica, commonly called the Aztecs. The two tribes not only arrived in their new homelands at about the same time, but they shared many cultural traits, including Nahuatl, their common language. They worshipped many of the same gods and shared a taste for warfare, conquest, and human sacrifice.



The Tlaxcaltecas conquer the Teo-Chichimecas, part of an earlier wave of migrants to Tlaxcala. The mural above gives a taste of pre-hispanic warfare, a savage and bloody affair. The scene is quite accurate. Not only could the artist draw from the first hand accounts of the Conquistadors, but the great murals of Cacaxtla display just such a titanic battle between the Eagle and Jaguar warrior cults. The combatants above are brandishing a fearsome hand weapon called a maquahuitl. It was a wooden club, the edges of which were lined with razor-sharp obsidian. Other weapons included the bow and arrow, the atlatl (a dart thrower), long spears, and slings that propelled stones with such force that they could endanger even a Spaniard in steel armor. For defense they used quilted armor and round wooden shields decorated with feathers. Warriors often clothed themselves in the skins of jaguars or other totem animals. Strapped to their backs were wood stakes adorned with bright feathers. In the heat of battle, these helped sort out friend from foe. In addition, the emblems enabled commanders to identify the battle lines so they could direct their forces.



Tlaxcalteca chiefs meet to formalize an on-going alliance. Following their successful conquest, the tribe divided up the lands they had captured. Four towns named Tepetícpac, Ocotelulco, Tiztlán, and Quiahuitzlán emerged as the centers of the Tlaxcalteca civilization. Each had its own lord and ruling elite. Over time, the leaders of these independent towns formed an on-going alliance to avoid internal conflict, to assist one another in conquering more territory, and to deal with external threats such as the rising Mexica empire to the west.


Pre-hispanic economy


A Tlaxcalteca noble oversees the harvesting of maiz. He wears a tilma, or cotton cape, knotted at his throat. It is hard to overstate the importance of maiz to pre-hispanic cultures. It was the staff of life and was used to prepare a wide variety of foods. Some of these, including tortillas, tamales, and the drink called atole are still widely consumed today. Abundant crops meant prosperity and security, while crop failures could be disastrous. Thus, maiz figured prominently in myths surrounding gods like Quetzalcoatl, who delivered the secret of maiz cultivation to humankind. Regular human sacrifices to gods like Tlaloc, the rain deity, were thought necessary to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests.



Methods for processing maiz are unchanged from pre-hispanic times. On the left, a man uses a tumpline across his forehead to carry a basket full of freshly-harvested maiz. It is a very ancient method of transport that is still in use today. In the center, women sit around a pile of cobs, removing the husks. I have observed this same scene near my home. After husking, the maiz kernels are removed, soaked in lime, and boiled in a process called nixtamalization. This process dissolves the hulls around the kernels. Using a stone platter called a metate, the maiz is then ground with a roller called a mano, also made of stone. The resulting masa (dough) is flattened by hand into thin, round cakes called tortillas. These are cooked on a clay griddle called a comal. All these processes and tools are still in use throughout Mexico today, just as they were a thousand or more years ago. In fact, manos and metates are among the most common artifacts unearthed by archeologists in even the most ancient pre-hispanic sites. Today, virtually identical versions are sold in Mexican hardware stores for use as basic kitchen equipment.



Other Tlaxcalteca artisans at work. On the left, merchants examine a folded codex, which was the pre-hispanic version of a book. The paper for the codex was made by pounding the bark from an amate tree with a special stone to separate and flatten the fibres. Because of work necessary to create it, paper was a very valuable commodity. Because it was light and easy for traders to transport, paper became an important trade good. It was used primarily by rulers, priests, and the nobility for records and religious tracts. On the right, workers gather and bundle agave leaves. These were used to produce fibre for sandals and ropes, among other things. The spines from the tips of agave leaves could be used as needles. The agave heart could be cooked and eaten and the juice from the heart could be processed into pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink still consumed in rural Mexico. Today, agave is most famous for the tequila which is made from it.



Weaving and dyeing cloth were other important crafts. In the center, three women weave cotton cloth using backstrap looms. The cotton was imported through the trade networks from the hot coastal areas. Backstrap looms are another very ancient technology that is still in use. Local women in my town can be found under the shade of a lakeside tree, using looms like these to make blankets and shawls for sale to tourists. On the  right, men dye the cloth in a large pot. One of the most favored dyes used crushed cochineal insects gathered from the nopal cactus. It was produced exclusively in Oaxaca and was expensive because a large number of the tiny insects were needed to produce a small amount of dye. Aztec emperors demanded quotas of cochineal dye as tribute from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Today, cochineal is still used as a dye in food and lipstick.



A merchant sets out on a trading mission. Men fold and bundle cotton cloth into packets for tlamemeque (porters) to carry. Notice the weary man in the center wiping the sweat from his brow and the two men assisting a tlamemeque who wears a tumpline. The merchant-traders, called pochteca, were not part of the nobility but were still of high status. They had their own powerful organizations and even their own gods. Pochteca sometimes acted as intelligence agents for their rulers when they visited city-states ripe for conquest.



An injured tlamemeque receives medical attention as the pochteca looks on. In the background, the others take a much-needed break. Pre-hispanic people were sophisticated in the use of plants and other natural materials for their medical needs. Pochteca knew that the injuries of a porter must be attended to because, given the absence of any large domesticated animals, human transport was the only kind available. Trade routes in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica were extensive, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts and from Honduras to modern New Mexico. There is even evidence of trade between Peru and Western Mexico. Tlaxcala was well-positioned for trade since it lay on a route between the Gulf Coast and the Central Valley of Mexico.



Traders brought their wares to great city markets like this one. The scene above is part of a large mural showing Tlaxcala's tianguis (market). It captures the bustle, the variety of goods, and the myriad transactions that took place. My own pueblo of Ajijic holds what is still called a tianguis every Wednesday. Except for the clothing, and the temple in the background, ours looks pretty much the same as the one in this scene.



Nobles from Tlaxcala's four city-states confer. Commerce wasn't the only function of a tianguis. It was also a great social occasion for all classes. The elites of Tlaxcala could talk politics, make marriage alliances and conduct all sorts of business on these occasions.


Tlaxcala's pantheon of gods


Three priests conduct a key ritual of the Fire Ceremony. Tlaxcala's chief god Camaxtli was said to have invented the fire drill, seen above. To do it, he revolved the heavens around their axes. He was also the first to strike sparks from flint. The worship of the hunter-god Camaxtli, and his relationship to the invention of tools to create fire, harks back to archaic hunter-gatherer times. Fire was extremely important to archaic people. It provided warmth, lit the night, enabled the cooking of food, and could offer protection against predators. The ability to make fire was the first great invention in the long road to civilization. It thus became an important feature in most religious rituals and, in this case, had its own great ceremony, conducted at eight-year intervals.



The Festival of Xochiquetzalli was held each May. Above, a priest chants as the musicians behind him rap out a rhythm on a teponaztli. This was an elaborately carved hollow log drum with slits through the top in the form of an elongated capital H. Often the instrument had a human face on one end, as well as other carvings on its sides. The teponaztli was considered an especially sacred drum. Xochiquetzalli was believed to be the mother of gods and, according to some tales, was the spouse of Camaxtli. She was associated with goodness and flowers and could intercede with more powerful gods to grant the wishes of those who appealed to her.



Quetzalcoatl delivers the great gift of maiz to humankind. Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Plumed Serpent, had been worshipped throughout civilized Mesoamerica as far back as the Olmec times (1500 BC - 400 BC). It is likely that Chichimecs tribes like the Tlaxcalteca adopted Quetzalcoatl as they came into contact with civilized people and began to settle down. In fact, the myth of the Plumed Serpent asserted that he not only delivered maiz to humans, but taught them the arts of civilization, including writing.



Male and female deities dance together. The Tlaxcalteca pantheon was large, with many gods similar to those worshiped by the Mexica, while others were different. Every aspect of life was governed by greater or lesser gods and their festivals were often linked to the sacred 260-day calendar.

This completes my first posting on the murals of the Palacio Gobierno. Next time, we'll look at murals showing the Tlaxcalteca's great rivalry with the Aztec empire and their eventual alliance with the Spanish during the Conquest. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Saludos, Jim