Monday, November 14, 2011

Puebla Part 10: The colonial city of Cholula

Cholula is a city of churches. I took this shot from the Zócalo, also called Plaza de la Concordia. Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies) looms over the town from the top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula. For this posting, I will focus on Cholula as the Spanish found it, leading up to the modern period. For a sense of ancient, prehispanic Cholula, check out the last 3 posts. When the Spanish arrived, Cholula had been a major religious and mercantile center for almost 2 thousand years. There were 430 temples and approximately 40,000 homes in or surrounding the center of the city. In 1520, Cholula's population was 100,000, considerably larger than many European cities at that time. For example, London's population was 50,000, Rome 38,000, Lisbon 55,000, and Seville 60,000. Only a handful of European cities were larger, including Paris at 185,000, Naples 114,000, and Constantinople (Istanbul) at 200,000.

Volcan Popocatépetl looms over the city. This photo was taken from on top of the Great Pyramid, looking northwest.  Popocatépetl, at 5,426 meters (17,802 ft.) is the second tallest peak in Mexico, and is an active volcano. Nearby Volcan Iztaccihuatl is the third tallest at 5,230 meters (17,159 ft). The existence of these and many other volcanos makes Mexico very prone to earthquakes. Mexico City (once the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán) lies on the other side of Popocatépetl, 84 kilometers  (52 mi.) away. When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors arrived, Cholula was a close ally of the Aztecs (known then as Mexicas). He and his small army were initially welcomed, but they suspected a trap set by Mexica Emperor Moctezuma. Accordingly, they bided their time until the local nobility gathered in one of the Cholula's enclosed plazas. Under Cortés orders, Spanish soldiers blocked off all the exits and then massacred everyone in the plaza, probably between 6,000-10,000 unarmed people. This literally decapitated the city's leadership and sent a terrifying signal to other cities in their path that any hint of resistance would be dealt with horrifically. While the Spanish later claimed they had detected a plot against them and acted in self-defense, their Cholula massacre created a pattern repeated in other indigenous cities in Mexico, Central America, and South America.

A church for every day of the year. Cortés recognized the importance of Cholula as one of Mesoamerica's greatest centers of indigenous religion. The Spanish, for religious but also political motives, felt the need to supplant the native religions with Christianity as soon as possible. Cortés decreed that there should be a Christian church built in Cholula for every day of the year, 365 in total. If possible, they were to be built on top of the soon-to-be-demolished ancient temples. In reality, only 159 churches and chapels were actually built. Still, that is quite a large number for the relatively small city Cholula became after epidemics in the early colonial era wiped out most of its population. The church above was photographed from the top of the Great Pyramid. There is another church visible in the upper left.

Yet another of Cholula's many religious edifices. Notice how it looks like a fortress, with high, thick, stone walls. Many of the early churches were built in this fashion because of numerous revolts by local indigenous people and raids by nomadic Chichimeca tribesmen during the first couple of centuries after the Conquest. The styles of the churches mirror the architectural eras in which they were built, from Gothic, to Renaissance, to Churrigueresque, to Neoclassical. The early churches were constructed by newly-converted indigenous craftsmen. Often they left ancient symbols representing the old gods hidden in their work. One of the earliest chapels, San Miguelito, was dedicated to the Archangel Michael. However, there was also a small demon carved in the interior of the church. While many came to venerate the archangel, after a while more came to pray to the demon, who could be asked for things Archangel Michael would never grant. Eventually, because of the growing popularity of the demon, church officials began to blame earthquakes and other local disasters on him. Finally, the images of both the archangel and the demon were taken away and have since disappeared.

Franciscan Monastery of San Gabriel dominates the Centro Historico. The photo above, taken from atop the Great Pyramid, shows Cholula's Centro Historico. The Monastery of San Gabriel is in the center of the picture. It was built in 1529 on top of the destroyed temple to Quetzalcoatl, the ancient creator-god. The complex we see today was begun in 1540, with the main church begun a decade later in 1549. The main purpose of the complex was evangelization, an urgent need in the early days when Spanish control was weakest. The first stone of the complex was laid by Martin de Hojacastro, Puebla's 3rd bishop.

Entrance to the Monastery of San Gabriel. The Monastery complex occupies the whole east side of the large Cholula Zócalo. Within the complex are numerous chapels and atriums. Overall, this is one of the largest Franciscan monasteries in Mexico. The pointed white structures that line the top of the wall surrounding the complex are called merlons.

The Gothic-style main church of the monastery. The Baroque-style bell tower was added after the church was built. The main entrance, seen above, was made from sandstone in Renaissance style.

The cloister area of the monastery. This is located just to the right of the main church and still houses about 15 Franciscan monks. This section also contains a library with 25,000 volumes published between the 16th and 19th Centuries, a joint project with the University of the Americas. The cloister section was built directly over the old temple of Quetzacoatl.

The main church shows the classic elements of a "fortress church". With its high walls topped with crenelated battlements, and high, second-story windows from which muskets or even cannon could be fired, the monastery provided a military as well as spiritual refuge.

A multi-domed building extends to the left of the main church. Today, this part of San Gabriel Monastery functions as a school. I had to take multiple photos to show even a part of this huge complex. I tried to imagine the old days of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries when evangelization was at its height. The area would have been thronged with Franciscans in their cassocks, hurrying on errands for the abbot or preparing for another mission to the wild Chichimecs of the north country.

Closeup of the San Gabriel monastery school. The multiple cupolas give the building a Moorish feeling. Classes had just let out and children were beginning to pour forth, exuberant at their release from classes on a beautiful sunny day.

The longest arcade in Latin America. Plazas with arcades lined with arched portales are common in Mexico. This one, which borders the entire west side of Cholula's huge Zócalo, is unusual because it is the longest of its kind in Latin America. The arcade is 170 meters (560 ft.) long, with 46 portales. Mexican plazas also typically contain a government building, whether it is the vast Palacio Nacional at Mexico City's famous Zócalo, or the tiny Delegacion next to the plaza in Ajijic where I live. Cholula is no different. The area just behind the arcade above is occupied by its government building. It is built on the ancient site of the Xiuhcalli (House of Turquoise), used by Cholula's prehispanic nobility as a council house.

The Zócalo, or Plaza de la Concorda, looking north. The long line of portales leads to yet another church, the Parrochia San Pedro, built in the 17th Century with a mixture of styles. These include Baroque, Renaissance, and the large Churrigueresque-style cupola seen above. The city of Cholula is made up of two different municipalities, known as San Pedro Cholula and San Andrés Cholula. Although the present names are in Spanish, this division is actually very ancient, going back to the period when the invading Toltec-Chichimecs partially displaced the Olmec-Xilancas in the 12th Century AD. It was the Toltec-Chichimecs who shifted the city's religious focus away from the Great Pyramid to a new temple for Quetzalcoatl. Three hundred years later, the Spanish destroyed the Quetzalcoatl temple and built the San Gabriel Monastery. In Cholula, a stroll through town involves walking over layer upon layer of history.

A line of restaurants fills the arcade. Restaurant followed restaurant under the long arcade. The furniture was equipale, a style found throughout Mexico. Equipale is made with rough branches and strips of wood woven together. The seat and back are of rawhide leather, sometimes padded, sometimes not. The result is attractive, light, and compact, making it very popular for both restaurants and home furnishings. However, unless well-padded, it is not terribly comfortable for sitting any length of time. The equipale style is very old. Cortés and his conquistadors left detailed descriptions of equipale-style furniture they observed in Moctezuma's palace in Tenochtitlán.

Harpist from Vera Cruz entertains restaurant guests. It is almost inevitable that an open-air restaurant in Mexico will attract street musicians. It is up to the guests whether they agree to his terms to play. The nice thing about it is that guests a little distance away also get to enjoy the music. I usually contribute a little, even if I am not the one to whom the music is directed. In Mexico, life always has a musical soundtrack. The jarocho-style harp and his dress identify the musician as Vera Cruzano.

A shady park fills part of the immense plaza. Even though the ambient air temperature was not overly warm, the sun was intense. At 2,200 meters (7,217 ft.) the air is filled with a luminous glow that makes a shady spot like the park above a welcome relief.

Finally, back to Puebla. After a delicious lunch on Cholula's Zócalo, we decided to head back to our hotel. The bus trip back to Puebla takes about 30 minutes, and has a convenient stop at the southeast corner of Plaza de la Concordia. However, as we traveled through the confusing streets of Puebla, we were baffled as to where we should get off in order walk back to our hotel. As we puzzled over our map, several of our fellow bus-riders came up, one at a time, to consult with us (in Spanish, of course). They were all very concerned that their foreign guests should be able to find their way. Eventually, even the bus driver got involved, making a special effort to point us in the right direction. When we alighted, still another of the bus riders awaited us. The young fellow seen above walked us four blocks to a plaza we recognized and made sure we were clear in our directions. We were charmed by this spontaneous display of concern and hospitality. But then, that's the Mexican attitude we have found wherever we have traveled in this lovely and friendly country.

This completes Part 10 of my Puebla series. Next, we will visit some spectacular Baroque churches and later look in on some of the local markets. I hope you have enjoyed this posting, along with the previous three on Puebla's close neighbor, Cholula. If you would like to comment, please  do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful posts, Jim! I wish I'd found them sooner, as I would have shared them with others as they unfolded. It seems you’ve covered quite a bit of ground since September, but if you're looking for more things to see, do, and eat while you're in Puebla, check out my website,


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim