Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Toltecs Part 2: The Ancient art of Tollan and the modern city of Tula

Atlante pequeño in the main Tollan museum. Tollan actually has two museums, at opposite ends of the site, both worth a visit. This small but beautiful atlantean figure was probably used to support an altar in one of the temples atop the pyramids at Tollan. The figure shows a Toltec warrior-noble wearing a cotton vest and a turquoise chest piece. Atlantean figures like this are common to both Tollan and Mayan Chichen Itzá. In this second part of my Toltec series, I will focus on some of the sculpture and other art found at Tollan. Unfortunately, the city has been scoured for loot over many centuries, probably beginning with the migration of the Aztecs through the area on their way to their ultimate home in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs were so taken with the culture of the Toltecs that they returned again and again to loot the site in order to decorate their capital Tenochitlan. Later in this posting, I will show you a bit of modern Tula, the Mexican city that grew up around the ruins of Tollan.

Christopher contemplates colossal feet. This statue, located in Tollan's second and smaller museum, must have been huge when it towered over the mere mortals who inhabited Tollan. My friend and traveling companion Christopher stands only a little under 1.82 meters (6 ft.) in height, yet he only comes up to the knees of this colossus. As with most of the other Toltec statues I have seen, this one stands erect and at rigid attention, in a definite military posture. Militarism was one of the aspects of Toltec culture most admired by the Aztecs, who had imperial ambitions of their own. Notice the colossus' high-backed sandals. I have seen this same style sold in leather stores around Mexico. The more things change...

A chac mool waits for its next victim. If there is one kind of sculpture that epitomizes Toltec art, it is the chac mool. Although there are some variations, the overwhelming majority of chac mools that I have seen are virtually identical to the one above. The typical figure rests on its back, with knees bent. The head is turned to the side in a watchful stance. The arms support a shallow tray or bowl on the figure's stomach. An upper-arm bracelet is used as a knife-holder. The knife and the tray are significant, because the most likely function of a chac mool was to receive the still-warm and dripping heart of a sacrificial victim. A chac mool identical to the one above rests at the top of Chichen Itzá's Temple of the Warriors, and another was found in that Maya city's famous El Castillo pyramid. Although the two cities were worlds apart both geographically and culturally, they had a strong but still mysterious connection (see Part 1 of this series).

Skeleton from the main Tollan museum. Found at Tollan, this skeleton may have been from someone whose heart once graced the tray of the chac mool in the previous picture. Notice the bowl in which the skull rested when the skeleton was unearthed.

Intricate relief carvings cover a column atop the Temple of the Warriors. Unlike the more blood-thirsty carvings found on the Coatepantli, or Wall of Snakes, at the back of the Temple of Warriors, the carvings on this column are more pacific, with flowering plant-life and some abstract designs.

Censer in the main museum. A censer is a device for burning copal incense during religious and other ceremonies. Censers are usually decorated, often with faces such as the wide-eyed, open-mouthed figure on this censer.

Jade plaque from main museum at Tollan. The figure, which wears a rather sour expression, is naked except for short pants, a necklace, and some sort of headpiece which might also be curled hair. Unlike most of the Toltec art I saw at Tollan, which was monumental and often related to death, this small piece (about 10 cm x 5 cm or 8" x 4") seemed more human-scale to me. I am not sure of the round object he holds in his hands, but it could be one of the hard rubber balls used in the ball games at Tollan's two large courts.

Jaguar chac mool snarls at Tollan's smaller museum. This chac mool differs from the usual style, in that it doesn't represent a human figure. There is a similar, but much larger jaguar chac mool in the Aztec section of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Perhaps the Aztec creators of that statue drew inspiration from this earlier Toltec version.

Jade necklace from the main museum. Again, I felt oddly comforted to find an example of simple, personal decoration. The wave of Chichimec invaders from the north who destroyed Tollan around 1168 AD probably looted much material like this. Even more was taken by the Aztecs who were also Chichimec nomads at the time they passed through around 1350 AD. "Chichimec" is actually an Aztec term for hunter-gatherer nomads from the northern deserts. It is not the name of a specific ethnic group, but rather means something akin to "uncivilized barbarian." In other words, any group which is not settled and urbanized.

Stone head with braided hairstyle resembling modern-day "corn-rows." The Toltecs themselves probably originated as Chichimecs who moved down from the northern wastes into the chaotic aftermath of the fall of the Teotihuacan Empire around 650 AD. They settled in the area around modern-day Tula about 700 AD at a smaller site called Tollan Chica and then moved to the present site of Tollan Grande about 900 AD. Tollan continued to grow as it became the seat of their empire. Just as the Aztecs copied elements of Toltec culture and architecture, the Toltecs themselves adopted many aspects of the still-earlier Teotihuacan civilization, including the pyramid and the plumed serpent god. After Tollan fell and the Toltecs disappeared, the Aztecs adopted the plumed serpent and called it Quetzalcoatl. For a timeline placing all these Meso-american civilizations in chronological context, click here.

Helmeted standard bearer.  These small figures are usually found on the stairs of temples and pyramids. The clasped hands were intended to grasp a pole from which a banner waved. The banners are thought to have carried religious or military symbols. An almost identical standard bearer stands atop a plumed serpent on the Temple of Warriors at Chichen Itzá, another example of the many mysterious connections between the two ancient cities.

The modern city of Tula

Tula de Allende is a vibrant, prosperous, small city. Although Christopher and I were primarily focused on the ruins of Tollan when we passed through on our way to Zacatlán, we saw enough of Tula to decide on an overnight visit upon our return through the area. Tula is located in Hidalgo State, southeast of Querétaro and about 92 kilometers (57 mi.) north of Mexico City. The city lies a few miles to the east of the #57 cuota near where the new Arco Norte cuota begins its northern bypass of the Mexican capital. Above, you see Tula's main plaza, busy with late afternoon activity. In the distance is the Tula Cathedral, looking like a medieval castle. While there are over 93,000 people who live in the Tula municipality (roughly comparable to a US county) there are only about 28,000 in the city itself.  For information about visiting Tula, click here. For a map of Tula and the surrounding area, click here.

Catedral de Tula de Allende. In 1529, the first friars arrived in the area to evangelize the indigenous people, about 7 years after the Aztec Empire fell to Hernán Cortéz and his conquistadores. Fray Alonso de Rangel quickly learned the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and also that of the Otomi people who were living around the ruins of Tollan. Shortly after he arrived, he began to build the first chapel. Construction on the Cathedral began in 1543 and concluded in 1554. The Renaissance-style architecture is a very austere but beautiful, constructed with pink and gray cantera stone that glows in the afternoon sun. Fray Antonio de San Juan was the architect, with some assistance from Fray Juan de Alamenda.

The Cathedral looms above Tula like a medieval castle. Many of the monastery-churches established by the Franciscans and Augustinians are now called iglesias fortalezas (fortress churches) because they have similar appearances. Most were built within a few decades of the Conquest when revolts were common, as well as raids from the north by the Chichimecs. The high walls, battlements with turrets, and narrow windows created a formidable defensive position to which the local population could flee, if necessary.

International solidarity. While wandering through the plaza, I came upon a demonstration by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. The union members were holding a hunger strike to protest their arbitrary (and possibly illegal) mass firing by the Mexican government. As a retired union organizer I was immediately sympathetic to their struggle. My Spanish was too limited to determine all of the details, but it sounded very similar to some of the strikes I had helped organize over the years. My Mexican union brother was glad to pose for a photo in front of the hunger-strike's tent-headquarters.

Hotel Real Catedral. We had no reservations, but just blew into town and looked for a place to stay. The local Holiday Inn seemed a bit expensive, but Hotel Real Catedral worked out perfectly. The site couldn't be better, in the center of town, across the street from the Cathedral, and on the edge of the plaza, and--very important--it has off-street parking. The rooms were clean, modern, and reasonably priced at $57.00 (USD) for a double. Split between us, that made it quite inexpensive. The beds were comfortable and everything worked, including the air conditioning on that particularly hot day. We even found a nice Continental breakfast waiting the next morning. After our long drive from Zacatlán, we were ready for a little comfort. For a list of other hotels in Tula, click here.

Our room secured, we went in search of dinner. We found a little place with a balcony overlooking the plaza. It was a balmy evening, so we enjoyed ourselves as lovers cuddled on the benches all over the park, and a watchful cop peddled around on a bicycle. The whole place seemed rather idyllic.

Young students out for a stroll. Love was apparently in the air. There were young couples everywhere, including this pair who strolled by our balcony and gave us a grin when they saw our cameras. I'm looking forward to stopping by Tula again sometime this year when Carole and I travel to Puebla. Both the ruins and the town itself make it well worth another visit.

This concludes Part 2 of my 2-part series on the Toltecs. I always appreciate comments and feedback. If you'd like to leave a note, you can 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

1 comment:

  1. Jim and Carole ~ Your blog is very well written and so interesting. I'm writing an article for a local 'Over 50' newspaper ( The topic is "retiring in a foreign locale", with an emphasis on the fact that retirement income and nest eggs have shrunk in the past few years. Would you be willing to be interviewed for this article? Please email me back and I can supply you with more information. Either way, I most certainly would like to direct readers to your blog. My email address is


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