Thursday, October 20, 2011

Puebla Part 7: Cholula's Great Pyramid

Cholula's Great Pyramid is part of a huge complex of ancient structures. The view above is from the southeast corner of the pyramid, looking over the walls and stairways of the Edificio Teotihuacano. Visible on top of the Great Pyramid is a small colonial-era church. It was official Spanish colonial policy to tear down indigenous temples, or at least to build churches on top of them, as a graphic demonstration that a new power with a new ideology ruled the day. The town of Cholula lies a short distance northwest of Puebla. Visiting this community and its Great Pyramid was one of the major goals of our Puebla adventure. To go, we took a city bus from the central terminal located just north of Parque Bravo on the western outskirts of Puebla's Centro Historico. The bus trip was an adventure in it itself, but that's another story.

Artist's conception of the Great Pyramid in its heyday. The view is from the northeast corner of the pyramid, looking southwest toward the Popocatépetl volcano, seen smoking in the background. This pyramid, also known by its Nahuatl name Tlachihualtepetl ("artificial mountain"), is the second largest-- by volume--in the world.  Only the pyramid of La Danta, at the El Mirador ruins of northern Guatemala is larger than the one at Cholula. As you can see above, the pyramid was not so much tall as it was broad. It stands 66 meters high (217 ft) and extends 450 meters (1480 ft) on each side. The total volume is estimated at an astonishing 4.45 million cubic meters. By contrast, Egypt's Great Pyramid at Giza contains 2.5 million cubic meters, although, at 138 meters (455 ft), the Giza pyramid is taller. Archaeologists believe that the Great Pyramid was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the creator-god worshipped by many Mesoamerican civilizations from the Olmecs (contemporaries of the ancient Greeks) to the Aztecs of the early 1500s.

Cutaway model of the Great Pyramid reveals many layers added over the centuries. The view is from the southwest corner looking northeast. Cholula is the oldest continuously occupied city in the Western Hemisphere. Over the millenia, the area was occupied by several different groups who built and rebuilt the pyramid and its temple complex. In the process they covered over some sections and built other structures on top, as you can see in the cutaway above. At the top of the pyramid is the most recent construction, a Catholic church built in 1864, itself replacing a previous church. Below the church is the Great Pyramid, most of which is today covered by earth and vegetation. Underneath the largest pyramid are several smaller pyramids over which it was built. At the left center is Building F, actually the first stage of several great staircases that led up to the top of the Great Pyramid. On the lower right of the photo are the parts of the ruins--including Edificio Teotihuacano--that have been uncovered to date. These include several levels of patios, altars, and buildings, representing several periods of development.

In this posting, and the one that follows, I will use various cutaway models and site maps because the Great Pyramid complex is so vast that without them it would be difficult to appreciate how anything fits together. We'll begin with the church at the top, then look at some of the complexes and altars on the south side of the pyramid. In the next posting, we'll first complete viewing the south side and then examine Building F on the west side. Next we'll move around to the ruins found on the north side, as well as taking a peek at the vivid murals found during excavations by archaeologists.

Church of Our Lady of the Remedies

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The mound on which the church sits is only the top stage of the pyramid. A long sloping stairway leads down to the broad second stage on which I stood to take the photo. There were two more stages below this. Carole can be seen standing on the left near the bottom of the stairs. When the conquistadors first took control of Cholula, they planted a cross where the teocalli (native temple) was at the top of the pyramid. However in 1536 a bolt of lightning struck the cross. It was replaced, but then a second and later a third cross were similarly destoyed. Upon inspection of the site, Franciscan friars discovered prehispanic idols and buried snails, apparently left there by indigenous people still worshiping the old god. Evidently, Quetzalcoatl didn't think much of crosses.

Carole enters the courtyard of Our Lady of Remedies. The church is not large, but is beautifully proportioned. In 1594, construction of the church began, work that lasted until 1666. Over time, the church became a religious shrine noted for its power of healing, hence the name. It drew pilgrims from considerable distances. In a town that celebrates many religious festivals during the year, Cholula's September fiesta for Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is the most important. Apparently the site also continues to draw worshipers of Quezalcoatl, and today rites to that ancient god are performed at the pyramid. Because the Great Pyramid complex is holy to adherents of both religious beliefs, the site has not been completely excavated.

Steeple and cupola of the church. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the church so the only views I can offer are of the exterior. The dome of the cupola is beautifully tiled with Puebla's famous talavera. In 1854 the first church collapsed in an earthquake and, in 1864, it was replaced by the structure you see today. The image of the Virgin that drew so many pilgrims was moved to another church in 1867, but after an earthquake in 1874 it was returned to Our Lady of the Remedies. It seems that Queztalcoatl may not be the only Higher Power who takes umbrage when things are unduly disturbed. It is not clear which one caused the damage from the earthquake of 1999, or what the deity was upset about. Perhaps it was a joint effort.

Cholula Centro Historico from the church courtyard. The town of Cholula spreads out in all directions around the Great Pyramid. Looking west, you can see the town's Centro Historico, including the Monastery of San Gabriel in the center of the photo. In a later posting, we'll walk through the Centro Historico to see this large monastery and many other lovely colonial buildings. In the meantime, you can get a sense of the height of the Great Pyramid by how it towers over the buildings below.

The South side Complex

Cutaway model detail showing ruins on the Great Pyramid's south side. The 4-sided pyramid was constructed with an orientation to the 4 cardinal directions, considered holy by the ancients. The south side has the greatest accumulation of religious and ceremonial structures, dating from various periods of Cholula's history. Briefly, the arm that extends to the east (toward the top of the photo) is part of the Edificio Teotihuacano. Below it is a large patio constructed in the shape of a "C" called the Patio of the Altars. At the open end of the C is a square, sunken shrine called the Altar Mexica (pronounced May-sheey-ka). Below the Patio are Buildings 2 and 3 containing various shrines and murals. At the bottom, in the angle between Building 3 and the long arm extending west, is a small square structure called the Atlar of Sacrifices. In this post and the next, we will take a close look at all of these structures.

How Edificio Teotihuacano got its name. This photo gives you a sense of the jumble of construction among these ruins, with earlier structures buried under later ones. The structure in the center of the photo is very distinctly of the Teotihuacan style. In the middle of the photo is a right-angle corner with a framed rectangle called a tablero. Below it is a sloping panel called a talud. Classic-Era Cholula was a contemporary of the great city of Teotihuacan (north of today's Mexico City) and was unquestionably influenced by its spectacular civilization. In fact, Cholula's population of 100,000 made it the next largest city in Mesoamerica after Teotihuacan with its 200,000+. In Europe, this was the period of the Dark Ages, with Rome, Paris, and London little more than muddy villages dominated by filthy, fur-clad barbarians.

Some of the ancient plaster still covers the stone walls. This area is part of the Edificio Teotihuacano, along with a mixture of later additions. In the foreground, you can see parts of the ancient plaster still clinging to the underlying stone. The Great Pyramid complex was begun by a people we call the Olmec/Xicalanca. It is unknown what they called themselves. The overall complex was built in six stages, beginning in the 3rd Century BC, contemporary with early Rome and Carthage. Construction lasted, off and on, until the 9th Century AD, an astonishing 1,200 years. In 600 AD the Teotihuacan civilization collapsed and by 750 AD was only a memory. Next, in the mid-9th Century Cholula itself suffered a drastic decline in its population and the Great Pyramid was abandoned. However, the site and the area around it continued to be revered by civilizations that came into prominence as a result of Teotihuacan's demise and Cholula's decline. Over time, this feeling of reverence by people from a wide variety of indigenous cultures began to make the Cholula ruins into a kind of Jerusalem to these ancient societies. They came on pilgrimages, built shrines, and buried their dead in and around the ruins. Some time around the 10th Century AD, Cholula's original Olmec/Xilanca people were conquered and assimilated by the Toltec/Chichimecs, a group made up of remnants of the Teotihuacans mixed with the much-less-civilized but extremely warlike nomadic tribes from the northern deserts. The Toltec/Chichimecs settled around modern-day Tula (Hidalgo State), establishing their capital there, called Tollan. Expanding from Tollan, they created the Toltec Empire, which lasted from the late 9th Century until the 11th Century AD.

Patio of the Altars

Map of the Patio de los Altares. To the west of and adjoining the Edificio Teotihuacano is a large plaza called the Patio de los Altares (Patio of Altars). On the map above, north is toward the top. On the right (east) side are a set of stair cases and small patios. About 1/2 way up this side is a large altar with an upright stela called Atlar One. Above it, in the northeast corner is another stairway with a small altar in front and a large stone head. In the middle of the north section is a great staircase, flanked on either side by two very beautifully preserved tablero and talud structures. At the center of the bottom of the great staircase is Altar 3, another upright stela of unusual design. To its left, in the northwest corner is another staircase. Following down the left (west) side is Altar Two, directly across from Altar One. It is a horizontal slab of stone decorated with carvings of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. At the open bottom (south) side of the Patio is a slightly off-center square, recessed into the ground and containing the Altar Mexica.

Altar Mexica sits in a small, square, sunken patio. This altar was built some centuries after the rest of the Patio de los Altares was abandoned, probably by people who were associated with the Mexica (Aztecs). In the 14th Century AD, they founded Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City), to the west of Cholula. The Mexica were part of the last great wave of Chichimec invaders who arrived a century or two after the fall of the Toltec Empire. They, too, came to share the widespread reverence for Cholula's ancient, pyramid complex. Various offerings have been unearthed at the Altar Mexica, including some human remains. It is not clear whether the remains are from people who were sacrificed or simply buried here. Although the Great Pyramid and its complex were largely abandoned by the time of the Mexica's arrival, Cholula itself was not and it continued as an important city up to, and after, the arrival of Hernán Cortés.

View of the Patio de los Altares and Great Pyramid from Altar Mexica. The Patio de los Altares was built during the Toltec/Chichimeca period (900-1200 AD), some time after the abandonment of the Great Pyramid (seen just north of the Patio in the background). By the time the Mexica arrived, the pyramid was already covered by earth and vegetation, but was still considered religiously important. Indeed, its awesome size would certainly have impressed the former nomads. In the center of the photo above you can see Altar Three in front of the grand staircase, flanked by the two tablero and talud structures. The broad Patio area would have held quite a throng of spell-bound people, fascinated by the pageantry and fantastic feathered costumes of the priests and nobles as they performed mysterious rituals including human sacrifice.

East side of Patio de los Altares. The sides of the Patio contain various smaller patios with staircases leading down into them. However, so many levels have been overlayed that it is difficult to tell where one begins and another ends.

Altar One on the east side of the Patio de los Altares. This altar is the only one on the Patio with both an upright stela and a horizontal altar. The stela is framed around the sides with low relief carving of abstract designs, showing the influence of El Tajin, a ruined ancient city in the northern part Vera Cruz State. The stela's center area is blank, and was probably covered with painted decorations. The brick structure behind the somewhat fragmented stela is modern and only for support purposes. When found, the stela had been shattered into twenty-two pieces. The altar is set in the middle of a long rectangular cobblestone area, in front of a broad staircase. This pattern of an altar in front of a staircase is repeated around the Patio.

Un-numbered altar and stone head at the northeast corner of the Patio. This repeats the altar-in-front-of-staircase pattern. However, this time the altar is in the shape of a snake's head, possibly a reference to Quetzacoatl. The designs on the snake correspond to the style found at the Zapotec's Monte Alban ruin, in modern Oaxaca. In the foreground is a large, carved stone head. The eyes show a resemblance to the Olmec style from the Gulf Coast. This blending of styles--from the Olmec to the Totonacs of El Tajin, to Teotihuacan, to that of the Zapotecs--came about because of Choula's location. It was a great commercial center situated at the strategic intersection of the trade routes between the Gulf and Central Mexico and between Monte Alban in the south to Teotihuacan and the Toltec's Tollan in the north. Nearby Puebla was built by the Spanish in the 16th Century for exactly the same reasons.

Tablero and talud of Altar Three. This fine example of Teotihuacan style is matched by an identical structure on the left side of the great northern staircase of the Patio. The tablero, or long vertically-set rectangle was originally decorated with painted aquatic symbols and bands of red, blue, yellow, and black. The T-shaped decorations on the talud, or sloping surface, are an innovation by Cholulan architects on the basic Teotihuacan style.

Altar Three and the grand staircase leading toward the Great Pyramid. This altar and its staircase are considered by archaeologists to be the most important features of the Patio. The shape of the white stela is unusual, with its pointed top, and the staircase itself seems to lead directly to the ancient and holy Great Pyramid. This is clearly the focus point of the entire Patio area.

Closeup of Altar Three. The El Tajin style is repeated on Altar Three. Again, the blank surface was probably painted with designs. As you can see, the stela was broken near the bottom and was found lying on a platform. This, along with the shattering of Altar One's stela, may indicate some deliberate destruction happened here centuries ago. Invading forces often toppled or destroyed the stelae of those they conquered. At present there is no way to tell.

West side of the Patio, showing Altar Two. This altar is horizontal, and is the only one with no upright stela. The white stone of the altar is set on a raised, four-stepped platform. Interestingly, the staircase in the background (northwest corner of the Patio) has no altar of any sort at its base.

Plumed Serpents decorate edges of Altar Two. This altar is the most richly decorated of the whole Patio de los Altares. On its flat surface are El Tajin-style designs, while the sides, as seen above, are carved with writhing feathered serpents, clearly a reference to Quetzalcoatl. The white stone of the altar is estimated to weigh ten tons.

This completes Part 7 of my Puebla series. In the next part we will complete the tour of the Great Pyramid complex. Following that I'll give you a look at some of the remarkable artifacts found here, along with some spectacularly costumed Aztec dancers we fortuitously encountered. In the next part after that, I'll walk you through a bit of the Centro Historico of Cholula. As always, I welcome feedback. If you'd like to leave a 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

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