Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Puebla Part 8: The Great Pyramid, above ground and below

The Great Pyramid of Cholula looms over palaces and plazas on its south side. The view here is from the southwest corner of the pyramid looking northeast. The Church of Our Lady of the Remedies sits atop the pyramid. Since long before the Spanish arrived, most of the Great Pyramid has been covered by earth and vegetation. In the first part of my postings on Cholula, I showed the church and some of the structures on the southeast side of the pyramid. In this one, we will look at the rest of the south side, and examine the great stairway that leads up the west side. Then I'll show some of the unrestored ruins on the north side and give you a peek at what lies beneath the Great Pyramid. The structures you see in the foreground above are parts of Buildings 2 and 3.

South Side: Buildings 2, 3 & Altar of Sacrifices

Buildings 2 & 3 from above, looking south. When we first got to the pyramid, we approached from the north side and none of this was visible. We trudged up the steps to the church, which was nice, but not why we had come. We understood that the Great Pyramid was under our feet, invisible under a layer of earth and vegetation, but surely there had to be more than a large hill with gently sloping sides. We walked back down to the next level just below the one on which the church sits. I moved over to the edge of the grassy platform in order to get a better shot of the church. When I reached the limit of the platform, I looked down and there were the ruins!

Inside Building 2, several stairways and platforms have been reconstructed. This part of the ruins was originally constructed with adobe and limestone covered with stucco. There are presently 3 tiers to Building 2, but there is evidence it was once much higher. Within this structure are murals which we did not see because the area was fenced at the time. In addition to Teotihuacan elements of style, the building also contains designs such as conch shells and starfish which indicate the influence of the Totonac city of El Tajin in modern-day Vera Cruz State. Cholula was a cross-roads state, in communication with both the coast and the interior.

Parts of Buildings 2 & 3 reminded me of a lithograph by M.C. Escher. Like Escher's works, the stairs and passageways of these buildings seemed to start from nowhere and end in blank walls. Above, a substantial stairway leads to a miniscule courtyard, surrounded by giant walls. This effect was created by the Mesoamerican practice of covering over existing buildings in order to create new structures. This practice was used extensively at the Great Pyramid and its associated temples and plazas. In the photo above, the high walls encroach upon a courtyard that was much larger at one time. These newer walls are of a style inferior to the work of the architects of Cholula's Classic Era. A Golden Age had passed.

More Escher-like constructions. Within the complex made up of Buildings 2 and 3 are a couple ancient scale models of pre-hispanic temples. Unfortunately, these too were out of sight because of the fencing. The ancient people apparently wanted to commemorate the stupendous works of the even more ancient and almost legendary people who had gone before. The models were built after the end of the Classic period.

Altar of Sacrifices. This altar is just to the west of Building 3, in the crook of an arm of the ruins extending directly west. It is small, only about 2.44 meters square (8 ft X 8 ft), and .9 meters tall (3 ft). Buried just in front of the steps on the left (west) side of the altar, archaeologists found the decapitated skulls of two children, apparently offerings to the rain gods made in an effort to end a drought.This structure was built considerably after the fall of Classic Cholula. It was probably constructed by one of three different groups that successively occupied Cholula after 850 AD: the Olmec-Xilanca, the Toltec-Chichimecas, and a Nahuatl-speaking group distantly related to the Mexica (Aztecs). The last group were the ones encountered by Hernán Cortés on his way to conquer the Mexica Empire, based in Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City). The two cities are only 113 kilometers apart (70 mi.).

West Side: Stairway to Heaven

Buildng F, a magnificent Teotihuacan-style staircase. This huge, three-tiered structure was built to showcase the beginning of a series of 4 grand staircases leading up to the top of the west side of the Great Pyramid. This one leads from the ground level up to the first great platform of the pyramid, with three more platforms above it, each with a similar staircase structure. At one time, there may also have been similar staircases on the other 3 sides of the pyramid. To get a sense of how these staircases connected the platforms of the Great Pyramid, scroll down to my previous posting to see the artist's conception. Remember that the structure above only represents the bottom level of the overall staircase on the west side.

The tablero and talud style of Teotihuacan can clearly be seen above. The tablero is the long vertically-set rectangle, below which is the sloping wall of the talud. Given this style, it is probable that the stairway was built during the Classic period, around 450 AD when Teotihuacan had its greatest influence on Cholula. Teotihuacan fell in 600 AD but Cholula's Classic period lasted until about 850 AD. The two people seen at the top corner provide a sense of scale.

Two young archaeology students wave a greeting. These two were the students of a university professor who was visiting the site. We struck up a conversation while viewing some of the ruins. He started to tell me of all the ruins we should visit in Mexico, and was astonished to learn that Carole and I had already visited most of the ones he mentioned.

The grand staircase of Building F. Like most of the Mesoamerican staircases we have seen, this one was exceedingly steep, with each step high and narrow. A visitor must tread very carefully because a fall would be difficult to stop once started and could have serious, even fatal, consequences. Many such staircases are now off limits to tourists because of accidents. The base of Building F is 70 meters long (229 ft.), and each tier is 4 meters high (13.12 ft.). The length of this whole side of the Great Pyramid is 450 meters (1480 ft.).

Building F's tablero contains a woven mat design. The design is made of worked stone, and was bathed in red paint in ancient times. Placing such designs within a tablero was a Cholulan innovation on the Teotihuacan style.

Volador mounts the stairs of Building F. This traditionally-dressed fellow was part of a quintet of indigenous performers from the small town of Papantla in Vera Cruz State. Voladores climb a very tall pole where four of them hang by their feet from ropes and swing around the pole as they are gradually lowered to the ground. The fifth man remains on top, playing a flute and beating on a drum. The performance is awesome, particularly since the ropes connecting them to the top of the pole are only loosely looped around their bodies. This ceremony, done now mostly for tourists, was performed for religious reasons in the ancient city of El Tajin. The voladores support themselves mostly from donations, and this fellow climbed to the top of the Building F structure to seek whatever people would give. I gave generously, as I usually do to street performers and muscians. It's a hard way to make a living.

North Side

Unidentified structure on the north side of the Great Pyramid. We found this small pyramid across a busy street just to the north of the Great Pyramid. It was fenced off and lacked any sign. Many of the structures in this area were destroyed when the road was built between Cholula and Puebla in colonial times. No doubt parts of the ancient buildings were used in road construction. The Spanish cared little for these ancient structures and considered them temples for devil worship. This is how many ancient structures may have appeared to the early archaeological explorers.

Closeup of the staircase of the northern area building. My attention was caught by the structure in the middle of the staircase. Clearly, it was meant for someone to stand on its top level, approximately 3/4 of the way up the stairs. Probably a priest or other important figure exhorted a crowd assembled below.

Beneath the Great Pyramid

Tunnel mouth leads into the interior of the Great Pyramid. When we visited Cholula, we had no idea that there was anything significant and accessible underneath. We briefly stopped to talk with a couple of guys who wanted to sell us tickets to tour a tunnel. Since we were tired, it was late, and we still wanted to see the Cholula museum, we declined. Little did we know that underneath the Great Pyramid are several earlier pyramids, or that archaeologists have built more than 8 kilometers of tunnels (5 miles!) to reach these hidden treasures. This provides one more reason to revisit Puebla and its little sister, Cholula.

Spectacular painted murals were found within the Great Pyramid. The murals portray scenes with nobles sitting and drinking as part of some ancient religious fiesta. We found the murals shown here in the museum. They are reproductions of the originals still underneath the pyramid.

A noble dips into a large pot while he relaxes with his comrades. The substance he is drinking is probably pulque, a mildly intoxicating drink that can still be purchased in many areas of rural Mexico. Before the introduction of beer in the late 19th Century, pulque was the most popular alcoholic drink in Mexico for the poorer classes. In the Nahuatl language it is called octli. The ancients reserved its use for the priests and nobles, considering it sacred. Pulque is made from maguey plant, a relative of agave, from which tequila is produced.

1 comment:

  1. You don't have an idea how much i enjoy traveling with you ! I love your Blog, Me encanta que ame a Mexico! Siga adelante, los admiro!


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