Wednesday, November 17, 2010

CHOLULA: Land of Temples

CHOLULA WAS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CENTERS OF CIVILIZATION IN ANCIENT MEXICO. It is said that the Cholulans were one of the seven tribes that came from the north in pre-historic times to populate and civilize the center of Mexico. These seven tribes came from a mythic place named Chicomoztoc and after a great deal of wandering finally arrived at this high plateau. The Toltecs arrived in Cholula in the eighth century, converting it into a sacred city; they built a pyramid that would be the tallest building in all of Mesoamerica. It was said that Quetzalcoatl lived in Cholula, where he took refuge from the conflicts in Tollan, the other great Toltec city.
Quetzalcoatl supposedly left on his mythic journey to the sea- from which he would rise to the heavens and become the morning star, the star we know as the planet Venus- from Cholula. Mexico tends to mix myth and history and Quetzalcoatl appears to have been both a king and a spiritual master, or simply one of the most important gods of ancient Mexico. For this reason Cholula also means "the place from which he fled," in memory of Quetzacoatl's journey to his celestial home.
Cholula was converted into a religious center covering a large swath from the Gulf of Mexico to what is today southern Mexico. Apart from building the largest pyramid in America, the Toltecs also built 365 minor pyramids, one for each day of the year. It is not difficult to understand how this important city and successor to Teotihuacan would be threatened by the rise of the Aztecs, who were latecomers to the region and were building their own city not far from Cholula. The violence of the Aztecs was known and feared.
Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes arrived in Cholula in October 1519 and, as he hoped, turned the Cholulans into allies. The Cholulans fought with him, bringing about the destruction of the Aztec city, Tenochtitlan (later to become Mexico City). But the Cholulans were not interested in continuing their alliance with Cortes, which became apparent when Cortes turned to the Cholulans for provisions to continue his military advance. They denied his request, and this convinced Cortes of their lack of goodwill. He organized a party for them in a town plaza. During the party, Cortes led a bloody attack on his allies killing, thousands of them. This massacre marked one of the darkest chapters in an already violence-filled conquest.
Curiously, the conduct of the conquistadores did not end the alliance and the natives who helped conquer Tenochtitlan went on to help conquer the entire country. Cholula is located in the state of Puebla, Mexico.
Cholula's churches represent every style from the Gothic to the neo-classical at the end of the colonial period. The most important example is the Franciscan monastery San Gabriel built in 1529 with a Gothic rib-vaulted roof. Nearby is the unusual Royal Chapel, one of the most unique religious buildings in Mexico. Originally it was an open-air church built without a roof, reminiscent of a mosque like that in Cordoba in Andalucia, with nine naves and thirty-six columns. For a while it was covered by a wooden roof, but later the wooden arches and cupolas that we see today were constructed. One of the characteristics of the churches of Cholula is that their cupolas have ceramic coverings, giving them a beautiful brilliance.
Rising in the distance close to Cholula is the largest pyramid in the Americas. Dedicated to Quezalcoatl, it is 1150 feet at its base and 216 feet tall. Like all Mexican pyramids, this one was built atop others constructed before it. The original temple, dating from around 500 B.C. was uncovered, and measured 350 feet at its base and was 59 feet tall. This temple was then covered by another. Smaller buildings surrounded this pyramid; in turn, these were covered over by the current pyramid and its walls and stairways. Archaeological remains from nine separate periods were uncovered revealing that the pyramid of Cholula was a witness to at least two thousand years of civilization.

Cholula supposedly had a temple for every day of the year, but the truth is more modest. Upon their arrival, the conquerors either covered over or built a church atop each one of these temples, which is the bases of the legend that Cholula had 365 churches. In the town itself, thirty-four churches were built; another seventy-six were constructed in neighboring pueblos. Including the chaples in surroundings haciendas, the total number of churches is 159 - still an enormous number. The most important is the La Virgen de los Remedios, which was constructed atop the grand pyramid, Tlachihualtepetl. This church was a symbol of the spiritual conquest of Mexico.