By 9 o'clock we were breakfasted and waiting in the lobby for F. By 9.05 we were fretting; after being let down by a different guide yesterday our fear of an immediate repeat was not entirely irrational. F arrived at ten past – not bad considering Mexico City’s tangled traffic - perhaps we have become spoilt by East Asian guides who must always arrive before their clients to avoid losing face.
We drove into the Centro Historico. Built over the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish Cuidad de México was founded in 1521, 40 years before the oldest European city in the USA (St Augustine, Florida) and much longer before almost everywhere else north of the Rio Grande. In part, the 16th century grid pattern still survives and there are many narrow streets, but it was Sunday morning so hold ups were minimal - by local standards.
Pulling into a multi-storey car park with valet parking – a new one on me, but common here - we walked to the Zócalo (main square) passing several stalls setting up what looked like doner kebabs, though constructed of pork. Doner kebab was brought to Mexico in the 19th century by Lebanese immigrants, and although still available the local variant, pork marinated in chillies, spices and pineapple, is more popular. The meat, looking less than appetizing when raw, is described as al pastor (shepherd style) a nod to the lamb-y original.
|Setting up the 'al pastor' Mexico City|
We walked between the cathedral and a large temporary grandstand. An NFL game was to be played in the Azteca stadium that afternoon and the weird ritual that is American Football had spawned sundry side shows.
Beyond the cathedral and the adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano, built to house the archives and vestments of the archbishop but now the city's parish church, is the Plaza del Templo Mayor. The Templo Mayor, whose excavated remains occupy one corner of the plaza, was the centrepiece of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city destroyed by Hernán Cortés in 1521.
Cortés built his new city over the top, Tenochtitlan disappeared and was accidently rediscovered only in 1978 during cable laying.
The history of pre-Hispanic Mexico is complicated, involves long and unpronounceable names and, in the absence of written records, is often guesswork. The Aztecs (the people of Aztlan) migrated south from Aztlan which was located either in north-west Mexico or in mythology. According to that mythology they were on a quest to build a city where the earth met the sky. Where Lake Texcoco lay in a high mountain valley the pressure of population had driven the inhabitants to build floating islands on which to grow crops. On one such island the Aztecs saw an eagle, representing the sky, holding a snake, representing the earth. This was so obviously the place to build their city that the eagle and serpent motif still features on the Mexican flag and coinage.
The story suggest Tenochtitlan was not the first settlement on this site, but by 1325 it had become one of a cluster of Nahuatl speaking city states. Ruled by the Mexica dynasty the city increased in size and power and in 1428 linked with two neighbouring cities to form the Aztec Triple Alliance, later known as the Aztec Empire, which ruled central Mexico from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In 1517 Hernán Cortés arrived with 550 men and 16 horses, gave the mighty empire a push and it collapsed like a house of cards.
The Spanish had armour and horses. Horses were previously unknown on the American continent and horse and rider were initially thought to be a two-headed beast that could separate and re-coalesce at will. The Aztecs also lacked the wheel (if you have no horse to pull a cart, why invent a cart?) and their leader, Moctezuma II, mistook Cortés for a god whose appearance on earth had been expected imminently. But, with only 16 magical two-headed beasts and a few hundred men in armour he would have been brushed aside but for his ability to exploit grievances on the outer fringes of the empire which enabled him to lead an army against Tenochtitlan reputedly 100,000 strong. Perhaps even more important were the diseases Cortés’ men brought with them. Finding a whole new population with no natural resistance, smallpox cut a swathe through the empire, killing maybe 50% of the population of Tenochtitlan, far more than Cortés’ soldiers.
The Aztecs had built their city on a lake with canals for streets. Cortés, with his horses and wheeled vehicles, had no use for a Mesoamerican Venice and when, as a good Catholic should, he destroyed the religious and ceremonial buildings he dumped the rubble in the canals to become the foundations for his new city.
|Model of Tenochtitlan in the Plaza del Templo Mayor, Mexico City, showing the widespread use of canals|
The Templo Mayor was only a small part of Tenochtitlan, the rest remains beneath the modern city. The regular appearance of sink holes is not the worst consequence of Cortés’ cavalier approach to foundations - the whole Centro Historico is sinking at a rate of several centimetres a year.
Calle de Tacuba leading away from the Templo Mayor, Mexico City
The further you look down the road, the further the buildings have sunk
The cathedral and adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano now perch on a concrete raft, but this solution is impracticable for the whole area and several churches and old houses lean at interesting angles.
We left the plaza following Calle Moneda, once the home of the mint, past the National Palace.
Calle Moneda with the wall of the National Palace to the right, Mexico City
The awning marks the tourist entrance. There is, I believe, an impressive façade on the Zocalo - if the NFL let you see it
To our left the tower of the former convent church of Santa Teresa la Antigua seemed on the point of toppling.
After a while the narrow street slopes gently into one of the city’s earliest sink holes.
The Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad has also slipped elegantly and largely intact into the hole. F indicated the church’s original floor level.
Graffiti is ubiquitous throughout Mexico, but it often rises above mindless tagging to become street art. On the side of the sink hole one such artist has shared their view of the September earthquake.
We returned to join the queue for the National Palace.
Inside the door is a small but spectacular cactus garden.
Lynne in the cactus garden, National Palace, Mexico City
She has turned her back on a large prickly pear
The cochineal insect lives among the roots of the prickly pear. I remember my mother icing our Christmas cake sometime in the 1950s and telling me that the red icing was made using pounded cochineal beetles. My initial unease, predictably, did not stop me eating icing, regardless of colour, though my mother was probably not using cochineal which had by then been largely replaced by synthetic dyes. Health scares have since seen cochineal making a comeback in food and cosmetics. Carminic acid, from which carmine dyes are made, forms 20% of the insects’ body weight. It seemed a good idea for deterring predators until the big-brained monkeys decided they liked bright red. Cochineal eggs, small white blobs are laid on the cactus’ fleshy lobes. F picked one from the leaf with the corner of his credit card and smeared it on a piece of paper. One tiny egg produced a prodigious quantity of colouring.
The palace, still used as government offices, was built by Hernan Cortés, re-using material from Moctezuma’s Palace. It has been much refashioned since but we passed through the remains of Cortés chapel to access a central quadrangle surrounded by a three-storey arcade.
Covering a substantial area of plaster around the stairwell is Diego Rivera’s epic mural of Mexican history. The scale alone is impressive, but with F interpreting the various sections, it became even more remarkable. It tells a long and complex story, but everyone who has played a part in Mexican history from the Sun God to Leon Trotsky via Cortés, Zapata and JP Morgan is represented.
Leaving the palace, we returned to the cathedral, though the scaffolding for the NFL extravaganza prevented me getting far enough away to photograph its façade. Instead, here is a picture of the spectacular door of the adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano, designed by Lorenzo Martinez in Churrigueresque style, a variation on baroque popular in early 18th century Spain among those who thought regular over-the-top baroque was too restrained.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (snappy title!) was built between 1573 and 1813 over Cortés original church, itself carefully placed to desecrate the Aztec’s most holy site.
Inside the cathedral is the impressive Altar of Forgiveness.
And a flamboyant organ.
The front half of the cathedral was cordoned off for a mass and His Eminence Norberto Rivera Carrera, Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City, was bringing up the rear of a procession making its way around the altar. His accompanying priests appeared keen on processing but the archbishop kept breaking away to bless members of the congregation. Finally, he made his way to the gawpers leaning on the barrier and moved along the line doling out blessings to foreigners and unbelievers. He laid his hand in Lynne's shoulder, but I got the full hand in headed, sign of cross made with thumb on forehead treatment. I expect I needed it more than she did. [It was, perhaps, a fitting culmination to his career, he retired three weeks later]
|His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City just seconds after blessing me (and looking none the worse for his experience)|
After that anything in Mexico City would be an anti-climax! We recovered the car and F drove us north out of Federal Capital into the adjacent state, confusingly called Mexico (in full Estado de México - EDOMEX to avoid misunderstanding). This is commuter territory, houses in bright pastel colours made lines across the hillsides and we passed beneath a cable car that brings workers down to the metro station.
40km out of the city we reached Teotihuacan, a large archaeological site and major visitor attraction, particularly on this holiday Sunday when food and michelada stalls (about which more later) lined the perimeter road. F chose a restaurant and recommended chicken fajitas, a pile of tacos to fill with strips of chicken, onion, peppers, black beans and assorted chilli based salsas. Washed down with Bohemia Obscura, a pleasant dark lager, it was good but remarkably filling.
We entered Teotihuacan through the ruins of an extensive building near its northern end.
The main part of the site consists of a broad, walled avenue two km long – the Avenue of the Dead - with a large pyramid at one end - the Temple of the Moon - and an even larger one - the Temple of the Sun half way down. This latter is the world’s third tallest pyramid, beaten only by two of the three pyramids of Giza. Bumps and lumps in the ground suggest more structures are awaiting excavation than have yet been uncovered.
Serious building probably started around 100BC and continued to 250AD when the population may have reached 125,000. The major monuments were sacked and burned about 550AD but the city survived into the 7th or 8th century before being abandoned - nobody knows why.
The excavated area is obviously religious/ceremonial, but how it was used is unknown. The names are no indication, the Temples of the Sun and Moon and Avenue of the Dead were so called by the Aztecs who arrived 600 years after Teotihuacan was abandoned. The ‘temples’ are not really temples, nor are they funerary pyramids like those in Egypt.
Without the use of draught animals or the wheel, the pyramids took decades, maybe centuries, to build using relatively small, light volcanic stones rather than the huge blocks of the Egyptian pyramids. A small flat-topped pyramid was constructed first then a larger one over that and so on for up to seven stages.
Many visitors had climbed up to the highest scalable platform on the Pyramid of the Moon, but Lynne looked at the high, steep, uneven steps and opted out. I decided to save myself for the larger pyramid which can be climbed to the top.
Walking down the avenue involved negotiating a phalanx of vendors. Many sold stone carvings, including some made from obsidian while others peddled basic tourist tat. Archaeologists found many ceramic jaguar heads scattered about the site. Their use is unknown but they might have been pipes for smoking – tobacco has been cultivated in Mexico since 1,500BC. Alternatively, it may not be coincidental that boring a strategic hole and blowing into them produces a sound resembling a jaguar. Modern reproductions were selling briskly and we progressed to the Temple of the Sun accompanied by the growls of a thousand jaguars.
After clambering onto the platform beside the avenue Lynne announced that she would not be climbing the pyramid and neither would I, 'It'll ruin your knees for the rest of the trip' she said forcefully. She might have been right, but I looked at the lines of people on the terraces of the pyramid, and decided that if they could do it, so could I.
I made the knee creaking descent on the other side of the platform and strode towards the base of the pyramid. I could see the lines of people on the terraces, but the base was hidden and it was only when I reached it that I realized there was a line at the bottom, too. The entrance was in the centre and I walked towards the corner to find the end of the queue. Reaching that corner, 150m away, I found the queue not only rounded it but stretched all the way down the side of the pyramid, another 250m, and appeared to continued round the back. Access to the pyramid was being strictly controlled and the queue, and the lines on the terraces were largely stationary. Admitting defeat, I returned to Lynne disappointed but, on a holiday Sunday, I should have expected it. We met up with F for the drive back to Mexico City. It had been a long day and almost 100% successful – better than yesterday.
Our lunchtime fajitas had not looked huge but we again found the products of corn dough sat heavily on the stomach. In the evening we went for a walk, pausing for a beer each and a tiny cheese empanada and single taco between us – an order clearly regarded as eccentric by our waiter. It was all we could face.