Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mexico - Day 3. Teotihuacan and Coyoacan

Today is Sunday, so we decided to do a long outing to Teotihuacan, the Place Where the Gods Were Born. Before I tell you about this giant city of antiquity, let me set a chronologic framework for the cultural development of ancient Mexico:

1500 to 500 BC – The Formative. Small independent communities.
500 BC to 200 AD – The Preclassic. The Olmecs.
200-750 AD – The Classic. Teotihuacan in the Altiplano. The Classic Mayas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Chiapas.
750-1250 AD – The Postclassic. Caltonac and Tula in the Altiplano. The Postclassic Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula.
1250-1521 AD – The Aztec.
1521-1810 AD – The Spanish Colony
1810-1821 AD – The War of Independence
1868-1872 AD – Maximilian’s Empire
1910-1917 AD – The Revolutionary War

OK, so please note that the Aztecs are very late coming into the central Altiplano, and that by that time Teotihuacan had long been abandoned. Imagine the amazement of the Aztecs as they contemplated the giant pyramids, the empty causeways, and the abandoned palaces. This is why they thought that this is where the Gods had been born, and why they gave this abandoned city the name Teotihuacan. We don’t know what the original inhabitants of the city called themselves, but we do know that they built an enormous commercial empire that controlled the flow of merchandise from the Altiplano, down the Gulf Coast, and into the Mayan sites of Central America. We also do not know why they abruptly disappeared in 750 AD, leaving behind their city and dispersing to partner sites such as Caltonac and Tula.

You can probably tell that this is one of my favorite archaeologic sites, and I was quite eager to show it to Maya, Georgina, and Raul. We got there around 11 am, and made a bee line for the Pyramid of the Sun, reasoning that we might as well make the toughest climb while the day was still cool (actually, we had perfect cloudy weather throughout the day).

The Pyramid of the Sun is a good 100 m high and was built in stages, adding one layer after another over a period of 200 years. Like the pyramids of Egypt it is one of the earliest structures erected by the Teotihuacanos. Unfortunately we cannot be quite certain that its current aspect is the original one, because when it was reconstructed in the early 1900’s there was much guesswork on the part of the archaeologist. When we got to the top, huffing and puffing, we found a group of sun worshipers praying the sun under the direction of a native woman (we found another two groups doing the same in different portions of the site). It was interesting to hear the gibberish, imagining it was Nauhatl, but she broke the enchantment when she spoke of Chilaam Balaam (the Mayan word for the 7 heavens).

From there we walked north along the Causeway of the Dead, toward the Pyramid of the Moon (again, remember these are all names given by the Aztecs, and that we don’t know what the original inhabitants called these structures). There was enough people to make the Causeway interesting, as we imagined the original times when the Causeway itself, and the many bordering plazas and temples must have been teeming with people. The city grew over the years to almost 100,000 inhabitants, so it must have been a pretty lively place.

The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun, but is more impressive in that it stands at the end of the Causeway, and thus can be clearly seen for a distance of several kilometers. We had to climb it, of course, and from it had a fabulous view of the layout of the site.

To the side of the pyramid are some exquisite palaces, but the one of Quetzal Papalotl was closed for renovation. Still we got to see the underground chambers of the palace of the Sea Eagles, where some of the original wall murals are well preserved.

We now took the long walk south on the Causeway of the Dead, to reach the complex known as the Citadel. It is a good 4 km from the Pyramid of the Moon, but the time passed quickly joking and looking at the wares being offered for sale by ambulant merchants. I bet the same was true 1500 years ago!

The Citadel was built after the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, as a very large ceremonial square, surrounded by small platforms and temples. It does contain a small but beautiful pyramid, decorated with masks of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain), but for some strange reason the front of it was covered with a late layer (which is probably why the masks have been so well preserved).

Tired, but not beaten, we made a last stop at the museum of the site, which has a fabulous model of the site. The model is “sunk” and covered with see-through plastic, so one can “hover” over the city to admire its incredible urbanism and extent. I paid a visit to the museum shop and bought a reproduction of a piece of ceramic I had been coveting for years, so I was very happy. Maya in turn bought a very nice mask.

We had a late lunch/early dinner in one of the many restaurants in the area, and managed to catch the extra times of the Spain-Holland game. It was great to see Spain score the winning goal! Let’s see, we had a sampler of tlacoyos and quesadillas, a molcajete of assorted meats, and a big serving of cecina (which proved to be a little bit too much for Maya). Oh, and I had two jarritos of pulque curado de guayaba! (Pulque is a fermented drink that the Aztecs were drinking when Cortez came to Mexico. It comes from the maguey—the Century plant. The central leaves of the maguey are cut out, to create a small bowl, in which the sweet sap of the cactus collects overnight. The following morning the “tlachiquero” comes and siphons out the sweet sap or aguamiel, and brings it to the farm house, where the aguamiel is put to ferment in big vats. You can drink it straight—definitely an acquired flavor—or you can put fruit to soak in it. In my case I had one where guava had been soaked into the vat, and it was quite yummy).

We went back to Mexico City, which was unusually empty and clean (we attributed it to the soccer game and the recent rains), and decided to cap the day with a stroll through Coyoacan.

This was a small town away from the city (but now is just a part of it), where the Spaniards established rest homes, and ever since it has retained a quaint colonial flavor. Aha, this is where all the people were! The place was packed, because coming to Coyoacan to have some ice cream, sip on a cup or chocolate, or just sit in the park is a favorite pastime of people who live in the south of the city. A very good end to a very good day!

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