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The Silk Route - World Travel: Xochicalco & Cuernavaca, Mexico
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Mexico: Xochicalco & Cuernavaca
July 2016

Xochicalco Cuernavaca
Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs, Xochicalco

7th century Xochicalco is the prime example of an Epiclassic multicultural fortified hilltop city; the remains are extensive with some of the best relief carving we have seen anywhere. And we had an amazing experience at the "Observatory" luckily being here at a time when the sun was in the right place to shine directly into it.

Xochicalco

Xochicalco
Model of Xochicalco in the site museum.
Looking north. The Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs is at the front of the image, with, on its north side and on a higher terrace, the great pyramid facing south. In the centre of the plaza is a platform with the stela, flanked by two smaller step pyramids east and west. Lower left is the largest ball court at Xochicalco.

Xochicalco grew as the great city of Teotihuacan declined, and reached its peak in the Epiclassic era, roughly 650-900 AD. The era is characterised by enhanced militarism, perhaps brought about by the power vacuum left when Teotihuacan collapsed. People were on the move, escaping political uncertainty and economic instability. Thus urban centres became more cosmopolitan and developed with an eye to security.

Xochicalco is the supreme example of a fortified Epiclassic site, displaying influences from the Central Highlands, the Gulf Coast, and the Mayan region.1

The ceremonial and civic centre stands on a hilltop with tremendous views over the surrounding countryside. Residential areas occupied lower hills so that the ordinary people lived below the centre - in every sense, the elite and the gods were "above" them, reinforcing an evident class distinction.

A number of causeways end here, reminiscent of the Mayan sacbeob at Classic Maya cities such as at Tikal, Coba, Edzna and Kabah.2 There is much evidence of Mayan influence and also Teotihuacan inspiration in the architecture, with the talud-tablero style, and worship of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl.

The hilltop was artificially levelled and terraced to carry temples, ball courts, grand plazas and elite living areas. The lowest of the levels is surrounded by a wall so the whole could be easily defended.

The centre came to an end in fire and destruction, though the areas below these suffered no such fate. Perhaps the lower orders rebelled against those who would look down on them.

Xochicalco
Xochicalco rises above the trees on its hilltop.
Xochicalco
Looking south-west from the steps leading to the Great Pyramid. The central platform with its stela and the west temple of the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs.

Our guide, Pepe, had rearranged our schedule slightly so that we could go to Xochicalco on this day, which was going to be sunny, and he had a surprise for us.

After a brief visit to the museum and some history Pepe took us out and up to the site. First we came to the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs.

This area was the centre of civic and ceremonial life. Though ceremonies were only for the elite the noise of of drums would have been widely heard and the people would have known something was going on. Ceremonies may well have centred on the movements of celestial bodies as the wide space, elevated above much of the surrounding landscape, is perfect for star-gazing.

Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Looking south-east from the steps leading to the Great Pyramid.
The east temple of the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs.

This is a beautiful wide space, a pyramid with the remains of a temple on top on each of the east and west sides and, in the centre, a platform with the stela. The two glyphs inscribed on it are both dates - 10 Acatl (Reed) and 9 Ojo de Reptil (Reptile Eye), possibly relating to Quetzalcoatl.2

Xochicalco
The stela platform has two concentric walls, each with a set of steps on the east side; a curious arrangement - what happened when the official got to the top of the outer set of steps - there are no steps down the other side? Or it could just be due to partial restoration.
Xochicalco

This plaza seems isolated from the main complex, as is a huge ball court to the south west.

Xochicalco
Steps on the north side of the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs lead up a terraced platform to the Great Pyramid.

 

On the north side of the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs stands the Great Pyramid on its huge terraced platform, rising in four levels with a central staircase facing south. The terrace steps are the same width as the pyramid and the terraced platform extends an equal distance to east and west of the Great Pyramid so from the Plaza of the Stela it appears a unified whole.

 

Xochicalco
The south east corner of the Great Pyramid.
The grand staircase on the south side starts almost at the edge of the terraced platform on which the pyramid stands.

Xochicalco
On the southeast corner of the terrace this galleried structure commanded fine views - an elite residence? It was very close to the Great Pyramid.
Xochicalco
The rear of the Great Pyramid on the left. On the pyramid next to it stands the Temple of the Three Stelae.
Xochicalco

 

 

We headed east where there are substantial remains of a galleried building with a central courtyard on the south east corner of the terrace.

 

Xochicalco
The East Ball Court
The grey square bottom left is the edge of the roof protecting the Ramp of the Animals.

 

 

Next to it lies the East Ball Court, rectangular with typical sloping sides. What isn't typical is the wonderful ramp which provides access to it on the south side - the cobblestones of its floor are all carved with images of animals hence its name: Ramp of the Animals.

It is thought that only very important people from the ball game would be allowed to use this ramp.

 

 

Xochicalco
Reptilian, but what?
Xochicalco
A scorpion?
Xochicalco
These all appear to be birds, two owls with an eagle between?
Xochicalco
Ramp of the Animals
Every cobble stone is carved.
Xochicalco
Two mammals and a bird?
Xochicalco
An entrance in the wall directly below the Temple of the Stelae leads into a cave. It has its own small walled courtyard. Pepe told us that a statue of a kneeling god was found inside - perhaps an early temple?

A long wall forms the west side of this space above which the structures of the upper terrace can be seen. On the east side are structures once associated with the ball court which lies below and on the further side. These include a large central pyramid flanked by two smaller pyramids - the rear elevations of all three would have been great for watching a ball game!

Xochicalco
Structures on the east edge and above the east ball court. On the right is the top of the Ramp of the Animals. Then a small stepped pyramid with central staircase and, behind the tree, a larger pyramid, and finally, at the north end, a smaller pyramid which looks to be identical to the southernmost one.
Xochicalco
Looking south west on the terrace.
The long wall of the upper terrace stretches down to the Temple of the Stelae. The tree stands within the galleried courtyard which fronts the central temple above the east ball court. In the foreground remains of a smaller structure at right angles to the courtyard.

 

The central pyramid faces west into what was once a large galleried courtyard with rooms.

We made our way round to the north end of the ceremonial area, still beneath the upper terrace.

 

Xochicalco
North side of the terrace from the east. One of the covered channels for water distribution can be seen on the right.

At the eastern end there is a cistern for collecting rain water, once roofed with tree trunks, clay and stones to keep the water clean. Water could be distributed through channels down the hillside to the people living below.

Xochicalco
The great water cistern.
Xochicalco
Water flowed underground from the walled courtyard in front of the temazcal (out of shot on the right) to the outlet at the head of the steps at the west end of the cistern, then cascaded down to fill the tank.

Rain falling in the courtyard of the Temazcal, a little further to the west, drained into the cistern

A Temazcal is a steam bath, it translates as "hut-like oven where one baths and perspires" - and is one of the very best examples to be seen in Mesoamerica.

XochicalcoThe Temazcal.
A canal leads to the entrance.
Xochicalco
The Hall of the Polychrome Altar.

 

Xochicalco
The Temazcal showing the entrance and raised steps or benches.

The Temazcal had adobe walls faced with stone. A room behind had a wood-burning fire for heating stones, these would be sprinkled with water to create steam.

This was not a bodily cleansing area, as such, but used for ritualistic purification, for instance of those who were to participate in a ball game. Behind and below this northern area of the terrace is the large north ball court.

Finally on this level we came to the Hall of the Polychrome Altar, a remarkable survival still with traces of mostly blue pigment. In order to protect it the building, which Pepe told us was the Temple of Tlaloc, has been partly reconstructed and roofed with thatch in the style and materials which would have been used at the time.

Xochicalco
The Polychrome Altar.
Xochicalco
The courtyard in front of the Hall of the Polychrome Altar.
Xochicalco
Polychrome Altar
The sloping base has vertical wavy lines in red and blue, while the edge of the platform is decorated with quadrangles. In a Temple of Tlaloc, the storm god, perhaps the wavy lines represent a downpour!

A fine pillared courtyard lies in front of the hall emphasising its importance.

 

Xochicalco
This wonderful figure, dubbed "The Creator" (because he has two penises!) was excavated on the Main Plaza near the acropolis.

We left this terrace and climbed to the upper level and the Main Plaza. On the west side is the acropolis, the highest point of the complex, comprising buildings arranged around central patios built on an artificial 6m high platform.

Off-centre on the east side is probably the most famous of Xochicalco's structures: the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent.

Xochicalco
Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent
At the top of the steps are the lower walls of the temple which once stood on the platform.
Xochicalco
North east corner of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent.

 

The pyramid is another talud-tablero construction, the walls carved with figures and fantastic undulating serpents. It is reminiscent of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan and may have been an attempt to copy it.2

It faces, roughly, west. There are two massive serpents carved on each of the sloping faces on the north, south and east sides. On the west side there is a wide staircase which leads to the temple.

The coils of the serpents frame a seated man in a style which is obviously influenced by Mayan art. Pepe told us that the men are thought to represent wise men such as astronomers from the four local tribal cultures, debating how to synchronise their various calendar systems.

 

Xochicalco
North west corner of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent.
Xochicalco
A wise man debates.

The wise men have speech curls emanating from their mouths and gesticulate with their hands in animated debate. They wear elaborate headdresses similar to the warrior headdresses on the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan.

Xochicalco
One of the complete serpents.
The glyph group under the coil on the left is 9 Reptile Eye surmounted by the glyph of a house with scrolls emanating from the top.
Xochicalco
Frieze above the serpents.
Lower right a serpent swallows a quartered disc - a representation of a total eclipse? There is also a seated cross-legged man and an animal which may indicate where he came from.

Above the carved serpents is a frieze of carvings in rectangular frames of a serpent about to swallow a quartered disc - a representation of a total eclipse of the sun, or, less romantically, the conquering of the four tribes by the Aztecs.

Very faint traces of colour, red and greenish-blue, can be made out on the panel supporting the stairs on the right.

XochicalcoAlabaster Bowl
650-900AD
Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.
A luxury item, excavated from the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, Xochicalco. A stylised bird, probably a quetzal, dives onto a glyph.3

There is a wonderful representation on the front left face by the stairs of the correcting of the calendar - I've tried to make sense of it using the illustrations below and information from our guide Pepe.

Xochicalco
Enlargement of the glyph showing the new date. The central portion is the glyph for Ozomatli or monkey, around the top and right sides are 11 discs - so the date is 11-Ozomatli or 11-monkey.

The calendar was composed of two simultaneous cycles - a 360 day cycle of 18 months of 20 days each + 5 extra days, and a 120 day ritual cycle. These concurrent two cycles were completed every 52 years. All of these numbers were of great significance.

During the time of the rise of Xochicalco many peoples were on the move and many different cultures settled in the city bringing their own beliefs and practices with them. Synchronising the calendars would have been a necessity.

Xochicalco
A square glyph representing a house (between the end of feathers at the top left) from which protrude arms on each side. On the left a hand pushes away a block, perhaps representing a date or number, on the right a new date (see image on the right) is dragged in by a rope. The whole represents a correction being made to the calendar. Below the house is a glyph for the number 9, a long bar with four discs below, but falling off on the right hand side is another disc and the block under the right hand also contains a disc.
Xochicalco
An earlier temple excavated within the pyramid of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, well below the level of the final temple.

 

 

We climbed the steps to the temple level of the pyramid. Here only the lower sections of outer wall remain but the interior has been excavated to reveal an earlier temple.

Either side of what was once the entrance to the final temple built here, are panels of glyphs inscribed into the sloping walls.

 

Xochicalco
Right hand panel at the entrance to the temple.

 

The inner edge of both panels bears the glyphs for a calendar date. In the centre is a man sitting cross-legged holding a sheaf of arrows (possibly serpent-headed?) and a torch or perhaps a flail.

The left hand panel has a carving of a dog on the outer edge, the right what looks like a tree, or possibly serpents - these ma indicate where the men came from.

The calendar date symbols are, as far as can be seen, identical on both panels apart from the number below: 10 on the left, 8 on the right.

 

Xochicalco
Left front entrance side panel - legs of two people are clearly visible on the right.
Xochicalco
Left hand panel at the entrance to the temple.
Xochicalco
Right front entrance panel.

 

On the facing walls of the entrance the carved panels show a tantalising glimpse of two standing human figures - two sets of legs.

The two people are standing very close, one behind the other. The front figure looks to be wearing a skirt decorated with long feathers and a length of cloth tied around the leg and fastened in a flamboyant bow below the knee. The other figure wears a loin cloth with a piece hanging at the back. Both have sandals on their feet.

Xochicalco
Temple of the Three Stelae
Seen from the top of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent.

South from the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent is the much bigger Temple of the Three Stelae. The temple is squeezed into the south east corner of the Main Plaza and living quarters and other buildings may have been demolished to accommodate it - see the plan below.

Xochicalco
This plan on a site information board shows the Great Pyramid (3), Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent (7), living quarters (6) and the Temple of the Three Stelae (5).

 

Xochicalco
Stela 3

Three magnificent stelae were found in the temple - they had been deliberately broken into pieces and placed in the floor of the Chamber of Offerings. Perhaps they belonged to a previous building phase and were ritually and respectfully buried before the new temple was built.

Xochicalco
Stela 2

 

Xochicalco
Stela 1

 

The three stelae can now be seen in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and are well worth seeking out.3 The glyphs and other carvings are related to Tlaloc, the Storm God, and Quetzalcoatl. The following information comes from the museum descriptions:

Stela 1 is 143.3 cm high. Quetzalcoatl emerges from from the jaws of a mythical beast on the front face, possibly alluding to the creation of the fifth age, the age we now live in. All four faces of the stela are also carved with numbers and calendar dates.

Stela 2 is 139 cm high. Again Quetzalcoatl appears with, below, a heart spouting three drops of blood.

Stela 3 is 147 cm high. The front is carved with a Tlaloc face and related Tlaloc iconography such as fangs.

 

 

South of the Temple, on the lower terrace, stands the Great Pyramid.

 

Xochicalco
A fine view of the rear of the Great Pyramid - middle right can just be seen the stela in the Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs.

 

 

The principal entrance to the upper terrace Main Plaza is gained by a series of porticoes and grand staircases west of the Great Pyramid.

While the staircases were of an impressive magnificence, the porticoes were independent buildings, specifically designed to control access - a unique feature among Mesoamerican sites.1

 

 

Xochicalco
The outer portico below the upper terrace leading to staircases up to the Main Plaza.
Xochicalco
Grand staircase leading up to the Main Plaza.
Archaeologists found many skulls and arm and leg bones here. The bones were drilled with holes and it is thought that they were strung up above the entrance to scare intruders - or perhaps just to intimidate visitors!
Xochicalco
55cm high macaw ball court marker found at the southern ball court Macaws feature strongly at the ball court in the Mayan city of Copan in Honduras.
Xochicalco
Close-up of the entrance portico.
Behind on the left are structures associated with the southern ball court, including its extreme south west edge. It is the largest at Xochicalco and here completely masked by trees! The white diagonal gash is the ramp leading into the ball court The causeway leading to it is lined with 21 calendar altars recording the months (and in one case days) of the ceremonial year.
Top right is a group of structures known as the "Palace" - in reality residential rooms, workshops, kitchens and a temazcal arranged around a number of patios.1
Xochicalco
The north ball court

 

We left the Main Plaza, descending to the terrace of the cistern and further down round the back of this terrace through the north ball court This is an example with very steep walls and a shallow ledge - no two ball courts seem to be totally alike! The two rings, once fixed to the sloping walls, one on each side, high up, were lying on the ground.

Xochicalco

The aim of the players was to get the heavy ball, made of solid rubber, through the ring, without the use of hands or feet.



Xochicalco


Xochicalco
Pretty much at zenith.

We were now coming to the Observatory, and the surprise that Pepe had promised us. The Observatory is a natural cave, one of many here, which has a shaft in its roof. Daylight penetrates the shaft, but on special days the sun shines into it to cast a beam of light in the cave. We were here on one of those days, and it was a perfect day for it.

Astronomical movement ensures that the furthest north the sun appears in the sky is over the Tropic of Cancer, and this is the time of the summer solstice, currently the 21st of June. For a few weeks either side of this date the sun will shine into the Observatory's shaft as it passes overhead. On the 14th/15th of May, and again on the 28th/29th July, the sun passes directly over the shaft. We were there on the 13th July, so very close to the peak viewing time.

The caves here were used in the early phases of occupation for quarrying stone for building purposes. Later the Observatory cave was modified to enable celestial observations and for ceremonies.1 Some local people still seem to hold on to the ancient beliefs, a woman here had a bundle she wanted to place in the beam of light - she was only allowed to put it nearby. I don't know what she thought it would confer on the shells inside.

Xochicalco
The first sign of the sun hitting the edge of the shaft entrance at ground level.

 

We were one of a dozen or so waiting to enter - the others seemed only to have come for this event as we'd seen no-one else as we explored Xochicalco.

The tunnels and cave are pitch black. We waited patiently until the sun hit the edge of the shaft - the guide threw sand to see the column of light better. It was extremely bright, moving across the floor as the sun moved in the sky.

 

Astronomical observation played a huge role in ancient societies, not just those of Mesoamerica. It was essential to know what time of year it was in order to plan agricultural activities.







Xochicalco
Xochicalco

 

Provision of food is one of the necessities of life, so it's no wonder that peoples deified the sun, stars and other celestial bodies - these seemed to control the turning of the year and thus the agricultural seasons. In turn this would lead to significance in ceremonial activities - propitiating the various gods responsible for rain, a good harvest, etc. and these ceremonies would all have to be performed at particular times. It's a short step to adding gods of war, childbirth, etc. with their own ceremonies.

 

Quite an experience, and very atmospheric to think of the priests of Xochicalco standing in this place, performing their mystical ceremonies, so many centuries ago.

Xochicalco is a fantastic site, it instantly became one of my favourites. So much of interest, and so many fabulous remains.

 

Cuernavaca

Cuernavaca
Palace of Cortes.

 

And so to lunch, though a very late one! Excellent fried beef and onion tacos with guacamole and beans washed down with a beer.

We strolled around Cuernavaca, electing not to go into the impressive Palace of Cortes. It was built in the early sixteenth century on the site of Moctezuma's palace. In the grounds there are large rocks from the original palace with glyphs.

It's a pleasant enough city, apparently with a very agreeable climate so it is a favourite place for summer residences.

We spent some time in the cathedral. Originally the church of the associated monastery, built after the conquest for the evangelisation of the indigenous people. It became a cathedral in the late nineteenth century.

Cuernavaca
The entrance to the cathedral.

 

Cuernavaca
Tercera Orden Chapel

 

 

At the entrance to the cathedral is the pink Tercera Orden chapel - in fact there are a number of chapels in the complex.

 



Cuernavaca
Chapel of Santa Maria
Cuernavaca
Beautiful wood fittings in Tercera Orden

 

 

Inside the cathedral a fine series of early seventeenth century murals were uncovered during renovations. These tell the story of Mexico's first saint, Philip of Jesus. Along with 23 other Franciscan missionaries he was crucified in Japan for attempting to convert the people to Christianity.

 

Cuernavaca
The missionaries transported in carts to the city of Nagasaki.
Cuernavaca
Cuernavaca
Cathedral of Cuernavaca
Cuernavaca
The missionaries arrive on the shores of Japan.
Cuernavaca


Cuernavaca

 

References

  1. Xochicalco (Mexico) No. 939 - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  2. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson,
  3. Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City