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Ruins Of Mitla - Pyramid Of Cholula - In Mysterious Mexico

( Originally Published 1905 )

Son of the morning, rise, approach you here, Come, but molest not yon defenceless urn.

Look on this spot, a nation's sepulchre,

Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn. —Childe Harold.

MEXICO is a land of ruins, and after centuries of occupation we are now only beginning to appreciate the achievements of its ancient people, and to understand the difficulty of solving tile problem of its prehistoric settlement. On my return to Mexico City from Durango I left early one morning to examine the famous ruins of the Toltec town of Mitla. These wonderful buildings are near the junction of the Pachuca and Mexican Central lines to the Pacific coast, they are the despair of antiquarians, and antedate, in the opinion of Le Plongeon, the deluge.

I went out of my way a few miles to visit the giant tree of Tule, which stands in the churchyard of Santa Maria del Tule. This is one of the biggest trees in the world, not excepting those redwood giants of Calaveras, California. It is one hundred and ten feet high and six feet from the ground is one hundred and fifty-four feet in circumference. It is said that twenty-eight persons with their out-stretched arms touching finger tips can just encircle this immense tree, which is a species of extinct cypress. On the east side of the tree is a tablet placed there by Humboldt, the German traveller and antiquarian, when he visited Mitla in 1804. It has been there so long that the inscription is badly effaced, and I could not decipher it, even with the aid of a powerful glass. From the hacienda or farm of Don Felix Quero, where our party lunched, it is only five minutes' walk to the ruins. We passed through a straggling village of thatched huts and narrow streets hedged with giant cacti, across a little rio (stream), up a rocky hill, and we stood within the graven walls of a temple that may have existed before that of Solomon.

The ruins of Mitla, the wonder of the western world, are to-clay just as they were in the days of Cortez. For centuries, it may be for thousands of years, through the long ages they have defied the ravages of time, of earthquakes and of tropical storms. No ruins in Mexico, and probably none in America, are more elaborately ornamented with chisel and painter's brush than these. To make their position and extent intelligible, I will have to separate them into groups or classes, for the architecture is not uniform. There are five collections of ruins. The first consists of immense blocks of porphyry and traces of hieroglyphic painting. The building is about one hundred and twenty-five feet by one hundred, and the walls, which are seventeen feet high, enclose a large court, on three sides of which are ruins. There are four walled quadrangles facing upon an open court, lying exactly at the four points of the compass, with their walls in lines true to the needle. The outer walls of all the ruins are composed of oblong panels of mosaic, forming arabesques. I could trace no chiselling or sculpture on the walls, but, baffling description, were peculiar mosaics formed of pieces of coloured stone, cut and fitted into the face of the wall with mathematical accuracy and of complicated designs.

Passing from these buildings we enter the second group, which has three of its walls and chambers standing, under one of which is a subterranean vault decorated with mosaics and carvings of monstrous idols. In each of the chambers of this court there is a niche cased in cut stone in the wall opposite the entrance. When we leave here we enter the third group, which is in the best state of preservation, and where one of the buildings is intact without a solitary stone displaced. This is the Hall of Monoliths or stone columns, and is a splendid relic of prehistoric architecture. The lintels of this structure are immense blocks of porphyry, one of which is nineteen feet long, weighing perhaps twenty tons—a solid block of stone raised to its present position by some lost process of engineering.

But what distinguishes the ruins of Mitla from all other remains of Mexican architecture is six columns of porphyry, eight feet in circumference and fourteen feet high, ranged in line in the centre of the great hall. They have neither pedestal, capital, nor architrave, but are symmetrically rounded as if done by a lathe. They are said to be the only examples of the kind found in the ruined cities of Mexico or Central America. The next group of ruins is a building two hundred and eighty-four feet by one hundred and eight feet, with walls five or six feet thick. Two great stone pillars twelve feet high support the lintel of the doorway. A stone-covered passage leads into the audience chamber, a splendid room, with its walls in carved mosaics, or more properly a Grecian setting of the tiles. On the left is a beautiful room with scarcely a tile missing from its exquisitely inlaid walls. The tiles are so accurately cut and so deftly fitted that no mortar was used to hold them in place. In the covered hall are remains of the dark red paint on a hard cement plaster. In the centre of the court is a concrete pavement supporting an enclosed square with a cut stone border or curbing, intended for a fountain or flower bed.

In one apartment is a dado of painted figures on a dull red ground, perhaps the oldest mural painting in existence. No idols or statues have yet been found amid the ruins, and if such ever existed they were probably carried away when the city was deserted. Some of the houses are in a fine state of preservation and furnish examples of the skilful handiwork of the mechanics and artists of a buried and forgotten race. One thing is certain, the men who hewed from the quarries and carved these monoliths and huge lintels had no tempered tools of either iron or copper.

If they understood the tempering of copper the secret died with them. In the hewing of these immense pillars from the quarry, chipping and moulding them into their present form, in the lifting and setting them in their places, and the mixing of an imperishable cement, they gave proof of a mechanical civilization of a very high order. The walls and their weird carvings and mosaics remain, but they give no clue to the race who built the city of Mitla, or how it perished. As the splendid monoliths, standing or fallen, now are, so the Spaniards found them, and the description given four hundred years ago by Motolinia, who visited the ruins with Cortez, holds good, without the change of a word, to this day.

The Spanish historian states that in his day the Indians knew nothing of the people who built the city. Not one city alone, for all over this valley of Oaxaca are found the remains of walls, columns thrown down, and great monoliths like those of Mitla. Near Oaxaca are the remains of another prehistoric city, and the prostrate city of Xaga is only three miles from Mitla. The whole of the vast area south of the cities of Mexico and Puebla is strewn with the Ethic remains of a civilization unknown to the Aztecs, and overgrown with forests in the days of the Spanish conquest. How were these huge shafts transported from the porphyry quarries ten miles away ? To-day we understand how the Egyptian workmen split from its matrix and transported to Cairo the great Ptolemaic monolith, but how did these prehistoric people of Mexico bring to Mitla these enormous stones and columns ? They had no water to flood the quarry and raft them to a deep river as the Pharaohs did. They had no oxen, horses, or beasts of burden, for these were introduced by the Spaniards. Again, from whom did they learn architecture, with its plans, specifications, arabesques, grecques, and mosaics ? And once again, from whom did they acquire the secret of extracting paints from minerals, paints that have survived the gnawing tooth of time and the vicissitudes of ages ?

Leaving the famed city of Puebla in the early morning, we struck the trail almost due east across the plains to Los Arcos. Here we entered the Valle dos Templos, the valley of the churches, where on all sides minarets, towers and domes cut the sky line. As we advanced, the sun was rising above the mountain peaks, and on the tiled and polished domes of many hues shimmered gleams of burnished gold. From the only elevation in the valley—all that time and erosion had spared of a volcanic mount—we looked back upon the historic city of Puebla, the forts on its shadowing hills, and the picturesque villages that dotted the fertile plain. Near, almost unto contact, towered the volcanic mountain Popocatepetl (17,800 feet high), and Iztaccihuatl (16,700 feet)—the white woman,—whose imperial heads wear imperishable diadems of snow. To our left soared majestically the blue mountain of Orizaba, where the clouds love to rest, and whose royal crest this early morning was aureoled in roseate glory.

Descending, we soon entered the venerable town of Cholula, a straggling but fascinating place of five thousand souls. In the north-east corner of the market square still stands the monastery built by the Franciscan friars in the days when Cortez, from the Indian village of Coyoacan, superintended the rebuilding of the city of Mexico. On the pillars supporting the galleries of this historic structure still remain, faintly outlined, the portraits of twelve of the early missionaries, including those of Fray Miguel and Juan Ossoria. In this town also is the church of San Gabriel, roofing Tolsa's famous altar, whose marvellous dome and delicately-chiselled pillarets of onyx attract artists from afar. Cholula in the days of old was called the Holy City. In pre-Columbian times its altars were annually dyed with the blood of human victims offered in sacrifice to the gods of Anahuac. The historian Herrera states that six thousand victims were yearly sacrificed in their sanguinary Teocalli or temples, and Bernal Diaz, soldier and chronicler of Cortez' march to Mexico, says he counted in a city taken by the Spaniards one hundred thousand skulls of human victims piled and ranged in methodical order. When Cortez, on his way from Vera Cruz to Mexico, fought and won his famous battle with the Tlaxcalans, a deputation of the caciques and prominent men of Cholula waited upon him and extended to him and his army the freedom and hospitality of their city. Already a deep-laid plot was formed to entrap and slaughter the Spaniards; and to propitiate the favour of their gods, a great sacrifice, mostly of children, was offered up that morning in Cholula. Suspecting no treachery, Cortez, contrary to the advice of his Indian allies, accepted the invitation of the caciques, and when he and his men entered the city they were received with demonstrations of joy and welcome.

At this time Cholula was, after Mexico, the most flourishing and populous city of the New World. According to Torquemada, its walls enclosed a hundred and fifty thousand souls. It was famous for its gold and silver filigree fashioned into flowers, humming birds, and butterflies of such exquisite finish and accuracy of detail that when specimens were exhibited in Toledo the Spanish metallurgists admitted they were equal to anything of the kind done in Europe. The Spaniards visited the great market, and were astounded to see the exhibit of delicately fashioned pottery, shawls, and rugs of brilliant colours woven from the maguey and agave fibre, and the unheard of and wonderful feather cloth. It was in this city the mysterious white man —deified as Quetzalcoatl—the god of rain—dwelt in the remote past, and taught the Cholulans the higher virtues and material civilization. Here, too, he foretold the coming of a bearded race of men from beyond the sea. In the days of the conquest there was a tradition that in his honour the temple on the summit of the great pyramid of Cholula was raised.

For two nights the city was illuminated to do honour to its guest, and to disarm suspicion presents were exchanged, fetes held, and banquets given. Hidden in the forest a few miles north of the city were twenty thousand of Montezuma's warriors sent from Mexico to assist the Cholulans in the annihilation of the Spaniards. Cortez, through his female interpreter, Marina, learned of the murderous conspiracy. Satisfying himself by further enquiries of the base treachery of his hosts, he invited the caciques and principal men to meet him. After accusing them of shameful treachery to their guests, he charged them with conspiracy to murder him and his men, and when they denied the accusation he produced his proofs and his witnesses. The Cholulans were silent and confused, and before they had time to frame a reply Cortez gave the signal to his men, who fell upon them, slaughtering, according to Oviedo, three thousand of the citizens, sparing, however, women and children.

Here, in this historic and venerable city, we bivouacked for the night, and the next morning began the ascent of the pyramid, the most colossal monument of the two Americas, and in some respects of the world. A substantial, paved road built by the Spaniards winds around the mysterious structure, and makes the ascent comparatively easy. When we arrived at the top of the pyramid we stood upon a plateau or stone platform two hundred feet long by one hundred and forty-four feet wide. We were one hundred and eighty feet—the height of the pyramid—above ground level, so that if the builders had continued their work they would have reached an altitude of four hundred and ten feet. The French antiquarian, Le Plongeon, and the American cryptogamist, Donnelly, believed this pyramid to be the original Tower of Babel. The Spanish historian of the conquest records that in his day there was a tradition among the Aztecs that it was built by giants, who intended to raise the mount to the sky, but the gods, laughing at their arrogance, rained fire from heaven, and forced them to desist. To give the readers an adequate idea of this tremendous structure, I will dispense with the figures of the civil engineers who have lately measured it and illustrate the size of the pyramid by familiar comparisons. Assuming the area enclosed by Queen Street (Toronto) on the north, King Street on the south, Yonge and Bay Streets east and west, to be thirty acres, it will give the base of the monument. Now, if all the earth dug from the Welland Canal, which, I think is twenty-six and one-half miles long and fourteen feet deep, was piled in a thirty-acre field, the pile would not equal the height and bulk of this colossal structure. Humboldt is credited with having stated, when in Mexico, that this pyramid represents the labour of five thousand men working twelve hours a day for thirty years. The materials entering into the construction of this stupendous work are broken limestone, boulder, rubble, eruptive stone and sun-dried brick, held in place by a binding of unknown composition. On the summit where now is the beautiful church of " Our Lady of Good Help," stood the Aztec temple of " The God of Rain," on whose altars were sacrificed prisoners and slaves, victims of propitiation to the Ebon god whose statue was crowned with plumes of fire, and around the neck of which was a collar of gold and precious stones.

Of the age of the Cholula pyramid no man may speak with authority. It has defied the applied and accumulative research of antiquarians and archaeologists, and will remain for all time an insoluble problem. It was hoary with age when the Aztec migrants entered the valley of Anahuac in the thirteenth century, and was lost in the twilight of the past when the Castilians gazed upon it with awe and bewilderment. It may antedate the siege of Troy or indeed, the Egyptian Cheops. When Manasseh was offering human sacrifices in Jerusalem, and the smoke of the perpetual fire was mingling with the perfumed incense in the sanctuary of the Holy of Holies, perhaps on this Teocalli of Cholula the pagan priests were holding aloft to the sun the palpitating hearts torn from the breasts of their human victims, replenishing the ever-burning oil on the altar and swinging blazing censers before the graven image of Choc-Mool. There is no agreement of opinion among the Spanish, French and Mexican writers on the monuments of Central America and Mexico as to its origin and purpose. Here it is, however, defying the gnawing tooth of time and the shock of earthquakes, and for all we know is destined to last till the "sun becomes black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon becomes as blood and time shall be no more."

The view from the summit was superb. Around the fair valley, teeming with fertility and dotted with happy villages, rose the great barrier of porphyritic rock, the Sierra Madre guarding the enchanted region. As we descended the sun was dipping to the west, and the shadow of the wondrous pyramid was creeping over Cholula and wrapping the ancient village in sunless light.



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