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Magical Mexico City (Part 2)

Published
June 7, 2024
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OUT AND ABOUT in downtown Mexico City, I saw this wonderful mural on the side of an office building.

In the early morning, there were street vendors serving food everywhere, as the low sun peeped through alleyways.

A famous place to hang out for cafes and restaurants is Calle Londres or London Street, in the area known as the Zona Rosa or ‘Pink Zone’, a sort of bohemian quarter, part of the wider district called Colonia Juárez.

Calle Ambares, the gay district, is in Zona Rosa, but the name Zona Rosa was bestowed on the district by the artist José Luis Cuevas in the 1960s, and had quite a different connotation to begin with.

Calle Ambares

Beyond the cafes and the lovely leafy streets they find themselves in, I checked out some old buildings and monuments. This is the front of the ornate 18th century church called Nuestra Señora del Pilar, ‘our lady of the pillar’, also known as La Enseñanza, the teaching church.

Nuestra Señora del Pilar

The church’s formal name commemorates the way that the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared to St James the Great when he was preaching in the area of Caesaraugusta, later Zaragoza, in 40 CE. The Virgin was standing on a pillar in this apparition, which was remarkable because she was supposed to be still alive and in Jerusalem at the time. The same story explains why so many girls in Spanish-speaking countries are named Pilar: this is short for María del Pilar, ‘Mary of the Pillar’.

In the photo just above, you can see a statue of Mary on the pillar in front of the rose window.

And I snapped some people coming out of the Camara de Diputados, the chapter of deputies, or in other words the lower house of the Mexican parliament.

And then there is the fine statue of King Charles IV, the last Spanish ruler of Mexico before the disputed reigns of Ferdinand VII and Joseph Bonaparte, outside the National Art Museum, MUNAL. The king is on horseback, his right arm raised in the commanding gesture that the Romans called adlocutio.

King Charles IV, by Tols, áoutside MUNAL

Even though this must be a bit like having a statue of King George III in New York or Washington DC, Mexico’s statue of Charles IV remains standing in the capital because it was created by a famous artist named Manuel Tolsá, who was also responsible for dozens of other colonial façades and public artworks.

Loyal to the subsequent republic and its post-revolutionary traditions, Mexican politicians claim that the statue’s continued existence in prominent place does not honour Spain nor a defunct monarch but Tolsá, after whom the square on which it stands is now named: Plaza Manuel Tolsá.

Another beautiful object I came across was the Casa de los Azulejos, the ‘house of the tiles’, covered in tiles that date back to 1737. It has been a restaurant since the nineteenth century, and has beautiful artwork and a courtyard inside as well.

I visited another church with a lovely interior, though not as elaborate as Santo Domingo in Oaxaca.

Another stately building is the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, which I photographed from the northeast, below. Tolsá also contributed to the design of this cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Someone told me that there are 170 museums in Mexico City. One of the biggest is the National Anthropological Museum (MNA), the country’s premier museum of indigenous culture.

MNA displays showed how native Americans originally arrived during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower than at present. Low enough for the ancestors of all future native American groups to walk from Siberia to Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait and the shallow seas to its north and south.

It always seems incredible to me that it was possible to wander from Siberia to Alaska and then southward into the Americas, at a time when there were glaciers as far south as the future sites of London and New York.

It turns out that even in the frozen north of those times there were still large areas of ice-free ‘mammoth steppe’, basically a kind of tussockland. And so, people were able to wander from Siberia to America across tussocklands laid bare by the much lower sea levels of the time, and on down south.

The MNA also showed how early tribal peoples of the future Mexico eventually developed a whole range of indigenous civilisations over the last four thousand years. Of these, perhaps the first one to arise was that of the Olmecs, whose most characteristic surviving artifacts take the form of massive stone heads. The last was the Aztecs, brought down in their civilisational prime by the Spanish conquest of the 1500s.

There was a strong continuity among all these civilisations apart from the Aztecs, who were originally a tribal people emanating from what is now the United States or the US-Mexico border region.

The Aztecs swept down and conquered the more settled, central part of Mexico in the 1200s and 1300s by our calendar, much like the ‘barbarians’ who invaded Rome: but they soon started building cities themselves, founding their capital of Tenochtitlán, the future Mexico City, in 1325 CE.

Famously, the founding of Tenochtitlán fulfilled a prophecy by which the wandering, tribal, ancestors of the Aztecs were supposed to settle down and found a city once they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus. This vision was fulfilled on an island on the shallow lake Texcoco, which occupied much of the area of today’s Mexico City and has since mostly been drained and built over.

Despite the difficulty of building a city on an island in a lake — though it perhaps also made the city more defensible — the Aztecs had managed to create a city of some 200,000 or more inhabitants by the time the Spanish beheld it in 1519, with a massive temple complex comparable to those of the Maya at its centre.

This made Tenochtitlán one of the largest and most impressive cities in the world at the time and the Spanish were duly impressed, transforming it into their own capital.

As for the eagle, the cactus, and the snake, this is the symbol of Mexico and the Mexican state.

State symbol above the enrance to the MNA

Mexican flag at Palenque

Before that, it was informally adopted by the Spanish. According to one source, with references in the original,

The first Europeans to visit the coast of present-day Mexico were Francisco Fernández de Córdoba in 1517 and Juan de Grijalva in 1518; conquest began in 1519 and Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztec empire on August 23, 1521. Such is a brief space of time in which the so-called Nueva España, i. e. New Spain, was brought under the dominion of Spain, which continued to rule over it for the next three hundred years. Banners with the emblem based on the old pre-hispanic symbol of the eagle, snake and prickly pear [cactus] were widely used in conquest expeditions, like that to the Florida (ca. 1550), nevertheless, the only official symbols of New Spain were those of colonial power.
After many minor attemps to free New Spain from Spanish rule, a major uprising was held in 1810. Insurgent forces, made out of peasants (mostly), creoles and renegade military officers, adopted white and blue banners based on the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and charged also by a [badge] of an eagle, a snake, a prickly pear, a rock, and water. With time, this [badge] had turned to be in the national emblem; the achiev[m]ent used to be completed by trophies of war.

The symbol of the eagle and the snake was already known in Europe, where it usually symbolised some kind of triumph over adversity or evil.

Ancient Greek coin from Olympia, ca. 432–421 BCE, photo by Exekias, 6 June 2011, CC BY 2.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

The Spanish regarded the gods of the Aztecs, especially the ones that were in the form of serpents, as demons who had tricked the Aztecs into worshipping them by human sacrifice.

You can imagine what old-time Christians brought up on the tale of Adam and Even would have made of this image of a decapitated victim of human sacrifice, the blood spurting out of his neck and turning into snakes.

A decapitated victim of human sacrifice (a player of the Mesoamerican ball game), from which it seems that the blood coming out has been transfigured into serpents. The summary reads: ‘Sacrificed ball player, Anthropology Museum, Jalapa, Mexico, photo by Maurice Marcellin. This stela originates from Aparicio, Veracruz, and is presently in the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa, Mexico.’ (Spelling corrected). Public domain image originally photographed by Maurice Marcellin (on or before 6 September 2006) via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, for the Spanish, the symbol of the eagle devouring the serpent was a lot less alarming, and they were quite happy to take that over and make it their own.

The MNA had an exhibit dedicated to Teotihuacán, a really major centre of classic-era Mesoamerican civilisation only 40 km from downtown Mexico City, which was at its peak around 450 CE, thus long predating the Aztecs. Unlike Tenochtitlán, Teotihuacán has largely survived intact. It is in the municipality of San Martín de las Pirámides, just northeast of the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, and about 40 km northeast of downtown Mexico City.

San Juan Teotíhuacán is indicated at the top right of this map. Map data ©2024 Google. North at top.

In Teotihuacán, the motorway-like and rampart-lined Avenue of the Dead terminates in the great plaza of the Ciudadela (Citadel), overlooked by the 43-metre-high Pyramid of the Moon.

Teotihuacán: The Avenue of the Dead, leading towrd the Ciudadela and the Pyramid of the Moon. Photo by Ricardo David Sánchez, 9 December 2007, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Teotihuacán complex also has the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica, the 75-metre Pyramid of the Sun, which can be seen in the next photo, taken from the summit of the Pyramid of the Moon and looking backward toward the Avenue of the Dead.

A view over the Ciudadela toward the Avenue of the Dead, with the Pyramid of the Sun visible against the ridge in the background. Photo by Diego Delso, 13 October 2013, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pyramid of the Sun is taller than the tallest pyramid at Tikal or  Chichén Itzá as measured to the tops of their temple roofs, and is all the more remarkable for not having a temple on top to add to its height the way that those pyramids do. The Pyramid of the Sun used to have a temple on top, however, and this would have added to its height still further.

The Ciudadela in Teotíhuacán as viewed from the entrance to the Avenue of the Dead. Photo by Fjhuerta, 1 October 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Rotated counterclockwise by 1.5 degrees for this post.

The next photo shows a replica of a mural that depicted the so-called Great Goddess of Teotihuacán.

Here is a video I made, showing the outside of the museum and then the part dedicated to Teotihuacán.

The MNA also had a display of Aztec codices: books of pictures prepared soon after the Spanish conquest by indigenous artists to record the history and mythology of their people for the benefit of high-ranking people in Spain.

This was done in the style of the decorations and murals that the same artists had been carving and painting in the Aztec temples. They were based on repetitive, simplified images called pictograms which told historical and mythical stories. It was an early form of writing, though not as advanced as that of the Mayans.

A part of the Codex Mendoza, prepared for a Spanish administrator named Mendoza, bears the familiar symbol of Mexico in the middle. It describes the foundation of Tenochtitlán, just beneath the eagle’s feet, and you can see a pictogram of a tzompantli or skull-rack as well.

‘Folio 2r of the Codex Mendoza, a mid-16th century Aztec codex. Depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan, and the conquest of Colhuacan and Tenayucan’

The codices bear short notes in Spanish. What happened was that, before the codices were shipped off to Spain for the King and Queen to read, a Spanish interpreter sat down with the local artists and learned the significance of each pictogram and how it fitted into the story, making notes in Spanish. There is no note by the tzompantli-pictogram just to the right of the eagle, no doubt because its meaning is obvious enough!

Here’s a photo of a reclining figure with head turned 90 degrees, which is very common in Mexico and Central America, and is called a Chac Mool. The Chac Mool usually held a bowl or cauldron into which the various products of sacrifice would be placed (or poured).

Here’s a stone disk that represented the sun, I think.

And here are some genuine Aztec wall murals, of the kind that helped to inspire later Mexican mural painters: the one on the left depicting a ‘jaguar warrior’ and the one on the right an ‘eagle warrior’, standing on mythological snakes.

And a painted Mayan frieze, known as the ‘Frieze of Pleasures’, rediscovered by explorers at the dawn of the twentieth century only to be looted in the 1960s. It was rediscovered again through contacts in the art-and-antiques world and finally restored in just the last year or two, ironically with the aid of colour photographs taken by the looters themselves.

And a water god from Puebla, who seems to be vomiting water.

I think this one was a fertility symbol:

And I am not sure what this was, but it looked amazing! As did its backdrop . . .

As does this:

There were also images and models of what Tenochtitlán looked like before the pyramids were torn down by the Spanish. The base of the grandest of the pyramids, the Temple of the Sun, still remains, and it would not surprise me if it ended up being rebuilt one day, for old times’s sake.

And here is an especially fine piece of stonework in the same museum, from nearly a thousand years before the Spanish conquest, showing a player of the Mesoamerican Ball Game, the one in which the losers were often sacrificed, with Mayan writing around the outside.

National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Marker for a pelota game showing a pelota player in action ( Chinkultic/Chiapas, 591 AD).’ Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, ‘08.04.2008’, CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

Next: I visit a jeweller working in Mexican silver, and head to the famous artists’ colony of Coyaocán (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera territory), and the canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco.

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