Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Mesoamerican treasure chest

My post-trip reminiscences invariably include some wishful thinking under the heading “I wish I could go back to….”. But down here in the lower Southern Hemisphere our “tyranny of distance” impositions of travel time and costs dictate that a return visit to destinations that impress is a big ask. But that doesn’t stop the daydream. High on my wish-I-could-go-back-to list for Mexico City is the amazing National Museum of Anthropology and its 600,000 priceless artefacts.

Our organised tour, while fascinating and informative, was way too short. It’s impossible to do justice to thousands of years of complex civilisation in a couple of hours, especially when signage is mostly in Spanish. So my advice to would-be visitors to Mexico is give yourself at least a day at the Anthropology Museum and rent an audio guide, or hire a personal archaeology-savvy, bi-(or multi) lingual guide. The Mesoamericans had a rich spiritual and ritualistic life, promoted by the extensive use of plant-based hallucinogens, which had a distinct bearing on their cultural forms. Here is a taste-test of the treasures that await.

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Illustration of items traded among Mesoamerican cities. 

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Monumental designs

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The elegant National Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico City and its environs are not just home to imposing examples of ancient architecture. The contemporary is also embraced and best manifested in the work of the man known as the father of Mexican modern architecture, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, who died in 2013 aged 94. His mos well known, and imposing, works include the signature National Museum of Anthropology with its distinctive “umbrella” fountain; the world’s third largest football stadium, the 100,000-seat Estadio Azteca; and one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, visited by millions every year, the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The original Basilica goes back to the early days of Spanish settlement and is the national shrine of Mexico but because of the volume of pilgrims became inadequate. It celebrates the spot on the Hill of Tepeyac where Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, Mexico’s first indigenous saint, was said to have received four visitations from Our Lady of Guadalupe. His original cloak, said to bear an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is housed in the New Basilica.

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Fit for the millions…the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. 

The National Museum of Anthropology is Ramirez’s signature work and a fitting home for 600,000 invaluable heirlooms bequeathed by the early Mesoamericans such as the Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec and Mixtec civilisations.  With its roof cantilevered over the courtyard and central pool mirroring the structure’s central perimeter wings the museum looks as much at home in the 21st century as when it opened in 1964. Its collection includes the famous Sun Stone – representing the Aztecs’ history of the world – unearthed under the Zocalo in 1790. It’s a monumental and elegant building perfectly designed to celebrate and preserve Mexico’s monumental heritage.

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Timeless design – National Museum of Anthropology.

Pictures from the museum collection in the next post.


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Mystery city

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Pyramid of the Moon. 

Archaeologists and other lovers of ancient civilisations can count their blessings that the zealous Spanish Conquistadors did not turn their eyes northeast from Tenochtitlan when they were busily building over the Aztec capital. Located about 50kms in that direction are the impressive remains of Teotihuacan, a vast site dating back to almost 200 BC, an inspiration to the Aztecs but the work of a different Mesoamerican culture.  According to UNESCO it was the culturally dominant Mesoamerican city during that era’s classical period and influenced the culture of city-states from central Mexico to the east, west and south all the way to Honduras, and to the north as far as present-day Texas. But who the Teotihuacans were, what they called themselves or what language they spoke remains a mystery.

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Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun.

The name of Teotihuacan, which means place of the Gods, was actually bestowed by the later arrivals who believed that only gods could have created such a city. And it is certainly impressive. From the upper levels of the Pyramid of the Moon –  those early morning sessions at the gym paying off to master the seriously steep steps – the grand scale of this ceremonial city-state can be appreciated. Straight ahead the imposing north-south, 40m-wide, 5km-long Avenue of the Dead, thought to have been so named because of the tomb-like structure lining the sides. About halfway down the avenue on the left the dominant Pyramid of the Sun stands framed by the background mountains.

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Sophisticated wall artwork and friezes. 

At its peak Teotihuacan spread over an area of around 35sq-kms with a population of over 25,000, although some estimates put the population at 100,000 or more. Its success was said to result from its organisational structure and rich resources: plentiful water from rivers and lakes; food sources of maize, cactus, fish, game animals like deer and rabbits, and turkeys; pine and oak forests in the nearby mountains; obsidian from the volcanos, prized for weapon making and a valuable trading item; other volcanic rocks; and ample deposits of clay for ceramics.  Mysteriously Teotihuacan declined around 700AD after being razed by fire and abandoned, possibly as a result of a revolt against an increasingly tyrannical government, or after attack from a rival city state.  Much remains to be unearthed about this rich and sophisticated culture including deciphering the site’s original name, all guaranteed to keep those archaeologists happy for some time to come.

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Treasures from Teotihuacan museum including a stone “ball” from a popular game.


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Rhymes with Popocateptl

Speaking of erupting volcanos with tricky names….I met up with a fellow Mexico tour member recently and was impressed by her effortlessly rolling the name of Popocateptl off her tongue. She divulged that she had, in fact, been fascinated by the word since her middle years at primary school: “about the same time that I learned how to spell ornithorhynchus”She said a friend, a former librarian,  remembers learning the following verse at school at a similar time which could provide a clue to the fascination. She shares the verse here (although I’d be a bit worried about settling on Mt Popocatepetl!)

My child, should you decide to go
and make your home in Mexico
the proper place for you to settle
is on Mt Popocatepetl

it’s slopes are green, it’s crest is white
it’s 18,000 feet in height
the air will keep you in good mettle
on top of Popocatepetl


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Sleeping beauty

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Like any worthwhile natural wonder Mexico City’s two iconic volcanos, the active Popocatapetl (Smoking Mountain), and dormant Iztaqccihuatl (White Woman) have a poignant love story to ensure their status. The pair is among ­­40 active, dormant or extinct volcanos in Mexico which features prominently on the Pacific Rim of Fire chain.  Popocatapetl is one of the most volatile erupting spectacularly in 2000, and at regular intervals over intervening years, most recently this week spewing ash three kilometres into the air over nearby Puebla city and closing its airport.

One version of the myth portrays Popocatapetl and Iztaqccihuatl – or Mujer Dormida, Sleeping Woman in Spanish –  as two unrequited lovers. The Princess Iztaqccihuatl is promised by her father to the warrior Popocatapetl if he returns from battle in Oaxaca. Iztaqccihuatl learns her father does not expect her beloved to return and has arranged other suitors. Heartbroken, the Princess kills herself with a dagger. Returning victorious Popocatépetl is devastated and takes her body to the top of the mountain hoping the cold will revive her. Instead he freezes to death.  The gods transform him into a mountain and cover it/him, and the sleeping princess, with snow.

Approaching the volcanos by road from the Mexico City side on the way to Puebla one can make out the shape of the “sleeping woman”, with four individual snow-capped peaks from that angle depicting the “head”, “chest”, “knees” and “feet” of the stricken Princess. I don’t think the residents of Mexico City and Puebla will want Iztaqccihuatl to awaken from her slumber and join Popocatapetl.


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Down Mexico way

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…an eagle, sitting on a cactus, devouring a serpent…

Easing down the glide path into Mexico City, past its two guardian snow-capped volcanos, it is easy to see why the early Mexica Aztecs chose the location to settle. After centuries on the move from their mythical home of Atzlan, here in the Valley of Mexico they had finally found the elusive eagle, sitting on a cactus, devouring a serpent which, according to their legend, signified the spot to set down roots.  The Valley of Mexico site offered all the ingredients a community needed to prosper including protective mountainous surrounds, a bountiful crater lake, guaranteed food from diverse sources, volcanic rocks for building materials and more. So, on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, from around the early 14th century, the city of Tenochtitlian grew and prospered,  at least until Hernan Cortes’ Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519.

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The Zocola and huge Metropolitan Cathedral.

Today Tenochtitlian’s successor, greater Mexico City, the national capital, sprawls through the mountain-rimmed valley, Lake Texcoco long gone after being drained by the Spaniards, with the iconic eagle, cactus and serpent image against a vertical red, white and green tricolour the national emblem.  It is home to more than 20 million of Mexico’s 125 million people, the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. And even though the destruction of Aztec culture began almost from day one of the Spanish invasion, not least through the diseases brought with them, many reminders remain of the city’s early founders, from the appearance of a significant percentage of the populace, to the food, the vibrant colours and to the ubiquitous dark volcanic stone apparent in so many of the buildings. As the invaders destroyed Tenochtitlan and rebuilt their own capital, they used the stones from the Aztec city for their own building program, including early iterations of the now massive Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption which was started in 1573.  The cathedral is the largest in the Americas and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.

Mexico City’s World Heritage Listed Historic Centre..

…and the new.

The historic centre of Mexico City, overlaid on Tenochtitlian, is one of Mexico’s treasure chest of World Heritage sites – 33 in total made up of cultural, natural and mixed locations -topping any country in the Americas. The Aztecs’ expertise at town planning stood their conquerors in good stead with the conquistadors sticking to Tenochtitlian’s basic layout, but without the aquatics.

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Archaeological excavations at the Temple Mayor.

Needless to say Mexico is an archaeologist’s heaven. Current excavations just near the cathedral are uncovering the bones of the Temple Mayor. The dig has just this month revealed the burial site of one of the first Spanish priests to arrive in Mexico following the conquest in a grave sunk into the temple floor. The priest’s name Miguel de Palomares was found carved into the slab. The find appears to confirm that the Spanish had not only religious reasons from overlaying Aztec spiritual symbols with Christians ones. The Aztec building materials and foundations were of such quality that the Spaniards had every reason to build over them. An excellent early example of “reuse, recycle, reduce”.