…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.
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.
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”.