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The Silk Route - World Travel: Tula & Tepotzotlan, Mexico
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Mexico: Tula & Tepotzotlan
July 2016

Tula Tepotzotlan
Atlantes, Tula, Mexico

 

Tula is famous for the impressive Atlantean statues which stand high on a pyramid, but there is also some fantastic relief carving here, especially on the Wall of Serpents!

Tula

Tula, Mexico
Tula

 

Tula is a Toltec city. It is also known as "Tollan" meaning "Place of the Rushes" or "civilised urban space".1 An alternative derivation is that it is an Aztec name given to a people who inhabited the region before the Aztecs arrived. Here it means "artisans" because the Toltecs were very good with their hands as craftsmen and builders.

Tula, Mexico
Chacmool with a sacrificial knife strapped to his arm.
The Chacmool is often associated with Chichen Itza, but in fact is a sign of Toltec influence. It is one of a number of clues that there was significant contact between the two cultures.
It is thought that the flat plate on the belly was used as a receptacle for the heart of a sacrificial victim.

80km north west of Mexico CIty in the state of Hidalgo, this Toltec stronghold reached its peak between AD 950 - 1150, the early post-classic era, though there had been settlements here for centuries beforehand. The city was huge, covering 16 sq. km with a population between 30000 and 40000. Tula Grande was built in this period, with streets aligned 17 degrees east of north, similar to Teotihuacan. Previously the alignment was due north so building the new city involved demolishing at least part of the previous Tula Chico and starting from scratch.

Tula, Mexico
Relief of a Toltec ruler.
Sandals, leg ornament, a fine headdress and holding an atlatl - a device for launching a spear.
Tula, Mexico

We began our visit in the small on-site museum.

The chacmool is one of many indications of Toltec influence in mesoamerica. Another is the prevalence of the Toltec cult of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.

 

Tula, Mexico
This colossal fragment of an Atlante is almost 2 metres high.



Tula, Mexico
These statues held flag poles, the jaguar having a deep hole in its back.
Tula, Mexico
An Atlante, which would probably once have supported an altar or table, and a flagpole holder.

Leaving the museum we walked through an extensive cacii garden, this being a desert region they do very well here! Many of the cacti and succulents were in bloom with vividly coloured flowers.

Tula, Mexico
The cactii garden at Tula.
Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico

As we walked towards the site our guide, Pepe, told us a version of the legend of the beginning of the cult of Quetzalcoatl. The story goes that a tribal leader chose this as the location of his settlement after seeing a goddess here. He was so afraid he fired arrows at her which she stopped with her hand. He married the goddess and they had a son and was then killed in battle against a tribe which worshipped the feathered serpent. To avenge his father the son attacked the rival tribe. killing their leader. His people were so impressed they added the name "Quetzalcoatl" to his own name and the cult of Quetzalcoatl became established. Quetzalcoatl left the settlement to conquer new territories, promising to return. When Cortes and his men arrived, wearing feathers in their helmets, Moctezuma thought it was the god Quetzalcoatl come home.

Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico
Prickly pear cactus.
Tula, Mexico


Tula, Mexico

 

Tula, Mexico
Ball Court 1 on the north side of the site.
Steps lead into the playing area which is an I shape. Flanking the long axis of the court are two shallow slopes which formed part of the playing area - in other ball courts they can be much steeper.

 

 

Approaching the site from the north we first arrived at an I-shaped ball court just outside the ceremonial area. The I-shape is thought to have been first used at Xochicalco and thereafter at many other sites.

 

Tula, Mexico

The only remaining fragment of relief carving shows the lower part of a ball player wearing knee pads and rather heavy-looking sandals. Hip protection can just be seen at the top of the fragment.

Tula, Mexico
Fragment of a relief of a ball player.

 

Tula, Mexico
Ball court 1
MNA, Mexico City.
This curious statue was found in Ball court 1 and represents Tlaloc, though with a spear and a triangular tabbard. It is possible that for the Toltecs, the storm god was also associated with elements of conflict.2

 

 

The information board at the site describes a figure of a warrior found at Ball Court 1, dressed in garments characteristic of the storm god Tlaloc who was associated with royal dynasties. Niches on the structures at the ends of the playing area could have held statues of the patron gods of the ball game.

 

The walls of the court were once covered with stone slabs with relief carvings but only one small fragment remains - the Aztecs revered the people of Tula for their skills and removed practically everything they could take!

Tula, Mexico
Ball Court 1 from Pyramid B.
Tula, Mexico
Plan of Tula from site information board.
Tula, Mexico
The north side of Pyramid B and El Coatepantli.

 

Tula today is essentially the civic and religious centre. Grouped around a large Grand Plaza are an unexplored pyramid on the east side, a large unexplored ball court on the west, and a platform with pillars on top on the south side. It is the northern area that is of most interest, however. Here lie the pyramid known as Pyramid B, on top of which the famous giant Atlantean figures stand. No less impressive is the carving at the base of the pyramid and a series of colonnaded halls to the west of Pyramid B known as the Burnt Palace.

Tula, Mexico
The north side of Pyramid B on the left and El Coatepantli on the right.

We moved on from Ball Court 1 to look at the magnificent relief carvings at the base of Pyramid B and on a wall, El Coatepantli, on its north side.

 

Tula, Mexico
Muro de Serpientes
This is the outside of the wall carved with giant serpents swallowing human skeletons. The scrollwork on the top of the wall is shaped like a cut section of conch shell and is symbolic of Quetzalcoatl manifested as the planet Venus.

 

 

The wall is called El Coatepantli - the Muro de Serpientes or wall of serpents. It is carved with reliefs showing human skeletons being devoured by enormous rattlesnakes - imagery related to human sacrifice and also perhaps resurrection - life and death.

 

The information board here says that this is yet another element which was copied by the Aztecs and appears in their cities. It is known that for the Mexica these walls determine the boundary of the sacred space and it was probably the same for the Toltecs.

Tula, Mexico
The snake's rattle curves over the top of the carving.
Tula, Mexico
Inside face of Muro de Serpientes.

 

 

 

The serpent carvings are in good condition, with quite a bit of colour remaining - it must have looked even more fearsome when the whole wall was a mass of vibrant colour.

 

Imagine walking down this corridor at night, in flickering torchlight, with the drums beating outside and the sounds of the jungle all around.

 

A tunnel was discovered beneath the Burnt Palace, running from a river in the western hills to Pyramd B and was used to bring water into Tula.

 

Tula, Mexico
The carving on each level of the stepped pyramid follows the same form: an upper band of jaguars and coyotes, a lower band of eagles and composite creatures.

Around the outside of Pyramid B itself are relief carvings of four creatures representing the warrior orders which supported and defended the empire: jaguars, coyotes, eagles eating human hearts and a monstrous composite creature.

 

Tula, Mexico
East wall of Pyramid B.
Tula, Mexico
Jaguar
Tula, Mexico
Coyote
Tula, Mexico
Another coyote.
These two representations of a coyote are so different that they must have been carved by two different people.
Tula, Mexico
A composite creature with a human face, topped by a nose and with the forked tongue of a snake. It looks as if there are feathers on top and arms or legs at each side.
Tula, Mexico
An eagle eating a human heart.
Tula, Mexico
Another eagle.

 

The carvings seem to have been done by many different people, going by the different depictions of the various creatures. The eagles are particularly faithfully rendered, with wing and tail feathers, beak and claws carefully delineated.

The legend of eagles eating sacrificial human hearts and flying to the sun is said to have begun here too.

 

Tula, Mexico
"Burnt Palace"

 

We left the carvings to move on to the "Burnt Palace" - not a palace at all but a series of pillared halls, each with a central shallow depression, as if for a pool. It is probable that these rooms were used for meetings and ceremonies. Around the perimeter are stone benches, and the walls were frescoed.1

Tula, Mexico
Tezcacuitlapilli
"Burnt Palace", Tula
900-1250 AD
MNA, Mexico City
The disc is 33.3cm in diameter, made from over 300 pieces of turquoise plates and fragments of pyrite in the shape of flowers which are associated with the fire snake, xiuhcóatl. Pyrite is a highly reflective material suggesting that this is a solar disc which would have been worn on the backs of warriors and dignitaries to emphasise their importance.

The columns within the east and west halls and outside on the north side are circular - those of the central hall and outside on the south side are rectangular.

Tula, Mexico
Deep stone benches line the walls of the halls.
Tula, Mexico
At the centre of each of three walls in the eastern hall is a projecting platform, perhaps used for ceremonies, the fourth wall, on the east side, has the entrance to the hall. Each hall also has, in its centre surrounded by columns (foreground), a shallow rectangular depression.
Tula, Mexico
There are several square pits in the floors of the halls.
Tula, Mexico

Tula, Mexico
Pyramid B from the "Burnt Palace".

These halls lie west of Pyramid B and both were once fronted to the south by long colonnaded halls on the northern edge of the Grand Plaza.

 

Tula, Mexico
The long colonnade (once a roofed hall) on the south side of the "Burnt Palace" - this extends about half the width of the Grand Plaza.
Tula, Mexico
Along the back of the colonnaded hall in front of Pyramid B were once banquettes decorated with polychrome reliefs of marching warriors.1 All we could see of these were some in the process of renovation, out of bounds and under cover. The stone benches/banquettes in the "Burnt Palace" and its south side colonnaded hall were almost certainly similarly decorated.
Tula, Mexico
Approach to Pyramid B.

Tula, Mexico
The steps leading up the pyramid are quite steep


Tula, Mexico
West side of the Grand Plaza.
Looking down from Pyramid B the largest ball court lies to the west. Nearer is the base of a long rectangular platform which was once a tzompantli - a skull rack. These were usually decorated with skulls and were where the skulls of sacrificial victims were displayed. When discovered this tzompantli was littered with fragments of human skulls.1
The smaller platform on the left of the photograph, called an adoratorio, was an altar.
Tula, Mexico
East side of the Grand Plaza.
Looking down from Pyramid B onto the remains of the colonnaded hall in front of the pyramid and stepped Pyramid C. Pyramid C was actually the largest structure on the Grand Plaza and probably more important than Pyramid B. It would also have had a temple on top.
Tula, Mexico
How the temple on top of Pyramid B would once have looked.
Site information board.

 

At the top of the steps up the south side of Pyramid B one sees immediately the impressive Atlantes figures. There are four, and they would once have held up the roof of a room. The entrance to the Atlantes room was once supported by two serpents, head down.

Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico
Atlante
Tula
MNA, Mexico City
Tula, Mexico
On their backs the Atlantes carry a tezcacuitlapilli, a representation of the solar disc.
Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico
At the top of this pillar are carvings of the head of a serpent.
Tula, Mexico
A warrior with a jaguar above.
Tula, Mexico
I believe the Atlante on the far left is a copy, replacing one which was taken for display in the MNA, Mexico City.
Anthropology Museum
Atlante
Tula
900 - 1250 AD
MNA, Mexico City
Only 80 cm high and retaining its original pigments, this Atlante was found in Pyramid B and was probably used to support an altar. It represents a warrior wearing a breastplate and necklace of the same design as those on the left.



Anthropology Museum
Breastplate and necklace.
Tula
650 - 900 AD
MNA, Mexico City
The breastplate was undoubtedly an elite item, made from shells and rectangular pieces of shell. The Aztecs revered the Toltec people for just this kind of spectacular craftsmanship.
Tula, Mexico
The Atlantes are over 4m high.

 

The Atlantes represent the epitome of the Toltec warrior. They carry knives, an atlatl and darts, a curved blade and a pouch for carrying copal - a sacred resinous incense.

 

Tula, Mexico
Artefacts from Tula in MNA, Mexico City.
Tula, Mexico
The sandals are closed at the back.
Tula, Mexico
Standard bearer, 112cm high.
MNA, Mexico City.
Found west of coatepantli and thought to have been originally on top of Pyramid B.2

Tula, Mexico
The four square columns once supported the roof of the rear room.
Tula, Mexico
The distinctive butterfly breastplate of the Toltec warrior. The square ear muffs are also a common feature in Toltec sculpture.
Tula, Mexico
Tula, Mexico

Behind the room of the Atlantes was a second room with four carved square pillars which held up the roof.

Tula, Mexico
A warrior holding an atlatl; the head of an eagle can be seen left of the feathered headdress.

The pillars are carved with figures of Toltec warriors holding atlatls and at least two have the emblems of one of the four warrior castes.

 

Tepotzotlan

Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Tepotzotlan, Mexico
... and rabbit for the main course!

 

Tepotzotlan, a pueblo magico, in other words one which is thought to offer the visitor a special experience. In Tepotzotlan's case this is for its colonial centre and the Church of San Francisco Javier and the Museo de Virreinato.

We were ready for lunch when we settled down at the end restaurant overlooking the central square, next to the monastery.

Ever keen to try local dishes I had a sopa de tortilla to start: deep fried corn tortilla strips. crumbled cheese, avocado, black chilli, diced deep fried pork skin with a tomato-based broth poured over - really excellent! Then rabbit in a sweet spicy sauce with prickly pear cactus salad, guacamole and refried beans.

Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Sopa de Tortilla ...
Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Interior corridor in the museum.

After lunch we went into the museum which is housed in the third school to be established at their monastery - the College of San Francisco Javier.

Built by the Jesuits in the 1580s, the monastery is a peaceful complex of internal courtyards, dormitories, a pharmacy, refectory, kitchen, chapel, cellar, an orchard and extensive gardens.3

Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Entrance to the museum.
Tepotzotlan, MexicoSculpture of a hunchback.
"Tepotzotlan" is a Nahuatl word meaning "near the hunchbacks" because of the shape of the surrounding hills.
Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Church of San Francisco Javier
Tepotzotlan, Mexico

 

Tepotzotlan, Mexico

 

 

The Jesuits made Tepotzotlan a highly-regarded educational centre. However, this didn't save them from the mass expulsion of Jesuits from Spanish lands in 1767, victims of the desire to remove papal influence from government.

The museum houses many items from colonial times including paintings, sculpture, furniture and tools, though this isn't really our biggest interest, especially not being a big fan of baroque, so we didn't linger.

However, it is essential to visit the seventeenth century Church of San Francisco Javier whose exuberantly Spanish Baroque - known as Churrigueresque - interior dazzles even those of us who don't like the style!

Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Tepotzotlan, Mexico

 

 

In front of the church is a huge courtyard, large enough, our guide told us, to accommodate all the Indians who came to Mass. Although the service would start at 11 a.m. they were told to come at 10 so that all their names could be taken.

Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Onyx sheets in place of glass.

 

 

 

 

The interior is quite something, smothered in gilded, carved wood. The windows are the original sheets of onyx, they had no glass.

 

No question, though, that I'd far rather be out exploring a site like Tula than being blinded by fussy baroque!

 

 

References

  1. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson,
  2. Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
  3. Museo de Virreinato - National Museum of Viceroyalty