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Destination Mexico

Cholula Ancient, Proud, and Independent

What is now part of the Puebla metropolitan area was once among the most populated, sophisticated, and prosperous cities in pre-Columbian America. Follow us through the cobblestone streets of Cholula as we uncover traces of the city’s glorious past, evident today in the customs and traditions of its hospitable inhabitants.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

In a country like México, which glows with the glamorous and colorful patina that only thousands of years of civilization can give, every town and city takes special care to preserve the brushstrokes and traces that set it apart from all the rest, and Cholula is no exception. Although the city is now part of the greater Puebla metropolitan area, it is older, much older than this. In fact, the Cholutecan deities probably watched, angry and saddened, from their lofty pyramid, as a cohort of winged blond men, messengers of the Christian god, descended into the neighboring Cuetlaxcoapan Valley and began laying out the land and streets that would be Puebla.

It took more than a decade for Cholollan (as the city was then known) to recover from conquistador Cortés’ extermination of its inhabitants. The city’s pyramid, with a base larger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, began to sense the abandonment of the faithful; a Christian cross now stood in the place of the teocalli (pre-Hispanic sanctuary). Thrice this cross was erected and thrice it was struck down by lightning, as if Tlaloc, the god of rain, refused to be evicted from the premises, until in 1594 construction began on the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, which today crowns what at first glance looks like a mountain.

The verdant hill sets off the present temple’s bright-ochre stucco walls and domes covered in a jumble of Talavera mosaics. But before climbing to the top, we’ll travel the tunnels leading into the depths of the pyramid to visit places and relive moments that were alive nearly two thousand years ago. Our first stop before entering is the small archaeological museum filled with pieces uncovered during excavations carried out on the site, first in the early 1930s, and then from 1966 to 1970. The collection illustrates the aesthetic and technical evolution of the Cholutecas over the course of an unusually long historical period.

Humans are believed to have settled here as early as 1000 BC and construction of the pyramid is thought to have begun in the first century of our era. The Olmec-Xicalanca culture is calculated to have ruled the city from 800 AD until the Toltec-Chichimec culture dislodged them in 1100 AD. During this time, the rulers adhered to the old custom of commemorating their reign by covering the previous pyramid with a larger one. This becomes apparent as we move through the tunnels, which cut across the enormous building diagonally, and back to the original pyramid, a simple platform a mere thirty-four meters long and six meters high.

The spacious ceremonial plaza to the south contains altars, stelae, and murals representing offerings made by local and distant rulers hoping to appease the Cholollan deities. The dances that took place in this plaza lasted seven days and seven nights and the dancers sustained this rhythm by drinking water mixed with powdered corn. One wonders about the frenzied movements and ceremonies performed here, offered up during the twilight of the Cem Anahuac in exchange for divine protection against the advancing European conquerors.

Their prayers were in vain: the city fell and the survivors of the ruling Choluteca nobility were subdued and executed by the Spanish, who handcuffed them and threw them to packs of vicious dogs in 1523. Afterwards, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church took over development of the city. In addition to the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, built on top of the pyramid, other temples emerged during the colonial period. The most important of these is the Convent of St. Gabriel of Cholula, built on the remains of the ancient Quetzalcoatl Pyramid.

The galleries surrounding the courtyard of the main cloister contain paintings, some of them attributed to Fray Antonio Roldán, portraying important scenes from the life of St. Francis and some of his visions. Although the church’s facade and exterior are said to display a mixture of Gothic and Hispanic Plateresque styles, the massive walls, broken only by small windows, appear to belong more to the much older Romanesque period. The temple’s interior is completely neoclassical. Older and larger than the Church of St. Gabriel is the adjoining Royal Chapel, the canopied ceiling of which incorporates a total of forty-nine domes. Contrary to what its name might suggest, this chapel was reserved for indigenous royalty not European monarchs.

Indeed, Cholula boasted a strong indigenous community, which although initially subjected to the encomienda system, began to recover some of its autonomy and initiative in 1537, when Charles I made the indigenous people direct subjects and taxpayers. Cholula and the neighboring communities organized, electing authorities and councils, distributing land and economic activities, and zealously defending their autonomy from Puebla, a settlement reserved for Spaniards. The city prospered and this is apparent in the temples that rose up over the years, mixing the traditions and beliefs of both worlds.

Proof of this can be found by leaving downtown Cholula and traveling to Tonantzintla, where the temple dedicated to St. Mary is decorated with an interpretation of Heaven painted by indigenous craftsmen after listening to the Franciscan’s description. Grapes mingle with corn cobs, and among the throngs of angels, seraphim, saints, and virgins on the walls, in the columns and arches you’ll spot the round eyes and curved fangs of Tlaloc, the benevolent rain god, whose kingdom seemed to the natives to be the closest thing to the Spanish priests’ description of Heaven.

Another tradition still alive in Cholula is the appointment of civilians in each parish. The tepil (apprentice) at the Church of St. Francis of Ecatepec explains the system to us while a wedding takes place inside the church. Aside from the tepil, a prosecutor, lieutenant, administrator, doorman, and bell ringer are all appointed by the community (and not by the Church). I suspect this unique institution is rooted in the Cholutecas’ fiercely independent spirit. This is also true of the huehues, another cultural institution we had the opportunity to witness during our visit to Cholula. We first noticed them, dressed in their striking attire, hurrying to join their battalions for the big event of the day: the symbolic takeover of the Mayor’s Office, which takes place the week after Carnival, in which they also participate. The huehues dress up in costumes that allude in witty and burlesque fashion to the French troops that invaded the country during the 1860s. Battalions of huehues parade through the main streets of the city, firing thunderous volleys of gunpowder into the sky.

It was, in fact, in nearby Puebla, in a battle in which huge numbers of Cholutecas also fought, that Mexicans were first able to stop the French, the most professional and powerful army in the world at the time. The huehues evoke the courage of those ancient warriors and the taking of the Mayor’s Office reaffirms the sense of independence that has always characterized Cholula. This message underlies many of the city’s cultural expressions, and those of neighboring regions. We carry it with us as we leave Cholula: pride, independence, and a love of history and tradition.

* Dedicated to Alfredo Torres Cuautle, who showed us Cholula as only one who deeply loves it can.

Directions

From North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers four weekly flights to Puebla (México) through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. Flights depart on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 9:17 am and arrive in Puebla at 12:52 pm. Return flights take off on the same days from Puebla at 1:49 pm, arriving in Panama at 5:23 pm www.copaair.com .

From downtown Puebla, take Seventh Street South to the Avenida Manuel Espinosa Yglesias and head northwest, then turn north on Avenida Esteban de Antuñano and then west on Highway 190 (straight to Cholula).

What to see

In addition to the sites mentioned in the article, visit the Portales Guerrero (Avenida Hidalgo and Calle 4 Poniente), the Cosme del Razo Market (also on Avenida Hidalgo, between Calle 5 and 3 North), and the Caballero del Águila Museum (Calle 4 Poniente, between Avenida 5 de Mayo and Avenida 2 North). There are also good places to eat, like La Casa de Frida (109 Avenida Hidalgo) and Ciudad Sagrada (Avenida 2, Oriente 615). For more information about Cholula, visit: www.puebla.travel , www.turismo.puebla.gob.mx, and  www.guiascholula.com.