Indian Memories in Two of Mexico's Cities

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Indian Memories in Two of Mexico's Cities


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


OUR guide's voice came through loud and clear over the microphone as we left Mexico City, the largest urban centre in the world, for the city of Puebla. 'My name is Manuel, but I'm always confused about my name. When I enter a room where my friends are gathered, I always hear the comment "Jesus! It's him again!" Now I sometimes think my name is Jesus. Take your pick!'

Everyone in our group of twelve broke into laughter, putting us in a good mood for the beginning of our three-day trip through Mexico's states of Puebla and Veracruz. Manuel continued to entertain us with his anecdotes, jokes and historic tales until we reached Cholula, a town of some 80,000 on the outskirts of the city of Puebla -- the capital of the state of Puebla.

Our first stop was the Great Pyramid of Cholula, made up of seven superimposed pyramids. Measuring 1,476 ft per side and 313 ft high, it has the largest dimension at its base of any pyramid in the world -- four times the size of the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt.

Topped by a church after the Spanish conquest, it appears today as a gigantic grassy mound. To examine the pyramid's construction, archaeologists have dug almost 5 1/2 miles of tunnels at its base -- now used by tourists. Behind this huge structure, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl, is a vast 43 acre temple complex, partially excavated.

Before the Spanish conquest, Cholula was one of Mexico's largest cities and a pottery manufacturing centre as well a sacred city which, besides the Great Pyramid, had 400 other temples. The Spanish razed these temples to the ground, then to erase the vestiges of the pagan religions, they built from their stones many of today's 128 town churches.

After visiting the colourful church of Santa Maria Tonanzintla with its magical atmosphere, we drove into the heart of the city of Puebla -- the most Spanish of all the Mexican cities which is said to have been built following a vision. According to legend, the Bishop of Tlaxcala, Julian Garces, in a dream saw angels leading him to a beautiful valley and indicating where to build a city. Following the angels' directions he travelled to the valley and founded the city which became known as 'Pueblo of the Angels'.

Fables aside, the 7,000 ft high Cuetlaxcoapan plains where Pueblo is located is believed to be the place where maize was first grown, hence, becoming the heartland of the Olmeca and Totonaca cultures. When the Conquistadors came, they erected Puebla in 1531 as a fortress town at a strategic point on the Veracruz -- Mexico City route. It is one of the few places in Mexico where the Spanish did not build atop a city erected by one or the other of the Indian civilizations.

Overlooked by three imposing volcanoes, Puebla, located 75 miles from Mexico City, is the fourth largest city in the country and is the capital of the state with the same name. Soon after its establishment, it grew into an important Spanish-Catholic town and eventually became a colonial jewel -- today the pride of modern Mexico.

Today, religious structures, vestiges from the Spanish centuries, saturate the old city. Thousands of colonial buildings and at least 70 churches overwhelm the visitor with their appealing architecture. The city, a living museum, has more chapels, churches, convents and monasteries per square mile than any other place in the country. At the centre of all these renowned buildings is the Historic Town Centre, spreading out from the Zocalo, the town's main square, bedecked with exquisitely arranged gardens.

These ornate edifices, topped by a monumental cathedral, incorporate all the architectural styles of the colonial period including Gothic, Herreriano, Neo-Classical, Plateresque and Renaissance. However, above all, the city is noted for its idiosyncratic Baroque structures built from red brick and gray stone, in a variety of forms.

Many are embellished with an elaborate white stucco -- an 18th century popular ornamentation called Alfenique, from the Arabic (al-fanid -- sugar paste), a candy made from egg whites and sugar. …

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