Sunday, March 06, 2011

sinking in history

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!"

I was pleased to discover Porfirio Diaz probably never said any such thing.  The first part of that sentence verges on just silly.

There are few people on the planet who attempt more to press God to their collective bosom.  That is true today.  And it was true before the conquest.

If you don't believe it, just take a look at the
Zócalo.  Plopped right there is Mexico's love letter to God -- the city's cathedral.  Or, as the Mexicans would have it -- with their love of lengthy names: the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City.

The place is immense.  The oldest (if you count its earlier and smaller versions) and largest of any cathedral in the Americas.

Because it took over two centuries of work to end up with the building we see today, it is rather an architectural dog's dinner.  You can find almost every Mexican architectural style -- just looking at the facade.

It has that look of a faded beauty who has grabbed the most convenient articles for clothing as she dashes out the door.  A scarf.  A table cloth.  The welcome mat.  It would be a stretch to call it anything other than big.

And the interior is more of the same.  Gold leaf.  Soaring naves.  Mobs of statues.  It often looks less like a place of worship than a collection of kitsch -- or the stage of some long-running Broadway hit.

But you know my prejudices.  I prefer places of worship with whitewashed walls.

That is not the Mexican experience.  The candles, lights, incense, and fancy priest costumes found a friendly home in Mexico because the Indians were accustomed to such flummery.

If you look in the back yard of the Cathedral, you will see why.  When the Spanish toppled the last Aztec emperor, they immediately set about destroying Aztec culture -- including its major temple -- the Templo Mayor.  They decided the Aztec place of worship would be a great site for the new cathedral.

Archaeologists have now uncovered an amazing time capsule of the glory that was once the Aztec Empire.

The temple sat atop a pyramid.  The Mexican pyramids almost universally were symbolic of mountains.  This one was no different.  It was supposed to represent the mountain where the chief Aztec god (Huitzilopochtli) was born. 

The Aztec gods (like their Greek counterparts) had human personalities.  And some very flawed personalities, at that.  Huitzilopochtli killed his rebellious sister, dismembered her, and tossed the pieces to the bottom of his birth hill.

All of that would play into the practices of the Templo Mayor -- where humans were sacrificed, their bodies tossed down the pyramid.  The skulls of enemies were then displayed on an altar.

And, of course, the priests were attired in finery that could have earned them the front line in any Vegas show.

All of this in an attempt to cajole the gods into keeping the sun and rain to shower blessings on their crops.  The Aztecs were convinced that if their priests did not get the rite just right, nature would turn on them.

The Spanish put an end to the human sacrifice, but moved the rest of the pageantry inside.

Or, at least, it is inside for now.

When the Spanish began dismembering the Aztec culture, as we know from our boat visit, the capital stood on a canal-webbed island in a major lake. 

The Spanish were not Venetians.  The canals and lake had to go.  And so they went.  Filled in by by bit until the central part of Mexico City appeared to be solid land with very solid buildings on top of it.

Of course, it was an illusion.  Just like the man who built his house upon sand, Mexicans are now paying the price of Spanish hubris.

The cathedral, like most of the central city, is sinking into the old lake bed.  Engineers have bought a bit more time, but the cathedral will eventually collapse.

Perhaps centuries from now, a group of archaeologists will piece things together and wonder what the big church and the templo beside it had in common.

A lot.


Felipe Zapata said...

The Spanish put an end to human sacrifice? I disagree.

Flummery. I like that.

I think what Diaz was reputed to say was "so close to the Gringos," not to the United States. When we're not around, and sometimes when we are, Mexicans call you people Gringos.

Steve Cotton said...

I would probably be more accurate to say the Spanish switched from human sacrifice to God to human sacrifice to Mammon.

lauriematherne said...

Good history lesson. I enjoyed the post. Today I was in the basilica of Honduras, where resides the Virgen Suyapa. It's time to write that tale, too.

Curtiselowe said...

Religion. Sacrifice. Bloodletting. Destroying. Collapse. These words all go together as if they were made for each other.

Steve Cotton said...

And that is why the distinction between faith and religion is so important.

Steve Cotton said...

We await with bted breath.

Kim G said...

Whenever I wander around El Centro Historico, I can't help but think of poor old Pisa with its sole leaning tower. In Mexico City, there are scores of leaning towers, churches, and other buildings.

And that whole bit about "So far from God, so close to the USA?" It seems oddly emblematic of lost opportunities. I'm sure that any one of the Asian Tigers which went from poverty to first-world status in our lifetimes would have given their first born to have a long, easily-traversed border with the USA. Much easier than loading everything onto ships.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where, due to the extreme rockiness of the soil, even ancient buildings pretty much stand straight up.

Steve Cotton said...

It may be a race to see if Pisa, Venice, or Mexico City will lose their monuments first. That central area must be a real joy in earthquakes.