Nelson and the Columns: Raining Cats and Gods

by David Nelson

Thurs, 30th June, 2011

Teotihuacan, Mexico

So. Very. Wet. Today the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc, gave us a very warm (wet) welcome to the largest pyramid in the Americas. In fact, the lost city of Teotihuacan pre-dates the Aztecs by a good thousand years or so – nothing is really known about the civilisation who built these astonishing monuments over two thousand years ago. The Aztecs stumbled across it, mostly buried by the sands and overgrowth of time, and deduced that the mountain-like pyramids could not have been made by mere humans and must therefore be the tombs of gods. Thus, the named the temple complex ‘Teotihuacan’, ‘The City of the Gods’ or ‘The place where men become gods’.

The two pyramids that dominate the site they called ‘Pyramid of the Moon’ and, the largest, ‘Pyramid of the Sun’. The passage between them, lined by smaller pyramid structures, they called the ‘Avenue of the Dead’. They believed this is where the soul walked from this mortal plane to the next. We felt all the elements of nature, besides its usual fire, as we walked along the Avenue and up the steep sides of the pyramids. The rain was relentless; it’s been non-stop for 24 hours as I write this. The wind whipped around us, rendering umbrellas redundant. My good travelling companion, Miss Mary Hillier’s brolly was a casualty of the Pyramid of the Moon. A gushing stream appeared on either side of the Avenue of the Dead. What’s the name of this river, I asked our excellent guide. San Juan, he replied, quick as a flash: Saint John River.

Pyramid of the Moon

Pyramid of the Sun

Avenue of the Dead

Gabriel was more than a guide: he was a teacher, and moreover a teacher after my own heart – he enjoyed interacting with his groups and making them smile equally as much as he loved passing on information. He was visually passionate about the history of his country. You could see the emotion it stirred in him, although he must have said these same things hundreds of times. Today was no ordinary June day, despite the fact this is the rainy season. At this time of year you normally get clear mornings and thunderstorms in the late afternoon or evening. Today was relentless. Gabriel told us he had been doing tours here for six years and he had never seen so much rain. And you could not doubt his sincerety when you saw him atop the Pyramid of the Sun for the umpteenth time in his life, dancing and singing – arms outstreched, oversized suit drenched, rain poncho shooting out vertically like Superman’s cape. He was genuinely elated, and so was I. We faced the heavens and bellowed, “Thank you, Tlaloc!” in the Aztec language, – (unfortunately I cannot remember the words now). Yes, it was disappointing the weather was so bad, but possibly all the memorable for that reason. Gabriel certainly thought so: he said he would remember “Mary and David  from England” and that he was glad we had proved him wrong about another thing – that we were nice and fun and not ‘emotionally conspitated’ like many of the other Brits and Europeans he had met. He loved English music – Eighties stuff like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Clash and Culture Club. He had nearly failed his school exams because he went to a Cure concert in 1982 (he thought there might not be another opportunity to see them in Mexico). He also loved The Beatles (“Why don’t British people love them more?”) as does seemingly every Mexican. In fact, he told us, one of the main radio stations has a Beatles hour every morning between 8-9 A.M. He told us this as he showed us the spot where the last Aztec stronghold was defeated by the Spanish, and with it, an end of an epoch. More than that: an end of a culture. Of course, some indigenous peoples have managed to keep their traditions and customs alive – but nothing would be the same again after the arrival of the Conquisidores.

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This place was called ‘La Plaza de las Tres Culturas’ because out of the Aztec temples – of which the foundations can be seen extensively – the Spanish built a church, so the colour of the stone is identical. And behind the church, there are high-rise office or apartment blocks, representing modern, independent Mexico. There was a student protest in 1968, in the small plaza between the Aztec ruins and the church, a few weeks before the Olympic Games were to take place in Mexico City. As the rain poured down, on an evening like this evening, snipers moved into position in the surrounding blocks of flats and military helicopters swooped in and hovered overhead. As they fired flares into the crowds, the snipers opened fire. This was around 6 P.M.; by 11 o’clock the firing stopped and the military moved in and removed the bodies as the rain washed the blood away. In the morning there was no sign that anything had happened the night before. And the media didn’t report it, didn’t even mention the protest. The newspapers and television channels continued their build-up to the Games. No-one knows exactly how many young lives – plus the lecturers and profesors that were also protesting – were massacred that night, but it is thought several hundred. And what were they protesting for? Freedom of speech and the end of a corrupt and oppressive government. Every year since, crowds gather at this spot to pray for and remember the murdered students, and to make sure atrocities such as this will never be forgot. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas suffered a third tradegy in 1985 in the form of the huge earthquake that shook large portions of Mexico City to the ground. Measuring 8.1 on the Ritcher scale and hitting at 7.19 in the morning, it caused seven of the nine tall apartment towers that surrounded the plaza to collapse, killing hundreds, if not thousands, instantly. Due to media censorship once again, the death toll was said to be 10,000 when in fact the true figure is estimated to be 35-40,000 victims.

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

On this shocking, fascinating, enlightening and EXTREMELY WET tour we also visited the most important site for Mexican Catholics, which accounts for ninety per cent of the population of 111 million. They wordship Guadalupe, the name that the Virgin Mary introduced herself as in a vision to an Aztec peasant at the top of a hill in 1531. The local bishop did not believe the man when he recounted his experience in broken Spanish, and challenged him to bring back a sign. The man went back to the hill and found roses had sprung up around the spot of the vision. Taking this to be the sign, the Indian peasant gathered up as many as he could in his traditional tilma, a type of cloak, and took them back to the bishop. As he let down the cloak to show his load, the bishop gasped with astonishment and dropped to his knees – not because of the roses, but due to the image of the Virgin that had been imprinted onto the fabric by the roses. This is the story that helped convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Now, every year on 12th December, followers of Our Lady of Guadalupe make a pilgrimage to the site where the apparition took place, and where no less than seven churchs – including two basilicas – have been built in the nearly five hundred years since. Last year, eight million pilgrims came to see the very same cloth bearing that image. And now I’ve seen it too.

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