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SPOTLIGHT
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Old Old Mexico -- Culture and content

Published on -7/28/2014, 9:03 AM

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If we took any negative stereotypes to Mexico City, they were rapidly dispelled.

We didn't get sick, weren't threatened or abused, found it relatively easy to get around, and enjoyed the company of nearly everyone we met. What we didn't fully anticipate were the vestiges of ancient cultures at every turn.

Mexico City was built on the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, after the Spanish conquest. Tenochtitlan sat in the middle of a large lake, connected to the shores by four main causeways. It was larger than London when Cortez and his army of Conquistadors and their allies, native insurgents rebelling against their Aztec overlords, first glimpsed it.

Looking down into the Valley of Mexico, the Spaniards marveled and wondered out loud if this might be a dream, or some heavenly realm. Stuccoed bright white, trimmed in blood red, the buildings gleamed like ivory in the morning light.

Predictably, the Spaniards set about destroying it all. Combining astounding courage with cruel treachery, they stole the Indians' gold -- and melted priceless works of art into crude bars for shipment back to the Spanish treasury.

Colorful books known as "codices," containing the cumulative wisdom of centuries of Indian art and science, were systematically collected and burned, as "works of the Devil." It was a cultural tragedy of incalculable proportions.

The priests didn't stop at burning books. Indians who refused "conversion" were burned at the stake.

Tenochtitlan was razed; many of its temple stones were born again as cathedrals. The center of Aztec life in the capital was the Templo Mayor, a monumental pyramid dedicated to the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. This the Spaniards immediately destroyed, dismantling one religion's edifice to house its successor. Aztec devotion to blood sacrifice could then be rechanneled and sustained under the auspices of a different god.

Barely a century later, 90 percent of the Americas' indigenous population had been wiped out. The Spaniards' greed, deceit and religious zeal killed many, but most succumbed to European infections like measles and smallpox.

The sidewalks of Mexico City still display that past. Deep streetside trenches, dug to repair decrepit pipes and sewers, reveal layers of history written in cobblestones, pottery shards and burnt rubble.

The remains of ancient religious monuments rest along with newer ones along the edge of the Zocalo, a huge plaza and market. Enterprising locals spread multicolored blankets to display various crafts and souvenirs. Men and women in traditional-ish garb offer ersatz smudging ceremonies, praying and fanning incense smoke around the heads and shoulders of blinking tourists. Vendors sweep giant soap bubbles from outsized wands, while fire dancers wearing headpieces of long feathers encourage donations from passers-by, themselves decked out in traditional sunscreens, sunglasses and cameras.

This is culture-in-the-round, noisy, jostling, kaleidoscopic. It provided a modern context for the treasures of art and craftsmanship we found in a far more subdued atmosphere at one of the world's premier museums.

The Museum of Archaeology houses world-class exhibits, many of which I'd only read about. What is now Mexico has been occupied for millennia by a series of related cultures, each leaving wondrous artifacts reflecting great devotion and advanced skill. All those civilizations were represented, and only the best of the best items qualified for display in the Museo.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures had fascinated me for years; but while Belva might not have prepped for the experience in quite the same way, she was equally enchanted by the simultaneously sobering and exhilarating artistry of long-dead geniuses.

We had planned a different itinerary for the next day, but despite already having spent one whole day at the museum, we felt obliged to return the next morning to complete the tour. Carpe diem, hombres.

Less than an hour northeast of Mexico City is an archaeological wonder of a different magnitude. Teotihuacan was abandoned before 700 CE, centuries before the Mexica migrated from the north to found the Aztec empire. We don't know what its inhabitants called themselves; Teotihuacan is a Nahuatl word meaning City of the Gods, a name bestowed by the Aztecs, who were just as awed by the deserted metropolis as we are.

We caught a bus to "las Piramides," this time accompanied partway by, yes, a chicken, held in one hand by a woman constantly grabbing at her kids with the other.

It's challenging to cover the entire complex in a day, but we did. I got blisters.

The Pyramid of the Sun is colossal -- 738 feet across and 246 feet high -- the third largest pyramid in the world. It's flanked by the steep-sided Pyramid of the Moon on one side, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent on the other. The plumed snake deity surfaces throughout the history of Mesoamerica, known as Quetzalcoatl among Nahuatl-speaking peoples, and Kuculcan among the Maya.

We gazed at temples to a Butterfly God and various other innovative deities, with striking murals and sculptures. We scrambled across the irregular contours left after excavations uncovered the stony Avenue of the Dead, leading from the Moon pyramid at one end, past the Sun, all the way to the vendors' booths near the entrance. High desert flora -- giant succulents foremost among them -- lined the peripheral paths.

Mexico, as a culture and as a country, is far older -- and arguably more colorful -- than the U.S. of A.

Put that on your bucket list.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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