Chapter 3

Mexico City. Wandering with the Aztecs, Cortés and the Spaniards. Monuments of the Past. I watch A game of Cesta. The romantic Mexican. The Floating Gardens. The blood of History.

MEXICO CITY is 7,35o feet high, and I was delighted, as I always am when I go into a new place. My passport was examined at the aerodrome and then I went to a hotel, had a gorgeous bath, and lay down between cold, clean sheets, my head on a soft pillow.

Mexico . . . Certain lands have a fascination due to a romantic past. Without the story half the fascination has gone. The coming to Mexico of stout Cortés has given this land an eternal zest. Yet it has qualities, quite apart from its history, though we humans always delight in re-telling to ourselves the dashing stories of the past.

There is the Mexico of to-day, the Mexico of the Aztecs and the Spaniards, and there is the Mexico of pre-Aztec days.

I have mentioned the pioneers of Utah: there have always been pioneers. The world is now getting so well known that in a comparatively short time there will be no place to pioneer on this plane. Perhaps then more time will be spent in distributing this world’s surplus population. There were naturally adventurous souls who set out to see what was on the other side of the sea or the lake or the mountains, and it happened that a band of people came to the valley of Mexico. It is a beautiful place. Once upon a time there were five great lakes there, and its vegetation must have been luxuriant.

The best known of the early dwellers in this place were the Toltecs, who came here in the seventh century, the dark ages in England, when barbarism ruled. These Toltecs were good builders, good agriculturists and good metal workers. It was they who invented the curious arrangement of time subsequently adopted by the Aztecs. And somehow, as though a blight had passed over the country, the Toltecs disappeared. There is a suggestion
that they made an intoxicating liquor called pulque, which is still drunk in Mexico, and that led to their end.

They were succeeded, not perhaps at once, by the Aztecs, who, after various wanderings, pitched their capital at Tenochtitlan, which we know as Mexico (from the war god Mexitli).

The Aztecs in the course of a few centuries had become a strong people. They were barbarians in some ways, highly civilized in others. Like people to-day. Fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico was on Montezuma’s table
twenty-four hours later, 260 miles distant. Couriers took the fish as they delivered messages from station to station. There was a mighty army and a mighty religion. The great cathedral in Mexico City, a handsome and noble building, perhaps the largest religious edifice on the continent of America, stands on the site of the ancient temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the war god of the Aztecs.

What thoughts as one gazes at such a place! These Aztecs, these ancient peoples, with their religions….
At this time it is possible the Aztecs were merely the chief and ruling tribe. It is known, of course, that other Indians were ready to attack the Aztecs and did, in fact, aid the Spaniards. The Aztecs were the suzerain tribe and imposed as much as they could on other people.

They were sun worshippers, as were most early people. The sun was so necessary and so powerful that it is no wonder people worshipped it. The Christian custom of turning to the East is a relic from sun worship. The
Aztecs had adopted the religion of the Toltecs, as well as their calendar and modes of agriculture. Their gods were many, the principal being Huitzilopochtli, the war god. Quetzalcoatl was a benign god, one desiring peace on earth and in no wise pleased with blood sacrifice It is curious that the Aztecs should have had such a god, for they were particularly bloodthirsty in their religious practices. But that is man through the ages. He has never shown himself equal to his ideas and his yearnings. Fear has been the great compeller, and to avert anger or appease anger of gods sacrifices of all kinds have been encouraged. Fear is always, I think, the result of some kind of civilization, however low-for in the really primitive
is the capacity of love-to serve, to sacrifice, to give and give-not through fear of hurt or punishment, but through the devastating longing which can only be satisfied by serving. Perhaps the first-born of civilization is self-protection.

It is not often one gets near to such terrible realities as were seen constantly in this city of Mexico. It is said there were five thousand priests attached to the principal temple, and what a task some of them performed!
They had adopted the fashion of human sacrifices Imagine that terrible procession along these roads. One of the great sacrificial places was across the lake. A young man, perfect in body, ” without blemish “, was treated like a king for a time-it is an old idea-and then led like a lamb to the slaughter.

The people assembled to witness the sacrifice. The victim, as he walked, cast from him all the trappings and decorations that had covered him; he broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had comforted himself in his days of waiting, and went forward to be received by six priests. He was laid on a block of jasper, and one of the priests, dressed in red, his breast plunged in his hand and drew out the young man’s heart, which he held in the sun and then cast at the feet of the deity.

That was the atmosphere of this place in those days Sometimes little children or infants were offered as sacrifices to the god when there was a drought. One thinks of Moloch and other hideous gods, but there were never such bloody sacrifices as those which took place in the region of this beautiful city of Mexico. The skulls of those who had been sacrificed were preserved, and one building a hundred and thirty-six thousand skulls
were counted.

The awful thing did not end with the death of the victim-they ate the flesh! They were not cannibals in the ordinary sense: they were merely acting in the name of religion, just as they killed in its name. When a captive had been sacrificed there was a feast, at which the friends of him who had taken the prisoner sat down to rare beverages and meats, when they ate the body of the captive as to-day some tribes do, and there is a belief among some savage tribes that to eat a portion of the heart of a brave man imbues them with a like.

One feels somehow that Montezuma and his kind deserved to disappear from the earth. Cortés and his men were equally ruthless in the shedding of blood, but they certainly did not eat their victims. Montezuma was a great ruler when Cortés came, but numbers and greatness have fallen more than once in the history of peoples.

When Cortés and his companions marched towards Montezuma’s capital they must have been enchanted with the agricultural wealth of the country, as they had been with its promise of the precious metals and stones. All was cultivated. Canals irrigated all the country around. Maize, aloe, and pepper abounded, as well as cacti for the cochineal bug.

These Spanish adventurers had pluck. Cortés had it supremely. Think of his feelings when he thought some of the weak-kneed might desert him. He burned his boats-or rather, he sank them. “I have chosen my part,” said he, “I will remain while there is one to bear me company.” He had some luck, of course. He was fortunate in finding people who were ready to fight their overlord, whose help was invaluable.

And he marched to the Aztec capital. He had to fight his way, but he fought on, and he had all the ills which the climate and the land produced for travellers.
At Cholula he trapped the leaders of the people into the square and then at a given signal shot them down The slaughter was terrible. And Cortés had entered Cholula as a friend, invited there by the Indian ruler!
It is a terrible picture. But these invaders knew nothing but victory. Any weapon was good. Even when Cortés met Montezuma he said he had come to see so distinguished a monarch and to explain to him the true religion. Cortés was religious, no doubt, after his fashion, as many people of to-day. Religious but not Christians or Christ-like.

The sword has won thousands of converts in all religions

Here, in this very place where I was, Cortés had talked with Montezuma. The Spaniards went about this city as I did. They had their impressions of the dress of the people and the wealth of the country. And while Spaniards and Aztecs were together the Aztecs wondered what was to be the outcome of this visit of these men from a far country, and Cortés wondered how he could get this powerful king in his power. And in a shot time the cunning Spaniard had the Aztec king in irons.
The Aztecs celebrated one of their feasts, and while they were so engaged the Spaniards hewed them down. Cortés had many anxious moments before he was able to see the Aztec rule for ever demolished.
An adventure truly!

Mexico City is one of the oldest on the American continent. The Spaniards at once set about the work of demolition, with the consequence that what one sees now are the ruins of the ancient Aztec civilization. The Indian idols were smashed, the canals were filled with the debris of the Aztec temples and houses. The place where the palace of Montezuma stood is now the great square the plaza major.

And at one time it was reckoned the oldest and filthiest city on the American continent. It was the Emperor Maximilian who began to beautify the capital. And they have certainly known political trouble there.
Porfirio Diaz was one of the makers of Mexico. He welcomed foreigners, and foreign capital has flowed into the country.

I took a car and went to the Pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacan, where one can feel something of the life that was lived here four centuries ago. But these pyramids are far older than that; they ante-date the Aztecs and
maybe are even older than the Sphinx.

The road leading to the Pyramids is called the “Road of the Dead,” because it was thought the mounds which are on each side of it contained graves. A good deal of restoration has taken place, and when one mound was being excavated a pyramid was found that had been built on the top of an older but elaborately decorated structure. When the ground was cleared a majestic stairway was discovered, flanked by rows of serpents’ heads, bodies of snakes, heads of owls, all carved in stone.
The snakes represented the ancient god Quetzalcoat.
The owls represented Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.
This covered-over portion, oddly enough, was made by builders of a considerably higher culture level than those who built the exterior pyramid. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl is known as “Cindadela“. The stucco on the walls is six inches thick, and traces of the polychromatic decorations which enriched the original edifice can still be seen.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest artificial mound on the American continent. It is 76o feet long, 722 feet wide, and 216 feet high. It was here, so the legend ran that the gods assembled to create the sun. One of the gods was sacrificed, and hence perhaps their horrible zest for blood. On its summit there was once a colossal statue of a single block of porphyry, facing east. The Mithraists in Asia and in Rome were facing east at the same
time as were these worshippers in Mexico.

On the giant figure was a heavy gold plate where the sun’s first rays rested. On the western side there are a series of steps leading to the top, where there is naturally a superb view and where one can see the Pyramid of the
Moon, which is 151 feet high. This, too, was built, as was apparently customary: five consecutive layers of masonry resting on a central core.

It was, perhaps, a happy turn which led me afterwards to one of the most delightful open-air theatres I have ever seen. The stage was a natural small elevation, beautifully levelled, with a back cloth of forest-clad hills. On either side of the stage was a big boulder with appropriate green cloth. The seats, low and of stone, were beautifully shaped with the simplicity of those in an old Greek theatre. All around the cactus grew.

I went to the famous Shrine of Guadalupe, which is about three miles north-east of the city. It is the most sacred and popular Roman Catholic shrine in all Mexico and is, apparently, to them what the Ganges is to the Hindu, or Mecca to the Mohammedans. It is a massive stone structure with a tall tower at each corner filled with bells. The legend associated with it is that Juan Diego, who lived near the hill of Tepeyacac, on December 9th, 1531, heard a heavenly harmony, and in a great light saw a noble lady who said she was the Blessed Virgin and wished a church to be erected on that spot, where she could bestow her pitying love upon those that sought her protection and turned their tearful faces to her in their afflictions.

Juan Diego went to the Bishop, who could not believe him. But as he gave some roses to the Bishop, the Virgin’s face was seen pictured on the tilma, so the church was built, and within a massive frame of pure gold the tilma may be seen to this day, The picture is covered with plate-glass, and it is difficult-they suggest impossible-to say whether it is painted or worked. It must be four hundred years old, and looks as fresh as when it was
originally painted (or worked).

The place was crowded with men, women and children.
I saw women go up all the steps, through the door of the church, and up to the altar on their knees, and then bow their heads on the ground with the humility of a Mohammedan.

I also went to the ” Chapel of the Well,” which contains a fountain of sulphur water said to have curative qualities. This well is supposed to have gushed forth on the spot where the Virgin stood when she appeared
to Juan Diego. People stand round the well, lower cups into it and drink. A very sick-looking man was near the well when I photographed it, and afterwards he knelt beside me in the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and
asked me for a picture offering gladly to pay for it much beyond his means and its worth from a monetary point of view.

Coyoacan, which I visited, was before the conquest the favourite suburb of the Aztec prince, and is older than the city of Mexico. Cortés set the seat of his government here, when directing the laying-out of Mexico.
The Palacio de Cortén, erected by Cortés in 1522, and the house built by his trusted lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, can still be seen.

From the road one saw the volcanoes-Popocatepetl (17,794 feet) and Ixtaccihuatl (17,000). Popocatepetl (Aztec for “The Mountain of Smokes”) was supposed to the home of the gods, especially of the fire god an
earth monster. These pagans had to have a dwelling place for their gods, and volcanoes seemed doubtless just the sort of habitation to suit them. The crater is rich in sulphur and has been mined since the days when Cortés
used it for his gunpowder.

Ixtaccihuatl has a softer suggestion. The name means “The White Woman.” Lying there under the snow its contour from Mexico City resembles the figure of a woman lying face upward.

I saw the game of “cesta“. It is a very old game, and was played by the Indians before the Spaniards set foot on the American continent, although its birthplace-so it is said-is the Basque country. The place where the sport takes place is called “fronton”, and is formed with three walls. There is a wall in front of the players one behind and one to their left. It suggests our wall games.

It was a very lofty hall, and had a concrete floor on which was marked the lines, one of which the ball (after being hit against the wall) had to pass and one beyond which it must not go.

The playing-ground measured about fifty yards long and twenty wide. Four men played, and their racquets were of wood, curving to a point (like skis) and tied to the hand. They caught the ball in these curving racquets
or hand-mitts and whirled it back.

It is said to be a very fast and athletic game. The bookies, in red tam-o’-shanters, throw a red rubber ball to you if you wish to bet. You open the ball in the middle, put in your money and fling it back. Not understanding the finer points of the game I was not super latively thrilled, but it was very interesting.

The dining accommodation in my hotel was far from pleasant. When I breakfasted the next morning, I had to sit close to the bar, at which were dozens of men drinking, who looked at me, making me feel I was in my bath.

I took a car to the Castle of Chapultepec, which is used as one of the residences of the President of the Mexican Republie. It is a pretty old building, used by Spanish viceroys and being continually altered by them.
It is perched on a rocky eminence and reached by a winding macadam road on one side and a steep footpath on the other. It stands very proudly on its precipitous perch and has magnificent views. The Chapultepec Park is the Hyde Park of Mexico City. The state apartments of the unfortunate Maximilian and Charlotte are on view.

The Stadium of the city is immense. It is modelled on the one at Athens and can seat 80,000 people. The bullring, Plaza de Toros, will accommodate 20,000 people. and is said to be the largest in the world.
Within it are a chapel and an infirmary, and operatic performances are given there.

The Thieves’ Market, “El Mercado del Volador”, might have given me a thrill, but no longer is the booty of thieves offered for sale as in days gone by. Ostensibly now, legitimate trade is done there-rather like the Caledonian market-but in times gone by purchasers used to get with the goods a certificate to say the articles were properly theirs.

One of the things that strike the foreigner in Mexico is the men’s headdress. Even the poor wear enormous hats made of straw, the crown tapering to a point, and having a huge brim. When a Mexican couple dance for exhibition the man takes off his hat, places it on the ground, and the girl dances round the crown. It is fascinating to watch, for they dance marvellously.

Over the man’s left shoulder is worn his “sarape,” a beautifully woven blanket. Some of the Indian tribes wore superb sarapes; they were soft and very fine. I asked the price of a dyed one which I wanted to buy it was K30. The colour was dull claret, and it was beautifully woven, a fine pattern of an artistic kind.

When these people are dressed in these gorgeous things they look splendid. I don’t think there is any place in the world where men can spend as much money on their clothes as in Mexico. Their thick felt hats were worked
magnificently with gold and silver thread; their trousers tight at the hips and opening below the knee, were lavishly braided in gold and silver; their sarapes, gold spurs, saddles ornamented with gold and silver-they are a
pleasant picture. On horseback, in their best, followed by a servant, the men do look attractive, sit their horses well; often very good-looking, sometimes dangling a rose or some bright-hued flower from their mouths, their eyes
soft and smouldering, which can give place in an instant to a look of interest and intensity, so often found in a Latin-quick to love and quick to hate. If clothes have to be paid attention, then the Mexican knows his job.

They really were well and finely turned out, and one looked twice as they passed one in the street. Perhaps it is this touch of splendour and colour coupled with its history which made me feel that I had found in Mexico
that sense of Romance or contented pleasure which I had looked for in some countries and had not found.

I visited the Convent of Churubuseo (the Hispaniolized version of Huitzilopochtli), which was built by the Franciscans in 1678, and is one of the most interesting in Mexico. During the siege of the capital by the Americans, a battle was fought here, and a monument has been erected.

I drove from here to Xochimilco-the Chinampas or Floating Gardens. This place was once something like Venice. In these days one needs a little credulity to accept that statement, but I believe the Venetian story is true. Indian (Aztec or otherwise) gondoliers plied up and down canals and waterways. In fact, Cortés himself nearly lost his life here when his horse got stuck in the mud. But somebody had a radiant idea. Twigs were interlaced and soil put on them in which seeds were set. And so flowers grew and floated.
Floating gardens. . . . Then fragile native huts were erected on stilts. And now the olive and the eucalyptus grow there, and one can go a boat-ride round these delightful plots. It is one of the pleasure places of
Mexico City. In the time of Cortés, the inhabitants lived on the islands and by the waterways, and now they get their living by taking people about in canoes and flat-bottomed boats. There are cafés in places, very busy and gay at times, and the masses of red poppies and gardens full of roses lend it an air of enchantment.
Some of the places reminded me much of the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir.

On my last day in Mexico I had breakfast at the ” House of Tiles,” a well-known place in the city, rich in historic interest, and now a store containing a restaurant. There was quite a charm about the place; almost immediately, a small cup of coffee and a couple of strawberries are placed before you. I enjoyed the orange juice and mamon (pipiya).

Afterwards I went to the museum, which has more authentic relics of primitive America than any museum on that continent. I was particularly struck with the exquisitely made garments-men’s and women’s-and
some beautifully fine things were made from the bark of a tree ; others superbly embroidered. In no collection in the world, public or private, have I ever seen such mementoes of races classed as savage. These thing
were hand-worked, which always appeals to me, and they must have demanded patience, an eye for beauty and courage.

The Aztec Calendar Stone weighs twenty-four tons It is three feet thick, twelve and a half feet in diameter, and is composed of basaltic porphyry, which is not found near Mexico City. These ancient peoples evidently set
great value on the kind or quality of certain stones use in their religious edifices, for those at Stonehenge are not found near Salisbury Plain, but were brought from Pembrokeshire.

The Calendar Stone was astronomical, a science pursued by those who were sun worshippers. In the centre is the image of the sun god Sol, called ” Tonatiuh.”
In the circle immediately surrounding the sun are symbolized the four seasons; just outside there are twenty spaces with curious little figures representing the twenty days of the Aztec month. In the next ring are forty
spaces, each with five points suggesting five days, and beyond this circle of five-point spaces is another containing eight rays and eight ” vanes”. The next outer circle is representative of the firmament, and the outermost circle of all is in the form of a serpent. The Aztec year consisted of eighteen months and twenty days each and five extra days.

The Sacrificial Stone was interesting in its awful associations. What heartburnings had been poured out on it! And what scenes had passed on its face! It is a large blackish-green stone, with a hollow in the centre on one side, which is supposed to have held the heart of the victim, and a suggestive drain running to the edge.
There is a sun calendar carved on it. There are groups of figures carved round the side, generally illustrative of Mexican victories. It was nearly destroyed. Work-men were actually trying to break it up for paving
stones when Canon Gamboa passed by and saw them.
Twenty thousand people in one year were sacrificed on this stone!

I went to a small theatre–the “Regis”–which was next door to my hotel, the night before I left. There were about thirty men on the stage, all wearing the great hats and gorgeous Mexican clothes. They played and sang stirring Mexican songs, and danced, leaving me with memories and feeling pleasant and vivid.

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