Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Ancient Mexico

Its History and Ruins

The history of Mexico at the present day was preceded by a more ancient history of which we know little, but in which the inhabitants were wholly of Indian origin, and the civilization in some of its aspects equal to that of the present day. We have some knowledge of the history of this people for a century or two preceding the Spanish Conquest, while the character of their civilization is in a measure indicated by the remains of buildings and varied relics found widely throughout the country. These consist of pyramids, temples, tombs, statues, rock-sculpture, idols, habitations, canals, pottery, and various other remnants of the flourishing communities which long prevailed. As for their literature, which was probably considerable, nearly the whole of it was destroyed by the fanaticism of a Spanish priest, who robbed the world by fire of a host of documents which may have been of very great archaeological value and interest.

As regards the stage of civilization reached by the Aztecs at the period of the Conquest, we may quote from the description by Cortes of their capital city of Tenochtitlan in his letters to the Spanish king. He speaks of its flourishing markets, including "one square twice as large as that of Salamanca, all surrounded by arcades, where there are daily more than sixty thousand souls buying and selling." In these were foods in great quantity and various articles of comfort and luxury. He speaks of "cherries and plums like those of Spain. . . skeins of different kinds of spun silk in all colors, that might be from one of the markets of Granada. . . Porters such as in Castile do carry burdens," and other evidences of long settled industry. Chief among the edifices was the great temple to the Aztec god of war, of which "no human tongue is able to describe the greatness and beauty. . . the principal tower of which is higher than the great tower of Seville Cathedral." He goes to show that the Aztec civilization of that epoch was in many respects equal to that then prevailing in Spain. His letter concludes as follows:

Great Teocalli or Temple of Mexico.


"I will only say of this city that in the service and manners of its people their fashion of living is almost the same as in Spain, with just as much harmony and order; and considering that these people were barbarous, so cut off from the knowledge of God and of other civilized peoples, it is marvelous to see what they have attained in every respect."

Such was the character of the capital city of the Aztecs, originally one of the most barbarous among the tribes of the country in question, especially in their religious ideas and services, in which were frightful human sacrifices to their principal deity. The evidences of progress seen in Tenochtitlan probably indicate that this was borrowed from the more advanced peoples whom the Aztecs found in Mexico, some of whom they subdued and others perhaps annihilated.

Our knowledge of the earlier history of this country is what the Spanish chroniclers succeeded in recovering from the traditions of the people after the destruction of the voluminous records. This material is legendary and may contain more fiction than fact. It seems to show, however, that civilization of a primitive type had existed in Mexico for a very long period and that a succession of races had peopled the land, who were generally believed to have come "from the north."

Of these races two appear to have brought with them the seeds of civilization, and to these we may owe the many evidences of progress still existing in the land. These were the Mayas, the apparent builders of the remarkable edifices found in Yucatan, and the Toltecs, who are credited with erecting the vast pyramids and other works of art and architecture of Anahuac, the region surrounding and including the Valley of Mexico.

The Mayas are supposed to have reached Mexico in the third century of the Christian era, though this is very problematical. They made their way, then or later, to Yucatan, where their descendants still live, one of the most intelligent of the native races of the land. To them are attributed the beautiful and unique temples, with their elaborate carving and evidence of remarkable skill in architecture, which have been found at various points in the wilds of Yucatan and are regarded in some respects as the most remarkable structures found in the New World. They have attracted numerous investigators and filled the souls of archaeologists with wonder and delight.

About three centuries later, according to tradition, there came "out of the north" another people, the famous Toltecs, who are credited with a very advanced culture. As they moved southward they built several cities, their final center of empire being the city of Tolima, or Tula, which is supposed to have occupied a site about fifty miles north of the modern city of Mexico. Here eleven monarchs reigned in succession, but in the end the Toltec empire was destroyed and its people dispersed. No trace of them remains.

The Toltecs are held to have been the builders of the remarkable pyramids of Teotihuacan and Cholula, with other interesting structures. In fact, the whole country around is full of remains from their busy hands. The greatest of their erections, the immense pyramid of Cholula, is 200 feet high with a base measure of 1,440 feet, it being thus larger than the great Egyptian pyramid of Cheops, though not, like the latter, of stone construction. All around the modern city of Cholula evidence of the activity of former builders exists, in the form of walls, terraces and pyramids on the summit and slopes of the surrounding hills. Cortes found in the ancient city 40,000 houses and 400 temples, showing it to have been at that date the center of a busy and abundant population.

Great Calendar Stone


The pyramids of Teotihuacan are in the northeast part of the Valley of Mexico, near the shores of Lake Texcoco, and twenty-five miles from Mexico City. There are here large and extensive earth mounds, the largest being the "Pyramid of the Sun," which measures about 700 feet on each side and nearly 200 feet in height. In its vicinity is the lower "Pyramid of the Moon," with a base length of about 500 feet. Around these are many other mounds of smaller size, and nearby the "Path of the Dead," a prehistoric road some two miles in length. It is said that on the great pyramid originally stood a huge stone statue of Tonatiuh, the sun, with a plate of polished gold on its front, to reflect the first rays of the rising sun.

As regards the Toltecs, who are usually credited with the erection of these great monuments of human art and labor, we know only what tradition tells. This speaks of them as a peaceful people, surpassing all the natives of Mexico in culture and highly moral in character, their form of religion being a kind of nature worship, in which fruit and flowers were offered on their altars. Their deity was very unlike the ferocious war-god of the Aztecs. In fact, their object of worship, Quetzalcoatl, the Fair God, was a mysterious stranger, a white man with noble features, long beard and flowing garments, who made his appearance at Tula, taught the people a religion of virtue and austerity, in which human and animal sacrifices were forbidden, instructed them in the arts of civilization, and then sailed away to the west to his own country. The Toltecs deified him, represented him in sculpture as a winged serpent, and built temples to him. When Cortes came from the east, he was hailed by the people as Quetzalcoatl, and his ready admission to the country was due to this error.

While on the subject of the prehistoric ruins of Mexico there are some others of notable character of which it is desirable to speak, as they appear to be due to other builders than the Mayas and Toltecs, yet rival the works of these in art and skill. On Monte Alban, about five miles from Oaxaca, and in the valley surrounding, are numerous mounds and other erections of whose age and builders we are ignorant. In one of the mounds were found four rudely sculptured figures in bas-relief of more than life size, seated in a row like the figures in Egyptian temples. Here also necklaces of agate and golden ornaments, fine in workmanship, have been found.

Montezuma, Emperor of Mexico.


At Mitla, twenty-five miles from Oaxaca, are some of the best preserved and striking ruins in Mexico. The most remarkable is the "Hall of the Monoliths," a building with a row of great stone columns running down its center. Each of these is cut from a single stone, and is fifteen feet high by three in diameter. They are without pedestal or capital, tapering somewhat at the top. Weighing five or six tons each, they were evidently brought from a quarry five miles away and 10,000 feet higher than Mitla. All the buildings are decorated, within and without, in the most intricate manner, the decorations being in mosaic work and forming beautifully executed geometrical designs, a Greek-like pattern enclosed in a quadrilateral. In the remarkable precision with which the stones of the temple are cut and fitted, and the elaborate and beautiful ornamentation, these halls must have presented a wonderful aspect in their prime. In their present condition they are the pride of the archaeology of Mexico.

At Papantla, in the State of Vera Cruz, is another example of interesting native architecture, a supposed Toltec structure. Here there seems to have been a city of considerable size and importance. [Its locality is fifty-two miles north of the city of Vera Cruz, in the tierra calienta, or torrid zone. Here the growth of the tropical forest has been so prolific and vigorous as to swallow up the abandoned city, of which few remnants, aside from the temple, remain. The temple, however, has survived the assault of the forest and exists in an excellent state of preservation, as may be judged from the accompanying illustration.

The temples of Mexico were all built on one general plan, being pyramidal in shape and raised in a series of terraces, the top sufficiently broad to serve for the priestly ceremonies and the human sacrifices to the deities. They were of two types. In some the ascent was made by stairways at the corners, so arranged that the priestly procession was obliged to go around each terrace in succession before reaching the summit. In the second type, to which the temple of Papantla belonged, the stairway ran straight upward in the middle of the temple wall and could be ascended directly. The terraces of this edifice are variously ornamented and it is an excellent example of its architectural type.

Pyramid of Papantia.


If we seek now the southeastern section of Mexico, the extensive peninsula lying beyond the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and comprising the States of Chiapas, Campeche, and Yucatan, we find a remarkable group of ruins, differing in many particulars from those of the northern region, and probably ascribable to the Maya Indians, who for a very long period have inhabited this region, their descendants being still found there. The ruins exist in a number of localities, each probably the site of an important city of the past. These cities, however, have utterly disappeared, their buildings doubtless ruined by the luxuriance of tropic vegetation, and only the substantial stone temples remain, evidence of a remarkable ancient stage of civilization and of a considerable advance in architectural and sculptural art. These edifices have for many years past attracted the attention of archaeologists, and they have been often visited, the forest growth cleared away, and the buildings studied with enthusiastic ardor.

One of the most interesting of these groups of ancient buildings is that at Palenque, in Chiapas, near the border of Guatemala. Here, in a tropical environment of forest, stands a wonderful series of temples and pyramids, which seemed to those who first observed them in the dense woodland depths to be works of ancient magic. They were covered with dense undergrowth which needed to be cleared away, and which reproduces so rapidly that a similar clearing away is necessary to each party of investigators. Here were found no fewer than twelve great truncated pyramids built of earth, stones and masonry, on the tops of most of which stood imposing buildings, which are believed to have served as temples and perhaps in some cases as palaces. Of the twelve pyramids, eight bear such superstructures, very different in character from anything found in the northern Mexican region. The principal buildings have been named "The Temple of the Sun," "Temple of the Cross," "Temple of the Inscriptions," and "The Palace," the latter an extensive group of ruins. Their walls are of massive masonry, some of it composed of roughly-shaped blocks of stone, some of carefully cut and carved stone and sculpture in stucco. There are numerous doorways opening upon the pyramidal platforms. In the interior the rooms are narrow and high, vault-like in character, and covered by stone roofs, not arched but formed on the lean-to principle of construction, a method which renders narrowness essential.

The group known as "The Palace" consists of a four-storied square tower about forty feet in height, and surrounded by extensive courts, buildings and facades, the pyramid sustaining them being about 200 feet square. The fact that the lintels of the doorways were of wood has led to the fall of the supported walls in many cases as the wood decayed. In the interior are many relics of sculptured human figures, often huge in size. Limestone is the material of the walls, the stone blocks not laid in regular courses, but united with abundance of mortar and stucco, the hard stone preventing the careful cutting and shaping shown at Mitla. The walls appear to have been lavishly painted. The stream which flows down the valley is led through an interesting stone-vaulted passageway, which in part still serves its original purpose. The whole group of structures is evidence of a remarkable development of architectural art among this primitive people.

City of Tula, ancient capital of the Toltec Empire


Yucatan possesses numerous remains of similar structures, the most striking of which are those of Uxmal and Chichen-Itza. In this region, indeed, ruins from the far past are so abundant that the traveler rarely loses sight of them. Their object, where not evidently religious, is often impossible to decide upon. There is very little indication that the buildings were intended as fortresses, and peaceful conditions probably prevailed. Whatever their purpose, they indicate a high degree of architectural skill among the Mayas. The plan and detail of the buildings seem to have been carefully studied in advance, their designs being so perfectly carried out as to indicate a clear previous conception of the desired result. Some of these buildings were in use when Cortes reached Yucatan, and they are still in an excellent state of preservation.

The most remarkable of these groups of buildings are those of Chichen-Itza. These may justly be considered as the most important, as they are also the best preserved, of the aboriginal American works of architecture. Yucatan is a country practically devoid of rivers, and is obliged to depend upon its subterranean waters, which spring up abundantly. There are deep wells, furnishing plentiful underground water supplies, and on these the country depends. Around two of these natural wells the city of Chichen-Itza was built, its name in Maya signifying "Mouth of the Well." In the vicinity of the source of water-supply are now found numerous buildings remarkable for their boldness of conception and skill in architecture and sculptural decoration. The same is the case at Uxmal, a second reservoir of ancient art in the same territory. The strange and interesting buildings at these localities are variously and somewhat fancifully known as "The House of the Nuns," "Temple of Tigers," "House of the Pigeons," "House of Turtles," "Governor's Palace," "The Castle," "The Church," etc., the titles based on some peculiarity in their carvings or other characteristics. Thus the "Temple of Tigers" is ornamented with a sculptural procession of pumas or lynxes. The special feature of the "Castle" lies in its situation, it being erected upon a pyramid of more than one hundred feet in height.

These buildings, upon their outward walls, and to some extent in their interiors, are elaborately decorated with a skill which shows developed powers of workmanship, though the art may be designated as barbaric in general character. When we consider the imperfect kind of tools possessed by those ancient artists, to whom the use of iron and steel was unknown, and the precision with which the stones of the buildings are laid and fitted, we cannot view them without surprise and admiration, though tempered by the fact that in various other parts of the world similar examples of antique skill in this direction exist. In the Americas Peru is a striking instance. The carving of these ancient buildings differs in perfection in different localities, but this is due to the different character of stone employed. That at Mitla is a soft and easily cut trachyte, which yields itself readily to the blade of the chisel, while the imperfection of the stone cutting at Palenque arose from the use of a hard and brittle limestone, incapable of being carved in fine detail. In Yucatan the limestone employed is softer in texture, and lent itself readily to the profuse and beautiful work of the artists of that section.

These antique Mexican buildings are of high interest wherever found, whether upon the open plain in the north or in the depths of the tropical forest, as in Chiapas and Yucatan. We have spoken here only of the buildings, but mention should also be made of the elaborately carved upright stones and the many highly decorated idols found in the vicinity of the temples. At present they stand alone, grim relics of remote times, but they speak to us of great and thickly settled cities, in which they stood, with multitudes of fragile buildings that have failed to withstand the ravages of time. They speak as well of energetic rulers, of busy and able artists and architects, and of a stringent system of public labor in which multitudes of workmen were kept employed, perhaps under the conditions of oppression that prevailed in ancient Egypt, possibly under more humane conditions. The amount of physical labor in these great constructions of the past—the wall of China, the pyramids and temples of Egypt, the temples of Peru and Mexico—must have been very great, and suggests the existence of compact and powerful governmental systems, and enforced labor on the part of the people that has no equal in later history. All we see now in the wilds of Yucatan and Mexico in general are these great and silent ruins, built for purposes largely unknown, but they call up to our minds the vision of thronged cities, splendid palaces, active industries, and developed governmental, social and industrial relations which ages ago passed away, leaving these massive structures as milestones pointing out diversified stages of human progress, in art and architecture, in religious conceptions and governmental despotism.

The form of government prevailing in Anahuac, as ancient Mexico was called, at least that of its two principal national organizations, the Aztec and Texcocan, was that of an elective monarchy, four electors choosing the new sovereign, though the choice was confined to the brothers and nephews of the deceased monarch. The land was partly held by great military chiefs, partly by the people themselves. Democratic in type, the monarchy grew despotic in the end, legislation depending upon the will of the king. Taxes were laid on agriculture and manufacture. In the latter was included a beautiful feather-work, made of the plumage of the many brilliant Mexican birds, which was worn by the wealthy as clothing. Handsome tapestries were also made, woven and richly colored. The making of pottery was an active industry, though the potter's wheel was unknown. Trade was not conducted in shops, but in fairs or market places, and this custom is preferred by the peon class today.

Much more might be said about the arts and customs of the ancient Mexicans, but we must return to the history of the period preceding the Spanish conquest. Following the Toltecs, other tribes made their way into Anahuac, an important one being the Chichemecas, a warlike people who occupied Tula of the Toltecs, allied themselves with the neighboring tribes, and established an empire with its capital at Texcoco, on the lake of that name. Here its people took the name of Texcocans.

Next came the Aztecs, also from the north, another war-like and barbarous race which, from early in the tenth to late in the thirteenth century, made its way gradually southwest, stopping for periods at various localities, one of them Tula, and finally reaching a final resting place at Tenochtitlan, the site of modern Mexico, then on an island in Lake Texcoco. Here they built their great temple and installed the worship of their hideous war-god, to whom thousands of human victims were offered on the terrible Stone of Sacrifice. The city was named after Tenoch, a military priest and chief who died in 1343. Itzcoatl, the real founder of the empire, followed Tenoch, and after him the first Montezuma, who died in 1469. Other emperors followed until 1500, when the second Montezuma, the one who was to prove the victim of the Spanish invaders, ascended the throne.

During this period the power of the Aztecs steadily increased and their empire spread over conquered peoples to east and west. The Texcocans, a much more civilized people, also grew in power and influence and during the latter part of the fourteenth century they entered into an alliance with the Aztecs, together with the Tlasopans, a smaller people dwelling near the lake. It was to the power of this alliance that the Aztecs owed the wide extension of their empire, they proving the leaders in the invading activity of the allies. Only one nation is mentioned that defied them and maintained its independence in their despite. This was that of Tlascala, a people with a republican form of government, who dwelt on the western slopes of the eastern range of the Sierra Madre, surrounded by easily defended mountain walls except on the east, and there defended by a wall built by them to close the only pregnable part of their dominion. In vain the Aztecs and their allies sought the conquest of this brave people. All their efforts were repulsed, and the Tlascalans remained to become allies of the Spaniards and aid them essentially in the conquest of the hated Aztecs. In all other quarters the Aztec dominion extended, they felt the civilizing influence of their allied neighbors, the Texcocans, and in time their city became a center of the culture of Anahuac, though the worship of the frightful war-god still prevailed.

Their city was a natural fortress, surrounded on all sides by water except where causeways of earth connected it with the lake shores. Across these were open canals, with bridges that could be removed in case of assault from without, and flocks of canoes on the lake that could be used in repelling any invader. Such was the state of affairs in the Aztec empire when Hernando Cortes and his small body of armed followers appeared and the death struggle of the great warlike empire of Anahuac began.

On this great plateau apparently for more than ten centuries a unique type of civilization had been growing up, the final outcome of the intellectual, political and artistic development of the North American Indians; to be overthrown in a few years by warlike invaders from abroad, in some respects more barbarous than the conquered race, but representing a far more advanced type of civilization, that of mediaeval Europe.