Gateway to the Classics: Mexico by Margaret Duncan Coxhead
Mexico by  Margaret Duncan Coxhead

Cholula the Sacred—Craft Meets Craft

When a day's march from Cholula the army was welcomed by some of the notables of the city, but passage was refused to the Tlascalans, who encamped therefore without the gates.

As the strangers proceeded through the crowded flower-decked streets they thought they had never seen so fine a town as this sacred city of Anahuac. "It is more beautiful from without," wrote CortÚs later in a letter to Charles V., "than any city in Spain, for it is many-towered and lies in a plain. And I certify to your Highness that I counted from a mosque there four hundred other mosques and as many towers. It is the city most fit for Spaniards to dwell in of any that I have seen here, for it has some untilled ground and water so that cattle might be bred, a thing which no other of the cities we have seen possesses; for such is the multitude of people who dwell in these parts that there is not a hand-breadth of uncultivated ground." The luxury of the dress and life of the Cholulans seemed in keeping with the place, but the black robes of a countless priesthood lent a sombre and sinister tone to the otherwise joyous city.

Here Quetzalcoatl, the benignant, had rested on his way to the coast, and here was erected in his honour a pyramid, great as that of Cheops, crowned with a temple. Hither flocked thousands of pilgrims to worship. Gorgeous was the image of the Fair God; round his neck was a collar of gold, from his ears hung pendants of turquoise, in one hand he bore a jewelled sceptre, in the other a painted shield with his device as lord of the air and the winds, while from his mitre sprang plumes of undying fire.

When the Spaniards had been entertained for two days in the spacious city, some Mexican nobles arrived who spoke privately to the Cholulan chiefs and then withdrew. The caciques  who had been so friendly now became cold and haughty, and the supply of provisions ceased. The streets were almost deserted, and "the few inhabitants that we saw also," says Bernal Diaz, "avoided us with a mysterious kind of sneer on their faces." The Totonacs, who had wandered through the town, declared that the roads had been barricaded, and that stones and weapons had been placed on the roofs of the houses. CortÚs grew anxious, and now an incident occurred which verified his worst fears.

The wife of one of the Cholulan caciques  who had taken a great fancy to Dona Marina came one day to the Spanish quarters, eagerly begging that the Aztec girl should visit her house. When Marina refused, darkly whispered the Cholulan woman, "A fearful fate will befall you if you do not come." Suspecting a plot, Marina feigned to consent and began to collect her jewellery and clothes. The woman then told her that Montezuma had sent bribes to the Cholulan chiefs, asking them to fall on the Spaniards as they were leaving the city. All was ready for a surprise attack, and without the town lay a large Mexican army. With a hasty excuse Marina left the cacique's  wife busy with her clothes, and hastened to inform CortÚs of the danger. He was appalled at the news that Montezuma was so sure of success that he had sent manacles to bind the Spaniards! To force his way through the streets of a city where both cavalry and artillery would be useless, and where on every housetop enemies would be stationed, was quite impossible. Yet to stay on inactive in his quarters meant starvation. At last he resolved to outwit the Cholulans by so terrible a surprise that they would not only be punished for their treachery, but would never dare to face a Spaniard again.

Sending a message to the Tlascalans to be ready to march into the city when a certain signal was given, he summoned his officers and unfolded to them his plan. He then sent word to the Cholulan chiefs that he intended to leave their city in the morning, and asked for tamanes  and an escort of two thousand warriors.

At daybreak he placed a cordon round the great courtyard of his temple quarters, and at each of the three entrances a strong guard. The remainder of his men with the artillery were stationed without the gates. Soon afterwards the Cholulan caciques  arrived with an even larger number of men than CortÚs had demanded, and entered the courtyard. The gates closed behind them. Then the Spanish general, summoning the chiefs to approach him, told them sternly that he had discovered all their treachery. If they had intended to attack their guests, why had they not done it openly, he asked, as had the Tlascalans? Such crimes could not be suffered to pass unpunished.

Suddenly a musket-shot rang out, and at the signal the Spaniards opened a deadly fire on the Cholulans, who were so closely crowded together that they had no room to fight. To escape was impossible, and the struggle soon degenerated into a massacre. In vain the warriors in the city rushed to rescue their countrymen, and hurled themselves against the mail-clad foes who guarded the gates with their terrible cannon. And now the Tlascalans fell fiercely on their rear, and caught thus between two fires the rescuers broke and fled. Some of them made for the temple of Quetzalcoatl, for had not the Fair God promised that if in time of dire necessity they dragged down his walls a deluge would flow thence to overwhelm their enemies? Many with bare hands tore at the stones, but, alas! no miracle rewarded their frenzied efforts, no vengeful flood gushed forth, showers of crumbling brick-dust alone mocked their faith. In the towers of the temple they sought refuge, only to perish miserably in the flames of the wooden structures fired by the Spaniards.

It was a scene of horrid carnage. "We slew many of them," says Bernal Diaz, "and others were burnt alive; so little did the promises of their false gods avail them."

To quell the tumult he had himself aroused was no easy task even for the iron will of the conqueror, but at last both Spaniards and allies were gathered under their banners, the streets were cleansed, the dead buried. For fourteen days CortÚs remained in Cholula, giving up all his time, with statesmanlike foresight, to the work of reconstruction. The country people were brought in to open the shops and carry on the daily work which was at a standstill for lack of hands. The cacique  had been among the slain, so another was appointed in his place. The victims for sacrifice were freed, their cages demolished, and in the temple of Quetzalcoatl a cross was planted. But CortÚs could not wipe away the traces of the terrible massacre. Black and smoking ruins showed their unsightly scars where shining temples had so lately stood, and never did the sacred city regain her former glory.

There has been much controversy as to the necessity for this wholesale slaughter. On ethical grounds it is of course unjustifiable. But it must be judged by the standards of that age, when even in Christian Europe towns were sacked without mercy, and the inhabitants, regardless of age or sex, put to the sword. In the New World, where human sacrifice prevailed, life was still less valued. As to the expediency of the deed there is no doubt. Throughout Anahuac the Spaniards gained in prestige, the most valuable of all aids to a small body of invaders. In the capital consternation reigned. The gods were indeed come, and who could stay their onward march? To propitiate the dread beings Montezuma sent humbly disclaiming any share in the recent treachery. His slaves bore as usual costly offerings.

The way now lay open to Mexico. The Totonacs, however, feared to proceed, such was their dread of "the great Montezuma," so CortÚs allowed them to return to their own country laden with the rewards of faithful service. The Tlascalans, on the other hand, were eager to advance, and CortÚs was obliged to refuse thousands of fresh volunteers.

The first stages of the march led across wide savannahs and through well-kept plantations. Several caciques, who had heard of the downfall of Cholula, came from their cities to greet the conquerors. They all complained of the tyranny of Montezuma, and warned CortÚs that the main road to Mexico had been blocked to force the Spaniards to follow a more dangerous route commanded by hidden forts.

Gentle rises soon brought them to the foot of that great mountain barrier which separates the plains of Cholula from the valley of Mexico. Here the road branched, and the main track was much encumbered with fallen timber and great stones. Acting on the information he had received, CortÚs removed the obstacles, continued on his way, and entered wild and broken country swept by icy blasts. Two giant volcanic peaks, among the highest in North America, guarded the pass, Popocatepetl, the "Smoking Hill," and Iztaccihuatl, "the White Woman." From far-distant Tlascala had been seen the smoke and flames of the former in ceaseless eruption. And to Montezuma in his island city, the same sight had seemed to forecast the doom of his empire.

No man, declared the Tlascalans, might ascend the Smoking Hill and live. Hearing this, ten of the cavaliers at once determined to make the ascent, and to their surprise several of the Tlascalans, not to be outdone in courage by their white friends, volunteered to accompany them. Passing successively through forests with dense undergrowth and belts of pine, they emerged on to the bleak, lava-strewn mountain side. Strange groanings and rumblings came from beneath their feet, and the Indians, who had climbed on manfully to this point, suddenly declared with looks of terror that they could go no farther. The mysterious noises, they said, were the groans of the tormented spirits of wicked rulers chained beneath the Smoking Hill. The ten climbed on, coming at last to the snow-line. Without rope or alpenstock they clambered over the slippery ice often on the brink of ghastly chasms and crevasses. Dizzy and faint from the rarefied air they drew near the summit, but Popocatepetl was awake! A rush of burning smoke and glowing cinders drove back the rash intruders. To show how far they had climbed into the region of perpetual snow, they took down with them some mighty icicles. CortÚs, much pleased with the bravado of these gallants, mentioned the matter in his next missive to Charles V., and Ordaz, the leader, was allowed to quarter on his shield a burning mountain.

Refreshed by this brief halt, the army defiled through the pass. The cold was intense, and the Spaniards could hardly have survived the bitter nights but for the stone shelters which the Mexicans had erected at convenient intervals for their travelling merchants and couriers.

Having passed the crest of the Sierra the march became easier; the mighty walls of rock grew lower, and suddenly turning a sharp angle of the road the weary, travel-worn soldiers gazed on a view so entrancing that all their toils were forgotten. The Valley of Mexico lay before them. Across green woods and yellow cornfields, shining streams and glowing gardens, gleamed the glancing waters of five beautiful lakes with white-towered cities on their shores. So rare was the air at this altitude that distance did not dim brilliance of colour or distinctness of outline, and in such a light the rampart of porphyry rocks encircling the whole valley seemed of richest purple. Beyond the largest lake—Tezcuco—rose the dark cypress-covered hill of Chapoltepec, while in the very midst of the waters glittered the palaces and temples of Mexico, or, as the Aztecs loved to call it, Tenochtitlan, the city of the eagle and cactus.

This haughty capital it was on which the Spaniards fixed their eyes. There lay the reward of all their toil. No wonder that they cried with joy, "It is the promised land!"

Could the stern conqueror gaze now on this valley so marred by his countrymen, what would be his thoughts? Gone are the sheltering forests, and much of the land scorched by the merciless sun lies barren and deserted. Gone too are the many white-towered cities, and dead is the blossom of Aztec civilisation.

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