Cholula, just a short taxi-ride out of Puebla, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Mexico and, at its zenith, the second largest city in the land after Tenochititlan, with an estimated population of 100,000. It’s thought that early Cholula was established around 500 BC and through several periods of development by 600 AD the Olmecs had established this ancient settlement as one of Mexico’s most active cities and the most dominant political force in the region, later falling under control of the emerging Aztec empire.
Cholula also lays claim to the world’s largest pyramid (by volume), bigger even (to repeat – by volume) than the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. And if that wasn’t enough, Cholula lies at the base of Mexico’s largest active volcano, Popocatépetl, which would have loomed large in the clear smog free air of ancient times.
In 1519 Hernan Cortés arrived in Cholula with his army of conquistadors at the suggestion of Moctezuma II, who ostensibly wished to impress his Spanish “guests”. However, the invitation was part of a plan to ambush Cortés and his army. But canny Cortés, learning of the plot from paid informers, assembled the city leaders in the central square, where weaponless, they were charged by the armed Spanish soldiers and anti-Aztec mercenaries, eventually killing as many as six thousand, women and children included, throughout the city. Cortés then ordered that their pyramids, altars and temples be destroyed and that Spanish churches be built in their place.
The Spanish at the time did not realise that the vast grassy mound that dominated the city concealed the Great Pyramid of Cholula, which had already at that time been long disused by the Chololtecs.
Today, there’s not much to see of the Great Pyramid which still lies hidden under the mound.
There are about 8 kilometres of tunnel inside it, begun by archaeological excavations in 1931 to prove that the mound was indeed what it purported to be. They discovered altars with offerings, floors and walls and human remains from around 900 AD. Sadly today, the tunnels, previously open to visitors, are closed due to the pandemic.
But there are excavations around the perimeter which give some sense of the scale of this place. There’s a fantastic model in the museum which shows just how massive the pyramid was, along with some replicated murals showing the vibrant colour used and the astonishing scenes depicted where men and women, drinking to excess, defecate and vomit!
There were three attempts by the Spanish to place a large Christian cross on top of the pyramid but lightning struck each time (interestingly…). Finally in 1594 construction began on the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the church built using the very stones of the great pyramid, and finished in 1666.
I have to say it’s a gaudy pile that’s awkwardly plonked on top of this wonderous site but the surrounding platform does afford the most spectacular views of Cholula and to Popocatépetl and snow-capped Iztaccihuatl which today were largely hidden by mist, heat haze and, inevitably, smog.
Every now and again you can just make out an explosion of gas and vapour belching from Popocatépetl, which during the time we were there, finally put paid to the view, and the volcanoes disappeared into the murk.
Modern day Cholula is a surprisingly bustling city with a distinct character of its own and not the suburb of Puebla that the drive out here makes it seem. Legend has it that Cortés ordered the construction of 365 churches, but in actual fact there are 40, which considering its size, is still astonishing. If we had more time, we’d definitely spend a few days here.
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The Spanish sure have a lot to answer for 🙄 cunty Cortez begone, I say! The Australian invasion is small potatoes in comparison.
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