By the time the conquistadores arrived in the Yucatan in 1541, the ancient Mayan city of T’ho had been long abandoned save for around 1000 people still living in the area. According to one Spanish account at the time, “A small village of Mayan Indians settled in thatched and wooden huts and the remains of some highly surprising and beautiful buildings that crowned rugged hills covered with old trees.” Another insightful account describes what the Spanish invaders discovered – “a broad embankment which might have been eight hundred feet long, four hundred wide and from fifteen to twenty in elevation. It was ascended to the top by means of a stone stairway, composed of seven steps so high as to give rise to the thought that they could only be rises by giants”.
It’s believed the city of T’ho had been in existence since around 550AD, making Spanish conquered Mérida arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. There’s nothing left of T’ho today, save for a few blocks of weathered stone that have been incorporated into some old colonial city buildings, but much of the Cathedral San Ildefonso, the oldest in all of Mexico and, in fact, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, was entirely built using stone and rubble from the ruins of T’ho.
The stones were deliberately reversed during construction to hide Mayan symbols, though they say you can still see some glyphs etched into some. I’ve looked all around both inside and outside of the cathedral and found it hard to determine if anything can actually be seen, though in one or two places you can just make out some faint markings.
After the Conquest, the Spanish completely demolished the city of T’ho right down to rubble, using the ancient pyramids and temples pretty much as a pre-quarried quarry. Though as late as the beginning of the 20thCentury it was possible to see the remains of two giant stone platforms, now the site of the main market in Mérida, Mercado Lucas De Galvéz. With accelerated construction of modern-day Mérida and little to no public management of archaeological and historic heritage at the time, what little remained of T’ho was erased forever from the urban landscape.
Across the Plaza Grande from the cathedral is Casa de Montejo, constructed in 1549 on the orders of the invading conquistador, Francisco de Montejo for his son, ‘El Mozo’, and fellow ‘conquerors’ to live. It’s renaissance stone façade uses (of course) stones from the pyramids of T’ho and features two fierce looking conquistadores armed with swords standing on the severed heads of the vanquished barbarians.
The Cathedral San Ildefonso was built between 1561 and 1598 comprising three architectural styles of the period: a Renaissance exterior; a Baroque altar; and Moorish pillars with a stone vaulted ceiling. Unfortunately, much of the Baroque interior of the cathedral was sacked and burnt during the 1915 Mexican Revolution under the orders of its socialist general, destroying the original wooden and gilt decoration. The cathedral today is rather austere with a complete lack of ornament, save for a 7-metre stone carving of Jesus crucified, and simple carvings to mark the stations of the cross. You can still make out bullet holes in the exterior walls – a chilling reminder of what happened here during that time of upheaval.
I went searching across the city for evidence of T’ho but to no avail – there’s simply nothing left. I had high hopes for the Museum of the City of Mérida, but I’m afraid I was once again left disappointed by the quality of some of the museums here. There’s barely half of a room on the ground floor that was supposed to house ‘artifacts and archaeological pieces of historical relevance to the development of the city from pre-Hispanic times’. There were four glass cabinets with a few stones and arrow heads, unadorned ceramics and a sadly moth-eaten model of T’ho, plus a strange wall display of stone X’s – all with little explanation of their dates or where found. I find it so surprising that a city of Mérida’s standing – again (think about it) one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – doesn’t properly acknowledge or celebrate its ancient history. It seems that the Spanish conquistadores not only demolished the city but wiped any trace of it off the map for ever. How incredibly sad.
One Comment Add yours
Screw those Spanish, negating the glory of what was there and overlaying it all with buildings devoted to the Tooth Fairy in the sky. My apologies to any Catholic readers of this blog for my well entrenched aversion to Christian colonialism. Fair enough, their churches are amazing, in an over the top way, but their lack of respect for the local culture and structures they found was gob smacking 😤
LikeLiked by 1 person