The Pyramids of Mesoamerica the Great Pyramid of Cholula

The beautiful Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of our Lady of the Remedies) is located on top of what seems to be a natural grassy hill dotted with cypress groves and thickets. This peaceful hill, only 4 miles west from the modern city of Pueblo, is the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

 The first temple-pyramid construction on this site is thought to have started around 200 BC and continue in stages until the 9th century AD. It was dedicated to the God Quetzalcóatl. The base measures 450 by 450 meters and the height eventually reached 66 meters. Its total volume of 4.45 cubic meters makes it larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza which has a volume of 2.5 cu meters, but is higher at 138 meters. About this time the region suffered depopulation and the pyramid was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

In the 12th century the region was settled by the Toltec-Chichimec people who recognized the pyramid as an artificial hill, using the name “Tlachihualtepetl”. Religious ceremonies were conducted in new structures built around the pyramid which largely remained overgrown with scrub, as it was on the arrival of Hernán Cortés, the Conquistador, in 1519.

Cortés and his band of Spanish soldiers were en route via Cholula to the Mexican capital of Teotihuacán, ruled by Montezuma and located about 100 kms to the north west. Cholula was the second largest city in Mexico at the time, with a population estimated at 100,000. He camped on the outskirts of Cholula and was given a friendly welcome by its citizens, many of whom wanted to join his expedition. The idea of conquering the repressive and annoying regime of Montezuma appealed to them. He chose 6000 volunteers to join him.

Cortés was impressed by the local industry and intensive cultivation of the Cholula plains with irrigated crops in large fields and plantations producing maize, cactus, aloes and chili peppers. A magnificent view of the countryside was had from the Cholula hill top of the distant volcanoes of Popacatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, showing snowy summits higher than any European mountain.

All seemed to be going well for the expedition until Cortés heard whisper from his Indian mistress and interpreter Doña Marina that some of the caciques and priests of Cholula were secretly plotting to kill him and his little band of soldiers. However, the populace regarded Cortés and his soldiers as White Gods and invincible due to their superior technology of firearms, cannon, steel swords, body armor and skilled horsemanship in battle.

Cortés decided to make a pre-emptive attack on the dissidents which he lured to the central plaza of Cholula. A three hour massacre followed leaving over three thousand Indian dead bodies in the streets. The Spaniards chased the remnants fleeing up the Great Pyramid and set fire to all the timber structures. They climbed the 124 steps up the face of the pyramid amid a deluge of thrown stones and javelins, which were harmless to the armored Spaniards. When the dust settled Cortés resumed his journey towards the capital.

Under Spanish control the Pyramid of Cholula became under protection of the Cross and a summit church was built dedicated to Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The Cholulan Indians then performed the peaceful services of the Roman Catholic communion, whereas before for centuries it had been the site for revering the mystic God Quetzalcoatl.

The early history of the Pyramid of Cholula was slow to be evaluated. It was visited by the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1800 who made some preliminary measurements.  It was also visited by the woman travel writer Madame Calderon de la Barca in 1840 who deplored the massacre that took place. The first excavations were done by a Swiss archeologist Adolf Bandelier in 1881 -1884 who mainly collected skulls from burial sites for study.

Modern excavations began in earnest from 1931 and ended in the 1950’s. Tunnels were driven following the boundaries of earlier constructions. A second round of excavations was undertaken from 1966 to 1974, making over 8 kms of tunnels altogether. The base of the first pyramid was made of sun-dried adobe bricks. Various buildings, courtyards and alters were excavated, giving abundant archeological findings of ceremonial objects, murals, ceramics, tools and skeletal remains. Today some 800 meters of tunnels are open to the public. It is possible to enter the pyramid on the north side, traverse the pyramid and exit on the south side.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula, so close to Puebla, has a history extending over 2000 years. It is one of the largest structures in the world by volume. Cholula was the Holy City of Anahuac, a site like Mecca and Jerusalem is today. Over the centuries many different groups of Indians controlled the region and added on more buildings and constructed alters for religious ceremonies including human sacrifices. Priests beheaded children and sent them into the next world to appease the Rain God in times of drought.

The finality of this great pyramid is now a pleasant brush covered hill having on its summit the wonderful church, Our Lady of the Remedies, where Catholics and others of different faith can worship in harmony.

Interesting Book References:

“History of the Conquest of Mexico” by William H. Prescott, first published 1843, The Modern Library, NY, reprint 1979.

“Alexander von Humboldt Researches Vol.1, London 1814; (Chapters: The Pyramid of Cholula; Detached Masses of the Pyramid of Cholula). Modern Reprint.

“Life in Mexico” (travel letters of a diplomat’s wife during 1840 – 42) by Madame Calderon de la Barca; first published by Prescott in 1843, reprint in 1987 by Century Hutchison Ltd, London.