Friday, January 30, 2015

Back to Oaxaca... Sort of

This afternoon I took a two mile walk from my apartment to the National Museum of Anthropology.  I have lost track of how many times I have been to that museum, but it is so large and so outstanding that I always find things of interest that I haven't noticed before. 

Jane and I were in Oaxaca earlier this month and visited several archaeological sites there, so I thought it would be appropriate for me to visit the Oaxaca Hall of the museum in Mexico City.  Usually, when I go to the Anthropology Museum, I am already getting tired by the time I get to the exhibits on the Oaxacan cultures.  This time I decided to start with Oaxaca and take a more thorough look at the objects on display.

The most impressive archaelogical site that we visited in Oaxaca was Monte Albán.  This large mural in the hall shows what the site looked like 1500 years ago when it was the mighty capital of the Zapotec tribe.


Showcases are filled with beautiful pieces of Zapotec ceramics and sculpture.

This sculpture combines of the Zapotec rain god and the corn goddess, showing the interconnection between the two.

There is a life-size replica of one of the tombs of Monte Albán just as it looked when archaeologists found it.

I was very interested in seeing the treasures of Zaachila while I was in the Oaxaca Hall.  Jane and I had visited the largely unexcavated site, and our driver told us that archaeologists had discovered a couple tombs there.  All of the contents of the tombs were taken to the Anthropology Museum.  The residents of Zaachila were very upset with this, and have refused to allow archaeologists to return to the site until the tomb treasures are returned to their village. 

The treasures include gold jewelry, jade masks, and pottery.

I can understand why the villagers want their treasures back, although they are probably better taken care of here at Mexico's premier museum.

Nativity Scenes

Yesterday I went to the National Museum of Popular Culture to see a display of the winners of a national competition of Nativity scenes.

The Nativity scene originated in Italy, and from there spread to other European countries and on to the Americas.  In Mexico, the Nativity scene, or "Nacimiento", has long been an important part of the Christmas celebration.  Long before the idea of the Christmas tree made its way to Mexico from the United States, Mexican families would display "nacimientos" in their homes during the holiday seasons.  These nativity scenes could be quite large and elaborate, and often take up most of a room or courtyard.

The winners from this competition represent a wide variety of handicrafts from different parts of Mexico.

 This clay "nacimiento" is from the state of Veracruz.

 The painted, wooden figures of this Nativity scene are reminiscent of the "alebrijes" of Oaxaca.  In fact, the figures are from San Martín Tilcajete, a village in the state of Oaxaca famous for its "alebrijes".
Notice the intricate, painted designs which are typical of the best "alebrijes".

This extremely realistic "nacimiento" is made of wax.
It is from the state of Michoacán.

This glazed pottery Nativity scene is done in the style of a Tree of Life.
It is from the town of Metepec which is famous for its Trees of Life.

Finally, this is a detail from what I assumed was a painting hanging on the wall.
Closer inspection revealed that the "painting" is actually made from feathers.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Today I traveled by subway to the pleasant Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán.  My destination was the National Museum of Popular Cultures.  I have been to the museum once before, and I was not impressed.  However, I had read in a magazine that the winners from a national contest of Nativity scenes were to be on exhibit there until February, so I decided to go back.

Before I had even found the Nativity scenes, I realized that the museum was holding its annual festival of tamales in its patio.  Tamales are made from a special corn dough, are stuffed with either savory or sweet fillings, are wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and are steamed.  

Please note: The singular of "tamales" is not "tamale", but "tamal", which comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

The museum courtyard was filled with vendors from different parts of Mexico selling a wide variety of tamales.  There were also vendors from Central America serving their versions, and South Americans who were preparing their own corn dough dishes such as "arepas" from Colombia.

 Making "arepas"

It was around lunch time, so I decided to try some of the vendors' wares.  I bought a Colombian "arepa", a couple of "corundas" from the Mexican state of Michoacán ("corundas" are little triangles of corn dough topped with frijoles or "mole"), a black "mole" tamal from Oaxaca, and a pork tamal from Veracruz.  

I had never had an "arepa" before, and I thought that it was rather bland, even served with salsa.  Of the others that I tried, the best was the pork tamal.  Very yummy!  

The festival of tamales was an unexpected and tasty treat!


The Museum of the "Templo Mayor"

I wrote yesterday about the excavation of the "Templo Mayor", the main temple of the Aztecs.  I also mentioned that during the course of their dig archaeologists found thousands of artifacts.  To house everything, a new museum was built in 1987.  In a city of museums (more than any other city in the world), I personally think that the "Templo Mayor" Museum is second only to the National Museum of Anthropology.  It should definitely be on any visitor's list of places to see.

The archaeological excavation began when a large, round carving of the Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, was discovered beneath a Mexico City street.  For many years Coyolxauhqui was the star attractiion, and the museum was built around the carving, with upper story balconies from which visitors could better view it.

 The stone disc of the moon goddess is nearly eleven feet in diameter.
It is best viewed from above.

The excavations continue to the present day, and new finds are being uncovered.  The moon goddess has now taken a back seat to a carving which was discovered in 2006 and moved into the museum in 2010.  The image of the earth goddess, Tlaltecuhtli, measures more than 13 by 11 feet.  It is the largest Aztec monument...  bigger than Coyolxauhqui, and even bigger than the famous Aztec calendar stone.  The stone still contains traces of the original paints.

 This is what the carving would have looked like when it was painted.

   The size of the carving is best appreciated from above.

The halls of the museum are filled with many other interesting objects.  Here is a sampling of a few of them...

 A human skull incrusted with decorations.  Locks of hair may have been placed in the holes on the top of the skull.

 A polished stone mask and ear jewelry

 A polychrome ceramic vessel with the image of the goddess of ripe corn

 An impressive life-size ceramic sculpture of an Eagle Warrior.  
The Eagle Warriors were members of an elite military order, and wore an eagle uniform.
Remnants of stucco emulate the feathers which covered their uniform.

This truly scary, life-size, ceramic figure portrays the God of Death.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

El Templo Mayor

Mexico City stands upon the site of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.  When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1521, they destroyed Tenochtitlán and used the stones from the temples and palaces to build their own colonial capital atop the ruins.  Thus, anytime you dig beneath the surface of downtown Mexico City you are likely to run across the remains of the Aztec city. 

In 1978, the electric company was doing repair work beneath a street near the Cathedral of Mexico.  The workers come upon a large Aztec carving.  Archaeologists were called in, and the carving turned out to be a disc, nearly 11 feet in diameter and dating from the 15th century, with the image of Coyolxauqui, the moon goddess.

 This replica shows what the carving of the moon goddess would have originally looked like.  Archaeologists know from fragments of pigment left on the stones that Aztec sculptures were always painted.
According to Aztec mythology, the moon goddess was slain and dismembered by her brother, the sun.  You can see that the goddess's body has been cut into pieces.  The myth explained the phases of the moon.   
The excitement from this discovery provided the impetus for further excavation in the heart of the city.  It was known that this was the site of the "Templo Mayor", the main Aztec temple. Thirteen buildings were demolished, and archaeologists proceded to uncover the foundations of the temple  Today, within the shadow of the Cathedral,there is an important archaeological site, and one of the major tourist attractions of the historic center of Mexico City.  Excavation continues to this day... archaeologists are currently burrowing under the plaza to the side of the Cathedral.

When the Spanish arrived, the "Templo Mayor" dominated the city of Tenochtitán.  It covered an area of around 330 by 260 feet.  On top of the pyramidal structure were shrines to Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and of war, and Tlaloc, the rain god.  It rose to a height nearly as tall as today's Cathedral.  

Visitors to the "templo" may find the ruins quite confusing.  That is because the Aztecs, like the other Mexican civilizations before them, would buiid over existing pyramids.  The "Templo Mayor" actually consists of seven layers.  The earliest temple was built around 1325 when the Aztecs established their capital here.  As the Aztec Empire grew in power, succeeding emperors would build larger and more splendid temples over the existing structures.  The final and seventh temple was what the Spanish saw when they arrived in the 1500s.  What visitors see today are the foundations of the different temples.

Here you can see how archaeologists have exposed one of the layer of an older temple.  When the Aztecs superimposed a newer construction, they would cover the old temple with dirt and rubble.  As they did so, they would bury offerings, such as these statues found reclining against the old staircase.  The stonework at the left is part of the next layer of the temple which covered the previous layer.

The earliest temple was, according to accounts, built of earth and wood, so nothing remains of that level.  The second level was built between 1375 and 1427.  Archaeologists have uncovered part of that temple.  

Traces of the original paint can still be seen.  To the left is a "chac mool", a reclining figure.  Offerings (such as human hearts) would have been placed in the bowl which the "chac mool" holds over his stomach.

  There is also a sacrificial stone.  The victim would have been held down by his arms and legs over this stone.  The priest would cut under the victim's ribcage with an obsidian knife and remove the heart.

This altar is decorated with over 200 stone carvings of human skulls.

  This winding serpent once decorated the base of a staircase.

Archaeologists also uncovered a structure that once stood next to temple.  The building is called the House of the Eagles, and it was a place of prayer and meditation for the army's Order of the Eagles.  Intricate carvings on the stone benches within the house can still be seen.

During the excavation thousands of pieces of art and objects of offering were found.  To house these discoveries, a museum was built next to the archaeological site.  In my next post we will visit the museum.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Rare Sight

The last few times that I have been in Mexico City, there has always been something set up on the main plaza, the Zócalo...  a computer fair, a military exposition, a skating rink at Christmas time.  One could not appreciate the vast plaza and the historic buildings surrounding it because of all the "stuff".  A good view of the Zócalo was becoming as rare as seeing the two nearby volcanoes, Iztaccíhautl and Popocatépetl, through the pollution.

Today, however, I ventured downtown, and, lo and behold, the Zócalo was empty.  I could photograph the great plaza (I've read that only Moscow's Red Square is larger) without any ugly obstructions.

 The Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City is on the north side of the Zócalo.  It was begun in the 16th century and not completed until the 18th century.

Later in the afternoon I got an even better view of the Zócalo when I went to the terrace restaurant of the Hotel Majestic for lunch.  The Majestic was built in the 1930s and was once one of the city's finest hotels.  Today it is a part of the Best Western chain.  It is is no longer one of the city's best hotels, but it still has an incomparable view of the Zócalo.

 The National Palace, which houses the offices of Mexico's President, takes up the entire east side of the Zócalo.

The only way the view could have been better is if there had been a stronger breeze to unfurl that enormous Mexican flag in the middle of the square.  Oh yes... and if there were no air pollution and you see the volcanoes to the east.

Do you know why the main plaza is called the Zócalo?  In the 19th century there were plans to build a monument on the square.  However, all that was ever built was the base (or "zócalo" in Spanish) for the proposed monument.  People started referring to the square as the Zócalo even though its official name is the "Plaza de la Constitución".  Before long, the main square in towns throughout the country came to be called the Zócalo..  

A Gift for Alejandro

Yesterday when I was in the music / video store "Mixup" searching for marimba music, something else caught my eye.  They had complete boxed sets of the first four seasons of "Downton Abbey". 

I must confess that I am a "Downton Abbey" fanatic.  (For anyone who has not heard of the show, it is a British series that appears on PBS Masterpiece Theater in the U.S.  It deals with the lives of an upper class English family and their servants in the first part of the twentieth century.)  I know that it is a melodramatic soap opera... but it is a first rate soap opera with excellent acting and high production values.  In the U.S. the series is always shown during the winter months when I am usually in Mexico.  So every year I have to wait for the new season to come out on Netflix.

I've mentioned to Alejandro the British "telenovela" that I so enjoy.  Even though I have read that the series has appeared in Mexico (probably on one of the cable networks), Alejandro had never heard of it before.  When I saw the boxed sets in "Mixup", I decided that I would buy "Season 1" as a present for Alejandro.  I really wasn't sure if he would like it, but if he didn't, I could always take it home for myself.  Well, I need not have wondered.  Last night when Alejandro came to the apartment after work, we watched the first episode.  He is already hooked!

I'll probably return to Mexico City in April for Alejandro's birthday.  I now know what I will buy him as a birthday present!!

The Marimba Quest

When I return home from a trip, I always upload my pictures to the computer and, using a program that I have, create a slide and video show of my best pictures on a DVD.  Before burning the disc, I add appropriate tunes as background music.  For example, my latest trip to Spain includes portions of Bizet's "Carmen Suite", numerous pieces of classical Spanish guitar music, and a bit of modern flamenco.   For my trip to England, I wasn't quite sure of what would be considered "typical English music", so I put in some pieces by the British composers Holst and Elgar.  I always use instrumental music... vocal music is distracting if I am narrating the show.

Since the largest portion of my travel is to Mexico, I am always on the lookout for Mexican instrumental music to use on my discs.  In Oaxaca, where I just spent two weeks, the marimba is a traditional part of their music.  Every evening on the main plaza, you will hear at least one marimba band playing for the patrons of the sidewalk cafés.  It was natural that I wanted some marimba music to put on my DVD of the trip.  Many of the tourist-oriented shops sell compact discs of Oaxacan music.  It was easy to find discs of well-known Oaxacan vocalist Lila Downs... and I did buy one of her albums for my own enjoyment.  But do you think I could find a single album of marimba music?  No!!!

My quest continued here in Mexico City.  The largest music and video store here is a chain called "Mixup".  There is a small store in a shopping mall just a few blocks from my apartment. But instead of going there, yesterday I walked about a mile up Insurgentes Avenue to the "Zona Rosa" neighborhood where one of the larger "Mixup" stores is located.

I went in, and after searching fruitlessly in the instrumental section, I finally asked one of the employees if they had any marimba music.  He went to search, and a couple minutes later came back with a half dozen discs.  He told me that I could listen to them first.  I picked out a couple that looked good, and took them to a special service counter where I was able to listen to them.  They were just what I was looking for!  My quest was over!