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XOCHICALCO UNESCO SITE - In the House of Flowers

Updated: Nov 24, 2023



The ancient city of Xochicalco is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and located in the state of Morelos. The Nahuatl name Xochicalco loosely translates as "In the House of Flowers." Emerging as a rising political force and trade center during the final era of Teotihuacan's decline, this city may have played a role in the downfall of Teotihuacan's civilization and possibly housed citizens who migrated from Mexico's mysterious central city.

 

Originally settled around 200 BCE, some scholars propose that the lands of Xochicalco were initially abandoned due to the eruption of Mt. Xitle, occurring sometime between 50 CE and 350 CE. This volcano, situated approximately 29 miles north of Xochicalco, devastated the region, rendering it uninhabitable and compelling populations to migrate toward Teotihuacan, which reached its peak population of around 200,000 citizens by 500 CE.

 

The illustrious city of Xochicalco was later established in 650 CE, although archaeologists remain uncertain about its original founders. Many believe the city was first inhabited by the Olmeca-Xicalanca and/or the Maya. Others posit that the Zapotec settled here after moving north from Monte Alban. A popular theory suggests that the decline of Teotihuacan played a significant role in the rise and flourishing of Xochicalco as a cosmopolitan center with citizens from all the aforementioned cultures. Despite limited agricultural opportunities in the surrounding region, archaeologists theorize that this religious center was constructed primarily for trade due to its convenient location along an important trade network. Xochicalco enjoyed a strategic advantage, being situated atop three hills, providing a panoramic view for defense against potential encroaching enemies.




Temple of Quetzalcoatl - Photo by Rodolfo Araiza


Determining the cultural affiliations of the magnificent city of Xochicalco is facilitated through the examination of architectural design and iconography, particularly within the elaborate frescoes present. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl showcases influences from both Teotihuacano and Maya culture, as evidenced by its distinctive features. Additionally, sculptures with a unique Maya character contribute to the city's cultural tapestry. Notably, the site reveals traces of various other cultures that may have inhabited it at different points in time, leading to speculation that the rulers possibly engaged an eclectic community of artists. Similar to city-states worldwide, the ancient cities of Mesoamerica, including Xochicalco, exhibited cosmopolitan and diverse characteristics, even though they were often under the control of a dominant cultural group.

 

In terms of chronology, Xochicalco was settled much later than Teotihuacan (established around 400 BCE) or Maya sites in the southern regions. With its founding in 650 CE, Xochicalco is comparatively young when compared to established sites such as Tikal and Monte Alban (dating back to 500 BCE) or Copan (dating to 1000 BCE). The construction of her temples places Xochicalco in the Epiclassic Period and presents a unique development within the broader historical timeline of Mesoamerican civilizations.




Stelae featuring the Rain-God Tlaloc, Xochicalco Morelos


Though the Temple of Quetzalcoatl is the crown jewel in the eyes of visitors to this site, it`s the Temple of Stelaes that intrigues and impresses archaeologists more. It seems the central plaza was constructed prior to the Temple of Stelaes, prompting city-planners to add an extension to the plaza in order to accommodate this structure. As it houses the ancient deities of Tlaloc and Quetzalcaotl, the timing of this construction has archaeologists puzzled and contemplative.

 

Tlaloc is celebrated as the Mexica God of Rain, yet predates the Mexica Culture by at least 800 years. Tlaloc was worshipped by the Teotihuacano and Toltec cultures prior to the rise of the Mexica. With features similar to Chac of the Maya Empire, and Cocijo of Zapotec cosology, this Rain God is truly pan-Mesoamerican and yet specific, stylistically to Teotihuacan and the Mexica. As Teotihuacan dominated the cotton trade of the Zapotec, there was alsready an exchange of cultural and religious ideology. This harkens the question - why was the Temple of Stelaes added later, as some kind of after-thought?

 

  1. Cultural Evolution and Migration: The evolution of religious beliefs and practices is often influenced by cultural exchanges, migrations, and the convergence of diverse populations. The delayed appearance of Tlaloc in Xochicalco might be linked to the arrival of new groups, such as the Zapotec, who brought with them different religious traditions and deities.

  2. Integration of Cultures: Xochicalco, as a cosmopolitan center, may have experienced a gradual blending of diverse cultures over time. The integration of the Cult of Tlaloc into Xochicalco's religious landscape could reflect a process of cultural assimilation and the adoption of new ideas and practices. This would be especialy true if the Maya were the original founders of the city.

  3. Architectural Additions: The construction of the Temple of Stelaes as an addition to the original center of Xochicalco suggests a deliberate effort to expand or modify the city's religious architecture. This may have been prompted by changing religious beliefs, the arrival of new populations, or a desire to establish new connections with specific deities. This area presents many challenges for agriculture, which could have prompted a necessity to appease the God who makes things grow.

  4. Connection to Zapotec Presence: The evidence of Zapotec presence at Xochicalco suggests a dynamic interplay between different Mesoamerican cultures. The arrival of the Zapotec, potentially after the decline of Monte Albán, could have brought new religious elements, including the worship of Tlaloc, to Xochicalco. This point must be made, as the structure of the Temple of Stelaes itself, is similar to the architecture found at Monte Alban.

  5. Cultural Continuity and Transformation: Tlaloc's celebration by various cultures, including Teotihuacano, Toltec, Mexica, and Zapotec, highlights the adaptability and continuity of certain religious traditions across different Mesoamerican societies. The late incorporation of Tlaloc in Xochicalco may signify a cultural transformation rather than a complete introduction of a new deity. It is possible that the Stelae of Tlaloc was also moved to the Temple of Steleas from elsewhere, after the temple was constructed. The possibilities are endless.

While the construction of Xochicalco is dated at 650 CE, the decline of Monte Alban was marked by 850 CE, 300 years after the fall of Teotihuacan, which at one time was a close ally and trading partner. If Xochicalco operated as a trade-post, and was inhabited by Teotihuacano`s, surely the trade relationship would have remained. Perhpas the Zapotec-style Temple of Stelae`s was added to the city after the decline of Monte Alban, and was presented as a dowry or a gift to gain permission to live or trade as partners.

 

This impressive city leaves us with many questions, but is an enigma well-worth exploring. Designated a World Heritgae Site in 1999, it is considered one of the most under-rated archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. After only 250 years of occupation, the trade routes of Mesameerica were collapsing, and lacking the ability to sustain her population, Xochicalco fell. This sunning and elaborate city was set ablaze and burned to the ground, before being abandoned.

 

Please Note:  Xochicalco declined before the Mexica rose, so though they are mentioned in this article, there is no evidence to suggest they ever inhabited this site. We will continue to add more information about this site in future newsletters.


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