"Place of the House of the Flowers"

As Teotihuacan's influence faded in the 8th century, other cities vied to fill the vacuum, among them Cacaxtla and Xochicalco. Located on major trade routes that linked the central highlands with the Gulf of Mexico and the Maya area farther south, Xochicalco absorbed cultural influences along with trade goods.

Despite many Maya design features the influence of Teotihuacan predominates, so much so that the suspicion arises that its builders may have been refugees from that great city's collapse. "Refugees" may be too benign to describe Xochicalco's builders for it could be that the rise of this new city and its regional influence actually contributed to Teotihuacan's decline (Coe, 120).

Xochicalco (near Cuernavaca) is about 75 miles southwest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City). Teotihuacan is about 30 miles northeast of the Aztec capital. Thus geographically Tenochtitlan lies between Teotihuacan and Xochicalco, which built upon Teotihuacan's cultural heritage. However, the historical line is more complicated. Xochicalco was not a bridge from Teotihuacan to Tenochtitlan but rather a bridge between Teotihuacan and the Toltecs, that is Tula. Along the way it learned from its Maya and Gulf coast neighbors. Xochicalco represents the syncretizing of mesoamerican cultures in the 8th and 9th centuries.

With a population of more than 20,000, Xochicalco was situated on a series of hills in what is now the state of Morelos. From the large religious and ceremonial center the city's defenders could look over the countryside from all angles. In the distance a lake provided water for the city. And the hills themselves were terraced for agriculture and dwellings of the lower classes, while the ruling classes lived in sumptuous, well defended, apartments near the center.

Before the Great Pyramid lies the "Plaza of the Two Glyph Stele" flanked by two platforms with stairs labeled simply "Structure C" and "Structure D." The columns on these structures once supported roofs. The stela (look carefully: it's in the center of the picture, on the altar) contains glyphs that are interpreted to mean "Reptile Eye" and "10 Cane," which certainly was a very important date that may have had something to do with Quetzalcoatl.

From the top of "Structure D" the South Ballcourt is visible to the southwest. The largest and widest of three ballcourts at Xochicalco, its I-shape is thought to have been the prototype for the ballcourts at Tula and, later, at Aztec sites..

Behind the ballcourt is a causeway that leads to a sprawling residential complex. An unexcavated temple is on the hill at the end of the causeway.

The narrow passageway leading to a large open courtyard and partially reconstructed stairs going to the main upper plaza are evidence of the impediments placed on any invader—as is the stone blocking a doorway at right.

The pièce de résistance at Xochicalco is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent or, more accurately, the platform for the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The temple that capped the platform (imagined in the drawing at right) is largely gone but it's lower tier remains and is visible in the photograph above. The building was reconstructed in 1909 by Leopoldo Batres (who excavated and somewhat imaginatively reconstructed Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun about the same time). As it now stands, the structure, rather small for an important temple, measures 69 by 61 feet at its base and stands only 54.5 feet high.

The deeply cut raised relief on all four sides of the building has no less than eight Feathered Serpents wriggling around Maya-style seated figures, who may have represented rulers or priests (center of photograph below). The Feathered Serpent theme suggests that this group of glyphs was inspired by the great Feathered Serpent pyramid at Teotihuacan—though on a much smaller scale.

The Feathered Serpent, identified as Quetzalcoatl, has "speech scrolls" coming from its mouth, which look for all the world like a split tongue, curled. (What do they say?) At the bottom left corner of the panel is a glyph, "9 Reptile Eye." The Teotihuacan-style number is composed of a horizontal bar, signifying 5, plus four dots below it; together they equal 9. Reptile Eye appears elsewhere in Xochicalco, specifically as one of the glyphs on the "Two Glyph Stela." It also is found at Cacaxtla and, before either of them, at Teotihuacan. 9 Reptile Eye may be a name or a date or, perhaps, both. As a name at least one scholar, Alfonso Caso (Mexican archaeologist who died in 1970), saw it as equivalent to "9 Wind," one of the names of Quetzalcoatl. As a date, it has been read as 743, a year in which an eclipse of the sun occurred, during which priests gathered at Xochicalco and fine-tuned the calendar.

By climbing the steps between the Feathered Serpents, the visitor may look down into the interior of the temple base (right). In 1993 the fill was removed from the base and, not surprising given the common practice of building new temples and pyramids over others, there were the remains of an earlier temple.

The northern ballcourt is not far from a cave that was transformed into a solar observatory. The explanatory text at the entrance of the dark passageway reads in part: "In its interior there is…a large room with an hexagonal opening through which one can observe the passing of the sun in its movement towards the Tropic of Cancer and its return, which occurs between the 14/15 of May and the 28/29 of July."

Building on hills that they terraced to provide maximum defense, the people of Xochicalco responded to different social and political conditions than did their predecessors at Teotihuacan, which did not even have city walls. Though evidence that defenses were actually required may be lacking, the very fact that the city flourished for some 250 or more years during a turbulent time of competing city states, makes one think that its citizens were prudent builders.

Nevertheless, round about 900 the ceremonial center, including elite residences, burned. The evidence is an abundance of carbon remains along with what looked like intentionally broken stelae. That the city was not destroyed by enemies but by an internal revolt may be deduced from the fact that lower-class housing remained intact and the city continued to function as a village for numbers of years after.

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