July 3, 2012

The Mexican Pyramids Facts Part 2

Pyramids and human sacrifice at the top of them were discovered by the Conquistadors to be a standard feature of daily life throughout Mexico. Since human sacrifice came to an abrupt end with the Conquest, the actual number of sacrifices is not certain but native records show that at the dedication of the great temple of Tenochtitlan in 1487 twenty thousand victims were dispatched. When thirty years later the Spaniards entered the great square of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, they found a rack holding many thousands of skulls and similar depositories were discovered in all the other towns and even villages. The Aztecs were a warlike race and they had a multitude of thirsty gods, above all Huitzilo- pochtli, the humming bird who led them into battle.

Mexican Pyramids
His innumerable victims were led up the steps of the pyramid, each stretched with his back over the altar by four priests who had gripped his arms and legs. A fifth priest plunged a stone knife into his belly, ripping open the abdominal cavity, and deftly tore out the still pulsating heart from his chest to be offered on behalf of the god to the sun. Often the victims were first prodded into dancing around the altar, as the Spaniards saw their captured comrades doing on St John’s night in June 1521. Victims in honour of Xipe Totec were crucified and flayed alive so that the priests could wear their skins. Tezcatlipoca, the smoking mirror, required his bound victims to be thrown onto glowing embers to be pulled out again in time to have their hearts torn out. Women, too, were sacrificed, being beheaded while dancing, and the tears of children taken for sacrifice were meant to signify rain which was needed.

There was a never-ending variety of ritual for which the pyramid had to provide the stage. It imposed certain and definite demands on the architect. First of all, the spectacle should be visible to a large audience who should be able to watch the ritual in all its phases. At the beginning of the ceremony, the victim had to be identified with the god to whom he was offered. He was given the headdress characteristic of the god and his emblems. Then he took leave of mankind, being led up the steps of the pyramid, and this ascent into the sphere of divinity required a broad and impressive stairway. Much thought and architectural skill had been devoted by the Mexican builders to the various solutions of this problem, which we shall discuss presently in detail.

After the victim had reached the top of the pyramid, the central feature of the ritual, the sacrifice itself and the apotheosis of the dead man, had to be enacted. He was believed to join the god when his heart was offered up to the sun. It was therefore important that every detail of the victim’s death throes should be observable to the crowd in the pyramid enclosure. It meant that the pyramid, while being sufficiently imposing, must not be too high. Finally, the corpse had to be disposed of, and this, too, should be done in a spectacular manner. For this purpose the body was rolled down the stairway which had to be steep enough to provide an uninterrupted passage to the ground. Finally, as a backcloth to the ritual there had to be a shrine at the top of the platform which was a sanctuary dedicated to the god and which served as an abode for the holy image. Some of the Aztec pyramids, such as that in the capital, Tenochtitlan, and another close by, at Tenayuca, carried at the top two sanctuaries, dedicated to different gods. At these twin structures only the pyramid itself was common to both cults but separate staircases led up side by side to the two sanctuaries.

Practically all the Aztec pyramids in the Valley of Mexico had a core of adobe bricks, which were faced with stone held together with mortar. This sets certain limits on the steepness of the stairs but, since the total height of the structure was modest, a fairly high angle of elevation could be maintained. Even the most important pyramids, such as the great temple of Tenochtitlan, rose to only 30 m., not more than a fifth of the great pyramids of Giza. Since the staircase served as a stage for the initial phases of the sacrifice, the spectators’ interest had to be focused on it and the impression of steepness was further enhanced by an accentuated elevation of the banisters near the top.

Thanks to the use of different materials, the Mayas of Yucatan were able to construct steeper stairs, reaching higher. They built their pyramids throughout of stone, held together with a very strong lime r.iortar. When set, this type of structure was essentially monolithic and there was no danger of slip or plastic flow. In this way they could achieve angles of elevation of up to 750, much steeper than anything attempted in Egypt, and about as steep as the remaining core of the Meidum pyramid. The great stairway of the ‘Pyramid of the Magician’ at Uxmal rises at an angle of almost 50° to a height of nearly 35 m. This is clearly at the very limit of practicability for a flight of steps; when I climbed it I certainly had to keep a good hold of the iron chain now provided for visitors to make a safe ascent. The steepness of these stairways, which was necessary for their sinister purpose, was brought home to me by a macabre incident at the pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza. Emerging from a tunnel at ground level, I came upon a group of Maya Indians in a hushed silence. At the bottom of the stairs was a large pool of blood. One of the Maya girls whom I had seen making the ascent a few minutes earlier had lost her footing and cracked open her skull.

At this pyramid another cunning device had been used by the architects to make the stairway appear even steeper than it is. This was achieved by making the banisters diverge slightly towards the top of the stairs. Standing, as the spectators were, directly in front of the pyramid, this architectural trick cannot be noticed and it is only from a fair distance that the diverging banisters can be perceived.

The great strength of their mortar allowed the Maya to create internal space in their stone buildings. Just as in Egypt, however, they did not discover the carrying properties of the barrel vault and also had to rely on the corbelled roof. The typical Maya arch is gradually narrowed towards the top, making ample use of the cantilever principle. Consequently, the ratio of internal space to the total size of their building is, in spite of the near-monolithic construction, fairly low. However, unlike the Aztec pyramids, those in Yucatan have mostly retained the crowning temple, often embellished by an elegant roof comb.

From what has been said so far it is clear that the Mexican pyramids differ in a number of essential features from those of Egypt. Whereas the latter could not be ascended after completion, all the Mexican pyramids were provided with steps leading up to the stop of a truncated building. The basic idea of the Central American structures was simply to raise the sanctuary of the god high above the ground. The object was a stairway leading up to a temple. The purpose of the pyramids was therefore quite different in the two cases. Until fairly recently it was taken for granted that the Mexican pyramids never served as tombs. In 1951, however, an internal staircase was discovered in the ‘Pyramid of the Inscriptions’ at Palenque which led into an undisturbed tomb deep in the body of the structure. The staircase, which had been blocked with rubble, descends to a chamber in which the skeletons of four people, evidently sacrificial victims, were found. When a large stone slab at the far end of this chamber was removed it revealed a crypt whose floor was almost completely covered by the carved lid of a huge sarcophagus. It contained the skeleton of a man of magnificent stature whose face had been covered with a jade mask and who wore jade ornaments.


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