Cempoala

Veracruz, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Mix & Match


 

What makes this site special?
Round river stones and three sacred circles.

This ancient site has a very different feel because the structures were built from round river stones. On my visit in 2017 I noticed it at first sight. The Spaniards would have not seen those, of course, as they were then jointed with mortar and smoothed with painted lime.

However, the lime was produced from shells and snails, so the buildings shone from far away and the Spaniards initially thought they were built from silver.

The architecture in this site is further characterised by the crenellations of the buildings. The structures have ‘teeth’ called almenas.

Another special feature is the three sacred stone circles, surrounded until today with mysteries and legends.

Last but not least, this is the site where the new history of Mexico began. This is not a Maya site, as Totonacs lived here!

 
The wall with 'teeth' around the ceremonial centre

The wall with 'teeth' around the ceremonial centre

 

The Name

Cempoala or Zempoala (Cēmpoalātl in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs) means 'Place of Twenty Waters' or 'Abundant Water', for the several rivers that converge nearby. Both versions imply that the city had many aqueducts, which fed the numerous gardens and surrounding farmland. The town was built near the river (1km from it) and 6km from the coast. Its primary activities revolved around agriculture, hunting and fishing in the tributaries of the Actopan River (also called the Rio Chachalacas).

The Spaniards called the town Villa Viciosa ('fertile village'), because of the vast orchards and gardens that they saw there.

 

The Age

The preserved buildings of Cempoala come mostly from the years 1300 – 1500 AD, being an example of Post-Classic architecture; however the first settlement here was founded by the Olmecs in the Pre-Classic period.

The Totonacs moved into the area during the peak of the Toltec Empire (1000-1150 AD), having been forced out of their settlements on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The Totonacs ruled the kingdom of Totonacapan, which consisted of the northern part of Veracruz together with the Zacatlán district of Puebla, with a total population of approximately 250,000 and some 50 towns. At its peak, Cempoala had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000.

Archeologist Francisco del Paso y Troncoso rediscovered it at the end of the 19th century.

 
 

The People

Fat Chief Xicomecóatl,1698, Miguel y Juan Gonzales, Museo de America, Madrid

Fat Chief Xicomecóatl,1698, Miguel y Juan Gonzales, Museo de America, Madrid

The Totonac people were the first to receive Europeans on the American mainland. 

Two people made history here: the Totonac ruler Xicomecóatl on one side and Hernán Cortés on the other side.

The ruler's name, Xicomecóatl, was also the name of the Aztec goddess of sustenance (in Nahuatl it means 'Seven Snakes'). The number seven is associated with luck and generative power.

In the mid-15th century Cempoala and other coastal Veracruz locations were defeated by the Aztec armies of Moctezuma I. They were heavily taxed by them. They paid the tribute in obsidian, turkeys, cloth and also by providing maintenance for the palaces of the Texcocan rulers, on the lake of Texcoco. Cempoala was referred to by the Spaniards as the 'Place of the accounts' because the tributes from all surrounding towns went to the Aztecs via the town. In addition, they had to provide their own people for human sacrifice by the Aztecs.

This treatment created the situation which led up to the defeat of the Aztecs. The Spaniards heard of Cempoala while at their malaria-ridden camp of San Juan de Ulua. They marched over and upon their arrival they met with 'Fat chieftain' Xicomecóatl, who fed them, gave them quarters, gifts (including gold) and even offered Cortés a bride (whom he accepted).

Cempoalans with gifts of flowers

Cempoalans with gifts of flowers

In August 1519, Cortés, a few hundred of his men, 40 Totonac captains, around 8,000 soldiers and 400 porters from Cempoala and the nearby Totonac town of Quiahuiztlan left for Tenochtitlan. Jointly they defeated Moctezuma II and the rest is history.

After the euphoria of victory, the Cempoala Totonacs found a new destiny, and it was not a happy one. The deterioration of the city and its subsequent abandonment were caused by the introduction of sugar mills, by Rodrigo de Albornoz and Pedro Moreno in 1529. The Totonacs had to work the new Spanish sugar-cane fields practically as slaves. Between 1575 and 1577 a smallpox epidemic decimated the population, the city was totally abandoned, and the few survivors moved to the city of Xalapa in 1660, by order of the viceroy Gaspar de Ziga.

 
Cortés and his translator Malinche meet with Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan. Tedlock 2003

Cortés and his translator Malinche meet with Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan. Tedlock 2003

 
The locals still grow sugar cane. In fact, they were burning the fields during our visit; we could see the fire behind one of the pyramids.

The locals still grow sugar cane. In fact, they were burning the fields during our visit; we could see the fire behind one of the pyramids.

 

The Focus

The most impressive building on the site is the Temple of the Sun. It is built between the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of Water, on the same platform. The temples were built on elevated platforms above the flood levels, as the landscape around was swampy. The temples jointly created an ample square in the middle. This gives the place a feel of great space. To me, it also felt majestic.

Daily homage was paid in Cempoala to the Sun god Chichiní (the Totonac name). Early in the morning seven priests would attend the temple (which does not stand anymore), bathing the Sun's image in incense. According to Las Casas, every fifth day everyone was obliged to gather in the atrium of the temple to pray. There, the nobles and principal dignitaries mutilated themselves before their gods by incisions made in particular in tongues, thighs, and ears. The act of bleeding was a mechanism of purification. The sacrifices were offered on the Stone of Sacrifice in front of the Temple. The fat chief Xicomecóatl would have sat on top, facing the spectacle on this large altar.

 
The view of our group from the Temple of Sun. Part of our group climbed it (the only temple you can climb here).

The view of our group from the Temple of Sun. Part of our group climbed it (the only temple you can climb here).

 
Our guide Roberto showing us how to get carmine pigment out of cochineal larvae in nopal or prickly pear. Note his red fingers.

Our guide Roberto showing us how to get carmine pigment out of cochineal larvae in nopal or prickly pear. Note his red fingers.

At the winter solstice an important festival was celebrated during which eighteen people, men and women, were sacrificed (18 is the number of months in the Mesoamerican calendar). Blood was the food of the Sun. The flesh of the victims was eaten by dignitaries.

The Spaniards believed that the persons sacrificed were messengers sent to plead with the Sun to send his own son to liberate the Totonacs from the practices imposed on them by the Aztecs.

In contrast to many other Mesoamerican cultures, the Totonacs did not believe the Sun's consort to be the Moon, since Totonac tradition considered both the Sun and the Moon to be male deities. The Sun, the Moon, and the planet Venus were all worshipped by the Totonacs. They figure prominently in the paintings in the temple of Charity on this site and the ceremonial rings were also connected to that worship.

A slight mystery is the colour of the temple. The local guide Roberto explained to us the temple was painted red (like the Maya pyramids and temples). The carmine pigment was gained from cochineal larvae on the prickly pear. This contradicts the story of the white paint that the Spaniards encountered, as described in two historic books: William Prescott's story in The Conquest of Mexico and Buddy Levi's version in Conquistador.

 

The Mystery: Three Ceremonial Rings

There are several theories about the mystic three circles, each made from rounded beach cobbles, jointed together to make small, stepped pillars. 

Theory 1: Astronomical device for tracking leap days
This is my favourite theory and it is the most recent one. Research by Vincent H. Malmström of Dartmouth College describes an interesting astronomical relationship between the three rings. The largest ring has 40 stepped pillars, the middle ring 28, and the smaller ring 13, around its circumference. It seems they were used to calibrate different astronomical cycles, possibly by moving a marker or an idol from one pillar to the next, day after day.

Three circles next to each other, with 'teeth' on top: 13, 28 and 40 or 43. The smallest ring is only just visible in front of the middle-sized ring.

Three circles next to each other, with 'teeth' on top: 13, 28 and 40 or 43. The smallest ring is only just visible in front of the middle-sized ring.

 

A lunar association for the two smaller rings can be found, namely 13 full moons per year with approximately 28 days in each of them. But the largest ring is enigmatic, for no cycle based on 40 or 43 is known from Mesoamerica. However, the manner in which the ring is constructed differs from the two smaller rings in that it is divided at the cardinal points into quarters. What is not so clear is whether only the single-stepped pillars in each quadrant were meant to be counted – giving a total of 40 – or whether one or more of the three composite pillars marking the cardinal points were to have been counted as well – giving a total of 43. (The fourth cardinal point is the entrance. If that is included in the count, the total is 44.)

The circles might have served as counting devices to keep track of eclipse cycles, calibrate movements of the moon, and also Venus. A single step at each pillar was meant to house a marker signifying the current leap day count (only 10 single steps within each quadrant were used), while 3 additional double steps (not including the gate) at the cardinal positions were likely used to count a triple round of 43 leap days to form a total of 43*3 = 129.

I'm afraid Malmström's calculations are beyond me, but there's a link below for those of you who understand the maths.

 
 

Theory 2: Sonic amplifying device
I visited the site in February 2016 with a group of Canadian friends from Playa del Carmen. The local Totonac guide demonstrated to our group the sonic effect: he walked from the boundary wall of the circle towards us in the centre. The closer to the centre, the louder was his voice. The circle acoustically behaves as an ellipse. It is clear that this anomaly comes from the crenellated wall. By why did they need to amplify the sound within the circle? And was all this accidental or by design?

 
 
Calendrical stone Nahui Ollin, Anthropological Museum, Mexico City

Calendrical stone Nahui Ollin, Anthropological Museum, Mexico City

Theory 3: Calendrical stone
The centre of the Nahui Ollin calendar is believed to define the position of the sun and the external circle could represent the orbit of Venus. The most remarkable fact is that, acoustically, the orbit of Venus apparently appeared as a 'flattened circle'. The acoustic element may have not been deliberate, if the intent was 'just' to define the position of the Sun and Venus.

Theory 4: The feathered serpent Quetzacoatl
Also, it is believed that this monument and the full ceremonial site were probably dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, the 'plumed serpent', the main deity of the pre-Colombian religion. In this light, the crenellated walls could represent the undulations of the 'sacred serpent'.

Theory 5: Circle of the warriors (or gladiators)
The large circle is also associated with gladiator worship to the god Xipe Totec. In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec was a rebirth deity. He was believed to be the god that invented war. The annual festival of Xipe Totec was celebrated on the spring equinox before the onset of the rainy season. The festival was known locally as Tlacaxipehualiztli (literally 'flaying of men').

Slaves who were captured at war were dressed to represent the living god. They were put in the ring to fight. Then they were sacrificed. After having the heart cut out, the body was carefully flayed to produce a nearly whole skin, which was then worn by the priests for twenty days during the fertility rituals that followed the sacrifice. This act of putting on new skin was described as 'impersonation of a god'.

Xipe Totec as depicted in the Codex Borgia, holding a bloody weapon and wearing flayed human skin as a suit

Xipe Totec as depicted in the Codex Borgia, holding a bloody weapon and wearing flayed human skin as a suit

Totonac god of fertility, Tlacaxipehualixtli, at the site museum. He is wearing human skin (tied at the back).

Totonac god of fertility, Tlacaxipehualixtli, at the site museum. He is wearing human skin (tied at the back).

 

Don't Miss: Clap in front of the Chimney Temple

The Chimney Temple has a series of semicircular pillars 1.5m high. Because of this peculiar shape, the building is named the Chimney Temple. When they first encountered Cempoala, Cortés and his men lodged here.

The interesting part is a sonic effect, created by clapping in front of the temple. It is very similar to the one at Chichén Itzá. If you clap, not only do you hear the echo, you will get a chirping sound, like a bird (the sacred bird quetzal). The clapping sound does not hit a solid wall, but hundreds of small steps, one after another; they jointly produce hundreds of small echoes. The difference in distance between the steps is relatively small, so the echoes form a high-pitched sound, like the chirping of birds. Step dimensions are key to this effect. Each step is high, but the tread where the foot is placed is small. This echo may indicate the worship of Quetzalcóatl at this site.

 
 

The Moon Temple has unusual semicircular levels at its back. There are four, representing the four phases of the moon. Structurally, it is similar to the Aztec temples of the Wind God, Ehecatl. Round structures found in Mesoamerica were devoted to this god because of their belief that the god of wind hated the angles that break the flow of air.

 
 

The Site Map

Ancient Totonac artefacts from the site

Ancient Totonac artefacts from the site

I could not find any site map available. The entrance to the site is just a small hut, in the middle of the village of Cempoala. There was only one Spanish-speaking guide when we arrived, but I was able to translate. Roberto was a very proud and passionate Totonac expert. There is a brief summary of the site on the board by the entrance.

There is a souvenir shop in the street outside, with cheap prices for some great souvenirs but expensive prices for drinks.

There is a small but interesting museum on the site (with attached bathrooms). I liked its ancient artefacts. Although ancient, they look very modern and rather evocative.

 
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Mix & Match

The ultimate match to combine with Cempoala is La Antigua (Hammocks) and Veracruz (Hammocks), of course, see the details of the full one day trip in my post Where Mexico Begins (Trips).

Sources:

1.    Cempoallans with gifts of flowers

2.    Worship of the Sun

3.    Tedlock 2003: Cortés meets Moctezuma

4.    Vincent H. Malmström: Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon

5.    José Sanchez-Dehesa: Calendrical stone

6.    Codex Borgia: God Xipe Totec

7.    William Prescott (1843), The History of the Conquest of Mexico, New York: Harper and Brothers

8.    Buddy Levi (2008), Conquistador, New York: Bantam Books