Xochicalco – Ancient City of Flowers

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, featuring deeply cut relief carvings, sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Cuernavaca, Mexico, had a relatively brief history from 650 AD – 900 AD. The Mayan civilization of that time was in decline experiencing strife and rebellion. Xochicalco was built as a walled, fortified city on the highest mountain overlooking the rich farmland of Mexico’s central valley, suggesting a need to defend itself against warring factions. Cisterns the size of modern swimming pools were built to gather and store rainwater since the city had no permanent water supply. Scholars estimate the population of the city at its peak may have reached 15,000 inhabitants.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

Xochicalco grew rapidly as a cultural, commercial, and religious center. Although not a Mayan city, Xochicalco modeled itself on Mayan ideas of organization and construction. The city was terraced with plazas on different levels that were connected by a complex network of pathways and stairs. The uppermost level was the site of the temple where priests carried out the most important rituals of the day.

The indigenous Nahuatl word Xochicalco translated literally means “in the place of the home of flowers,” most likely a reference to the prolific blooming of wildflowers in November following the region’s rainy season. While research might reveal the actual name of the city as it was known at the time, I have not discovered it.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for spectators.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for large numbers of spectators overlooking the arena.

Games played on the stylized playfields of the day had some similarities to the modern-day games of soccer, basketball, and football. The fields were shaped like a capital letter “I” with carved stone ‘goals’ or hoops on each side. Spanish observers of the games described seven-man teams who wore protective padding on their heads, shoulders, torsos and legs. Players moved a solid ball weighing an estimated eight pounds and 8” in diameter made of vulcanized rubber.* Players were not permitted to use their hands or feet. While scorekeeping remains a mystery, one observer witnessed a player putting the ball through a hoop. He expected the crowd to jump up and cheer. In actuality, the spectators jumped up and ran away while being chased by players on the scoring team. It was later explained the scoring team was allowed to take the possessions of the spectators. Thus, the winners were trying to chase down the wealthiest spectators in an effort to claim their clothing and jewelry as a victory prize.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

Almost all of the structures now visible at Xochicalco have been restored by modern archeologists prior to the 1990’s. The new school of archeological thought has become one of consolidation as opposed to restoration. That is, only enough work is performed at a site to preserve it as it was found, thus keeping everything ‘genuine.’ These academics refer to old school archeologists as ‘pyramidiots,’ a derogatory reference to rebuilding sites according to an academician’s ‘best guess’ as to what structures actually looked like. In defense of the old school, I will point out that the site at Xochicalco would appear today mostly as piles of rubble had there been no restoration projects. You will need to decide for yourself which approach is the most appropriate.

*Note – Ancient Mesoamericans learned to vulcanize rubber over 3,000 years before Charles Goodyear obtained the U.S. patent for the process in 1847.

See more of Xochicalco on this short video:

living in Mexico