Mexican Days: In the Belly of Cholula’s Pyramid

We usually have better after-the-fact judgment than before-the-fact judgment, although the former imposed on the latter might stop us from doing things we want to, but might not, if we gave them a rational second thought. But impetuous wins out, most times, over good sense. And since we survive the foolish things most times, we think of them as just colorful escapades. Then, of course, it’s on to the next escapade with the same after-the-fact sobriety.

For those of us who are card-carrying claustrophobics, going deeper and deeper into the interior of a pyramid might seem seriously foolish. But thinking that I have enough sense not to do something insanely foolish, I was ready to go. But first a description of where I was…Cholula, Mexico, a town near Puebla, two hours southeast of Mexico City. It was the mid 1960s. I read the history, likely woven with a touch of myth, but taken together, it was all too fantastic to resist. Cholula when I arrived, was a sleepy, dusty, seared-by-the-wind town that, hopefully, had seen better days. It’s a town that boasted that in its heyday (early 16th century with 100,000 inhabitants) of having a temple for every day of the year (or nearly so). It also had the largest pyramid on the planet (by volume), including the pyramids of Egypt. It was built in five iterations (one on top of the other), starting a thousand years before Cortes landed in Mexico (1519). At its base it is 450 meters on each side. But in time its contours were covered, over many untended, overgrown years, by thick vegetation that masked the architectural treasure beneath. So it looked to anyone passing by like a rendering of nature, a hill that was the highest point in town. And Cholulans did what they always did…built a temple, this one on top of this pyramid that looked like a hill.

The town at midday didn’t seem to move and keeping out of the sun was a necessary preoccupation. I drove on a dirt road on the only side of the hill that had a road. If there was an entrance, it had to be here. I finally did come across a rusted wrought iron gate held tight by a pirate’s lock and chain, barring the entrance to what looked like a cave, not befitting a pyramid billed as the biggest in the world. No one was around. The excavation of the interior, started in 1937, was paused some years before I got there. It was eerily, desolately quiet. There was a makeshift booth by the gate, presumably for tickets to the interior, unused, I was sure, for years. I lamented my luck to have found the biggest pyramid in the world and was faintly disappointed by not being able to get in. The claustrophobic in me congratulated myself for having tried, when, out of nowhere, came a caretaker with a Rime of the Ancient Mariner look, who asked in the Spanglish I spoke, if I’d like to go inside. I assessed the situation…a stranger comes along, offers to take me into the belly of the world’s largest pyramid, has no ID except having the keys to the lock and knowing where the light switch is. Fortunately, again out of nowhere, came a Mexican family that wanted to see the mysteries inside as well. We paid the fare to our Charon, who would now ferry us from our sunlit world into the faint, shadowy, neon-lit, pointed-arch netherworld deep within.  Charon and the Mexican family walked briskly, trading insights in Spanish about, I assumed, about how the excavation was being done. I lagged, looking right and left at excavated rooms, likely burial chambers and at stairways to other levels, but never letting my companions out of sight in case one passageway branched into another and I was left guessing which to take.

On we walked, deeper into the darkness, my thoughts, not surprisingly, turned to the reliability of the dim neon lights set in the pointed arches above…for we were many years away from the iPhone age with built-in flashlights. I prayed for the well-being of the Ancient Mariner, that he would live to lead us out. I prayed also for a point of light at the end of this, or any, passageway, leading to the outside. One loses track of time on the inside…was it still light outside? I said to myself that two hours inside the belly of the pyramid was enough to last me a few lifetimes. The hoped-for light suddenly did appear in the distance. Charon had brought us back from the other side. With escape near, I was then able to enjoy the confinement, the pointed arches, the narrow passageway, the trapped-forever feeling. But even better I would have opportunities to do seriously foolish things again.

Meantime, back to history…Cortes did come to Cholula on his march to conquer the Aztecs whose capitol was near present-day Mexico City. Wanting to replace the local religions with Christianity, he set about destroying many religious sites in the town, replacing some with churches. And then, topping off his ambitions, he destroyed the temple on top of the pyramid and built a cathedral in its place, not realizing that his cathedral was supported by the religious and cultural heritage he sought to destroy.

The sunlight was welcome. Still nothing seemed to move. The quiet was still eerie. Popocatepetl (Mexico’s second highest volcano) loomed not too far away. Climbing that would have to wait for another day.