Cempoala or Zempoala (Nahuatl Cēmpoalātl,
'twenty waters') is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located
in the municipality of Úrsulo Galván in the state of Veracruz,
Mexico. The word Cēmpoalli comes from the Nahuas roots Cēmpoal-,
which means "twenty", and ā, which means "water", "twenty
waters", perhaps because the city had a large number of
irrigation channels and aqueducts that provided the vital liquid
to the numerous gardens and surrounding farm fields. The place
was inhabited mainly by Totonac and Chinantec and Zapotec.
Another version considers that it is probably in reference to
the commercial activities that, according to some sources, were
carried out every 20 days in this place in pre-Hispanic times.
It was one of the most important Totonac settlements during the
Mesoamerican Postclassic Period. Another version suggests that
the name meant "abundance of water".
According to some
sources, the city of Cempoala was originally populated at least
1,500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards and there are
indications of Olmec influence. Although not much is known about
the Preclassic and Classic periods, the Preclassic city was
built on hills to protect it from flooding. The Totonacs came to
this area during the height of the Toltec empire and were forced
to emigrate from their populations on the eastern slopes of the
Sierra Madre Oriental. The Totonacs ruled the Totonacapan area,
along with Zacatlán, Puebla district, with an estimated combined
population of approximately 250,000 and around 50 villages. Not
much is really known about what happened during the pre-classic
and classical period.
Cempoala was the Totonac capital
and was occupied by Totonacs and Chinantecs and Zapotecs, and
the largest city was in the Gulf of Mexico. At its height, it
had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 people, and was
one of the most important Totonac settlements during the
Postclassic period. It is located one kilometer from the Actopan
riverbank and six kilometers from the coast.
History of Cempoala
The Totonacs came to this place during the height
of the Toltec empire (1000-1150 AD). Archaeologists believe that the
Toltecs had driven the Totonacs from their settlements on the
eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental and towards the coast.
Cempoala is located on a flat coastal plain about six kilometers
from the Gulf and a little over a kilometer from the Actopan river
bank (also called the Chachalacas River).
Alliance In the mid-fifteenth century, Cempoala
and many other coastal centers of Veracruz were attacked and
defeated by the Aztec army of Moctezuma I. They imposed a high
tribute of property and victims for sacrifice that forced them to
send hundreds of children each year as a tribute for sacrifices and
to be used as slaves. This treatment at the hands of the Aztecs was
exploited by Cortés in the sixteenth century to defeat the Aztecs.
When Cortes and his forces reached the coast of Veracruz in
1519, the Totonacs had been suffering Aztec rule for several years.
When the Spaniards marched north from their first camp affected by
malaria in San Juan de Ulúa, they learned of a city on the road
named Cempoala. He sent a message of his imminent arrival, and they
were found on the outskirts of the city by 20 dignitaries from
Cempoala. In the center of the city, they met with the local leader
"Fat Chief" Xicomecoatl, who fed them and gave them rooms. After the Totonac
gave numerous gifts to Cortés, including gold jewelry, Cortés asked
how he could return this hospitality. It is said that Xicomecoatl
gave a deep sigh and told many bitter complaints against Moctezuma.
Cortés promised to consider the matter and the next day he left
for Quiahuiztlan, where the Spaniards and Totonacs forged their
transcendental alliance against the Aztecs. The Totonacs were
committed thereafter to the same fate as the Spaniards. In August of
1519, Cortés and his men departed with 40 Totonac warriors and 200
porters for the Aztec capital of the Aztecs-Tenochtitlan. During the
following months, they won one victory after another through force
and deception. Finally they ended up in the heart of Tenochtitlan
and took Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor, as their hostage.
The City The structures of this site show
impressive squares and fortifications, surrounded by vegetation that
invades this area permanently; It was called "Place of the accounts"
by the dominant metropolis, because there they collected taxes from
the Gulf Coast. It is thought that the site was the most important
political-religious center in the region; their constructions are
made of river stones, with mortar and plastered with lime; the
buildings shone like that in the distance as if they were built of
The site complex includes buildings and important
structures, not only for architecture, but for historical
importance. For example, at the site known as Sistema Amurallado IV,
Cortés faced the forces of Pánfilo de Narváez.
Buildings in Cempoala
The main structures of Cempoala are as follows:
Temple of the Sun or Great Pyramid Built on the same platform
on which the Templo Mayor rises; they are separated by a wide
square. It is probably the most spectacular structure of the site.
The great temple resembles the temple of the sun in Tenochtitlan.
The temple of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the feathered serpent, is a
square platform, and the temple of Ehécatl, god of the wind, is
Main temple The upper part is surrounded by
Temple of the Chimneys It has a series of
semicircular pillars a meter and a half high; by this particular
form it has its name.
The Palace of Moctezuma
Temple of the Cross It maintains sections of fresco murals with
The Temple of little faces It is located
around 200 meters to the east; It is a two-level structure decorated
with fragments of stucco reliefs. Its name comes from the hundreds
of stucco skulls that once adorned the facade of a small structure
at the base of the staircase. Temple archaeologists believe that
this complex was dedicated to the god of death. These are two
superimposed foundations that contain two decorative strips in the
upper part of the open area, the lower one with murals that allude
to the Sun, the Moon and Venus, as a morning star, and the upper one
with a large number of "caritas" or calaveritas in mud. It is
decorated with stucco faces on the walls and hieroglyphics painted
on the lower sections.
Other mounds There are more mounds,
mostly unexcavated, that can be visited because they are located
between the houses of the town of Cempoala. Some of the more modest
structures here are built in the same style of thatched wooden roof
and adobe walls as were the residences of the pre-Hispanic workers.
Astronomy in Cempoala Some research by Vincent
H. Malmström, professor emeritus of geography at Dartmouth College,
describes an interesting astronomical relationship that exists due
to the three circular rings found in Cempoala.
central square of Cempoala, just below the massive pyramid in the
northeast corner, there are three intriguing stone rings, each made
of rounded beach stones cemented together to form a series of small,
stepped pillars. of the rings contains 40 of the stepped pillars,
the medium ring has 28 of these and the small circles, 13 pillars
around its circumference.It seems that the three rings were used to
calibrate the different astronomical cycles, possibly moving a
marker or an idol from one pillar staggered to the next with each
day that passed (in some way similar to the way that has been
suggested to record the passage of time in the pyramid of the
The three stone rings of Cempoala, as seen from the
top of the main pyramid. To the extent that the three rings are
crowned by 13, 28 and 40 pillars, respectively, it seems that they
were used by the Totonac priests as account devices to track the
It is, therefore, quite possible that by
using the three rings together, the Totonac priests have been able
to calibrate the movements of the Moon close enough to know when the
next might be. In any case, there are reasons to believe that the
three stone rings of Cempoala allow more evidence, which testifies
to the intellectual curiosity and architectural ingenuity of the
History of the site after 1519 Cempoala was a
prosperous city until 1519, the year in which the Spanish conquerors
arrived in Mexico and established alliances with their settlers to
march towards the capture of Tenochtitlan. By then, the city of
Cempoala had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants and was the
most important ceremonial and commercial center of the entire Aztec
empire, above Tlatelolco. The Spaniards initially called
Villaviciosa, which means "fertile village", due to the large number
of festivals and huge gardens and gardens they had and the festive
and cheerful character of its inhabitants; later it was known as
Nueva Sevilla because of its similarity, according to the Spaniards
themselves, with that Iberian city.
Between 1575 and 1577 an
epidemic of smallpox (matlazahuatl) decimated the population; It is
estimated that two million people lost their lives in Mesoamerica.
Cempoala was totally abandoned and the few survivors, moved to the
city of Xalapa. Over time, it fell into oblivion, until the
archaeologist Francisco del Paso y Troncoso rediscovered it.
After the victory and conquest, the Totonacs of Cempoala would soon
take account of their new destiny alongside their foreign allies:
they were relocated and had to leave the city, since they were
Christianized, they were forbidden to practice their ancient cults
and, following the royal ordinances they were asked for work as a
tribute to the way of European serfs. Slavery was not allowed among
the natives. Manual workers had to till the cane fields of the new
Astronomy in Cempoala
Some research by Vincent H. Malmström of Dartmouth
College describes an interesting astronomical relationship that
exists because of the three round rings found at Zempoala. We will
quote a part of his discussion concerning the Three Ceremonial Rings
Beneath the massive pyramid (north eastern
corner) in the central plaza of Zempoala, are three puzzling stone
rings, each made from rounded beach cobbles jointed together to make
small, stepped pillars. The largest rings has 40 stepped pillars,
the middle ring has 28, and the smaller ring 13, around its
circumference. It seems that three rings were used to calibrate
different astronomical cycles, possibly by placing a marker or an
idol from one pillar to the next, day after day.
rings viewed from the top of the main pyramid, are surmounted by 13,
28, and 40 step like pillars, might have been counting devices to
keep track of eclipse cycles, by Totonac priests.
possible that by using the rings, Totonacs priests were able to
calibrate movements of the moon. There are reasons to believe these
rings provide further evidence of the intellectual curiosity and
architectural ingenuity of the early Mesoamericans."