This monument, such as it is reproduced with its severe and primitive forms, with its faces covered with hieroglyphic bas-reliefs, is not an edifice of fantasy, but the faithful restitution of a monument found at about 25 leagues south-east of Mexico City, and which was already vaguely described by Father Alzate, by Messrs. de Humboldt, Nebel, Colonel Dupaix, etc., before Mr. Léon Méhédin, the learned and ingenious explorer, had restored it to us by moulding, as we see it at the Champ de Mars, before M. Léon Méhédin, the learned and ingenious explorer, restored it to us by moulding, as we see it at the Champ de Mars.
There was therefore a social life and an art in Mexico before the Europeans set foot there!
Contemporaries of the conquest had already told us something of the atrocious sacrifices celebrated in the temples, of those human holocausts of which the indigenous deities of the New World were thirsty. Need we recall the outburst of the Spaniards against these altars, unceasingly drunk with blood, where the companions of Fernando Cortes were miserably slaughtered by the hundreds! These dreadful temples, of which all the narrators speak with horror, and in one of which a Spanish officer counted as many as sixty thousand skulls, arranged in decorative patterns, represented to our imagination no tangible form, before M. Léon Méhédin had raised the monument of the Champ de Mars. Nothing is missing this time, neither the skulls arranged under the architrave, nor the bizarre hieroglyphs, nor the dazzling curtain embroidered with feathers and closing the entrance of the temple.
If one lifts this curtain, the sacrificial stone appears, on which five frenzied priests skilfully slit the throats of the victims whose bloody hearts were offered as a holocaust to the sun.
In front of this log, rendered as faithfully as possible according to the descriptions of Father Sahagun, Prescott and others, stands the colossal statue found at Teotihuacan and which M. Méhédin believes to be the statue of the sun, then another statue moulded in the Museum of Mexico and called Teoyaomiqui, a veritable vampire impaired by human blood; finally, the stone vats in which the hearts reserved for the communion of the high priests were collected. The corpse was thrown, as a vile thing, down the steps of the temple, to be used for the cannibal feasts of which everyone has heard.
On the outskirts of the temple is a monolith of the highest importance, reproduced in plaster from moulds made on the spot: it is the great zodiac of Tenochtitlan, which is four times as large as the zodiac of Denderah, and offers high reliefs of great perfection.
A statue of a Mexican woman, skilfully rendered by M. Soldi, places before the visitor's eyes a picture of those remote times: she is lying on the edge of a fountain, dreaming of her child asleep in an aerial cradle. Next to the ancient woman are the men of modern Mexico, guarding the museum in their brilliant national costume of zarapa on the shoulder and guilloche trousers open at the bottom.
The upper floor, having been found almost destroyed, could nevertheless be stamped stone by stone and thus reconstructed without any possibility of error, thanks to the debris found intact and in great quantity in the excavations of the landslide.
Four modifications, essential to note, have been introduced in the reproduction of the Xochicalco temple in the Champ de Mars:
1° the great staircase, very steep in the original monument, has been established on a gentler slope, in order to make access easier for visitors;
2° the terrace on which the temple rests, and which forms a masonry platform at Xochicalco, has remained empty here under its framework, and has been used for an exhibition, where M. Méhédin has brought together all the objects he brought back from his scientific missions in the Crimea, Egypt, Italy and Mexico;
3° in the temple itself, stained glass windows, painted after manuscripts of the time, form an anachronism to obtain light effects that could have been done without under a brighter sun
4° Finally, the interior walls of the salon are lined with Egyptian casts brought back from Thebes in 1860.
This entire curious collection bears the following title on a shield Scientific and artistic missions of Léon Méhédin in the two worlds.
Why is the temple of Xochilcalco the private exhibition of Mr. Méhédin and not the scientific commission of Mexico? Why are there turnstiles there, instead of free admission?
It is because the funds were lacking, I do not know for what reason, and that M. Duruy, Minister of Public Education, who had the happy initiative of sending a scientific commission to Mexico, did not obtain the money necessary to make the results obtained by this commission the object of a great exhibition at the Champ Mars.
All this is unfortunate. It is regrettable that Mr. Méhédin had to make this exhibition at his own expense, and consequently levy a toll to compensate himself.
If M. Duruy, who shows such untiring zeal for the undertakings of intelligence and who had organised the Scientific Commission of Mexico, had been able to take the Mexican exhibition at the Champ de Mars on behalf of the Ministry of Public Instruction, the space would no doubt not have been haggled over as if it were a mere concessionaire, and, alongside M. Méhédin Méhédin's valuable collection, we would have had that of his fellow explorers, of M. Edmond Guillemin for mineralogy, of M. Beaucourt for zoology, of Messrs. Dolfus, de Montserrat and Pavie for geology, of M. Bourgeaud for botany, and finally of all the other members of this mission who have gathered in Mexico the most complete materials and considerable collections of all kinds.
What do destinies hold! Here are men devoted to science, who set out like bees to collect the honey of unknown countries: they return loaded with booty, and on their return find a unique opportunity to make known to the world what they have collected and gathered.... There is not enough room, and not enough money; and a minister of public education, as poor as he is intelligent, has to find a corner in his own garden to make a small exhibition that will console the explorers a little. Suppose, however, that there were men of the same calibre in the Mexican commission as the illustrious scholars who composed the Egyptian commission! What would we know?
In any case, and as it is, the temple of Xochicalco is made to attract the attention of scholars and the curious. It is something else than anything we know; and it remains in the memory as a strange and bizarre spectacle, and as the revelation of a disappeared world.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée