1902 Encyclopedia > Mexico > City of Mexico (Mexico City)

(Part 3)


Mexico, the capital formerly of the Aztec empire and of the Spanish colony of New Spain, and now of the republic, state, and federal district of Mexico, stands on the Anahuac plateau, 7524 feet above sea-level, 2 1/2 miles from the south-west side of Lake Tezcuco (Texcoco), the lowest and largest of six basins filling the deepest depression inthe hill-encircled Mexican valley. Situated in 19º 25' 45" N. lat. and 99º 7' W. long., it is 173 miles by rail from Vera Cruz on the Atlantic, 290 from Acapulco on theTacific, 285 from Oajaca, 863 from Matamoros on the United States frontier. Mexico is the largest and finest city in Spanish America, forming a square nearly 3 miles both ways, and laid out with perfect regularity, all its six hundred streets and lanes running at right angles north to south and east to west, and covering within the walls an area of about 10 square miles, with a population (in 1880) of 230,000. Most of the inhabitants are pure-blood Indians or mestizoes; but the foreigners, chiefly French, English, Germans, Americans, and Spaniards, monopolize nearly all the trade, and as capitalists, bankers, merchants, and dealers enjoy an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. A large portion of the natives are mendicants or vagrants, and the distinctly criminal element (26,470 in 1878) is kept in order by a police force of 1320 men; yet in that year there were as many as 5370, knife-attacks and 3250 robberies. The broad, well-paved, and gas-lit streets present a picturesque appearance with their quaint two- and three-storied stone houses gaily painted in white, red, yellow, or green, and terminating everywhere with a background of rugged sierras or snowy peaks which, owing to the bright atmosphere at this elevation, seem quite close, although really 30 or 40 miles distant. All the main thoroughfares con-verge on the central Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor, or Main Square), which covers 14 acres, and is tastefully laid out with shady trees, garden plots, marble fountains, and seats. Here also are grouped most of the public buildings, towering above which is the cathedral, the largest and most sumptuous church in America, which faces the north side of the plaza on the site of the great pyramidal teocalli or temple of Huitzilopochtli, titular god of the Aztecs. This edifice, which was founded in 1573 and finished in 1657, at a cost of £400,000 for the walls alone, forms a Greek cross 426 feet long and 203 wide, with two great naves and three aisles, twenty side chapels, and a magnifi-cent high altar supported by marble columns, and surrounded by a tumbago balustrade with sixty-two statues of the same rich gold, silver, and copper alloy serving as candelabra. The elaborately carved choir is also enclosed by tumbago railings made in Macao, weighing 26 tons, and valued at about £300,000. In the interior the Doric style prevails, Renaissance in the exterior, which is adorned by a fine dome and two open towers 218 feet high. At the foot of the left tower is placed the famous calendar stone, the most interesting relic of Aztec culture. The east side of the plaza is occupied by the old viceregal residence, now the National Palace, with 675 feet frontage, containing most of the Government offices (ministerial, cabinet, treasury), military headquarters, archives, meteorological department with observatory, and the spacious hall of ambassadors with some remarkable paintings by Miranda and native artists. North of the National Palace, and apparently forming portions of it, are the post-office and the national museum of natural history and antiquities, with a priceless collection of Mexican remains. Close to the cathedral stands the Monte de Piedad, or national pawnshop, a useful institu-tion, endowed in 1741 by Terreros with £75,000, and now possessing nearly 12,000,000 of accumulated funds. Facing the cathedral is the Palacio Municipal (city hall), 252 feet by 122, rebuilt in 1792 at a cost of £30,000, and containing the city and district offices, the corporation jail, and the lonja, or merchants’ exchange. Around the Plaza San Domingo are grouped the convent of that name, said to contain vast treasures buried within its walls, the old inquisition, now the school of medicine, and the custom-house. In the same neighbourliood are the church of the Jesuits and the school of arts, "an immense work-shop, including iron and brass foundries, carriage and cart mending, building and masonry, various branches of joinery and upholstery work, and silk and cotton hand-weaving" (Brocklehurst). Other noteworthy buildings are the national picture gallery of San Carlos, the finest in America, in which the Florentine and Flemish schools are well represented, and which contains the famous Las Casas by Felix Parra; the national library of St Augustine with over 100,000 volumes, numerous MSS., and many rare old Spanish books; the mint, which since 1690 has issued coinage, chiefly silver, to the amount of nearly £400,000,000; the Iturbide hotel, formerly the residence of the emperor Iturbide; the Mineria, or school of mines, with lecture-rooms, laboratories, rich mineralogical and geological specimens, and a fossil horse 3 feet high of the Pleistocene period. Owing to the spongy nature of the soil, the Mineria and many other structures have settled out of the perpendicular, thus often presenting irregular lines and a rickety appearance. Among the twenty scientific institutes mention should be made of the Geogra-phical and Statistical Society, whose meteorological depart-ment issues charts and maps of unsurpassed excellence.

Besides the chief market south of the National Palace there are three others, all well stocked with meat, fish, and especially vegetables, fruits, and flowers grown mainly on the chinampas, or floating gardens of Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco. These gardens, which were far more numerous in the Aztec times, are formed by placing layers of turf on the matted aquatic vegetable growths to a height of 2 or 3 feet above the water, and securing them by long willow poles driven through them to the bottom, where they take root. They form plots 100 to 200 feet long by 20 to 100 broad, and are firm enough to support the huts of the cultivation. From the still extant illuminated tribute-rolls it appears that the Aztec rulers derived a large share of the taxes from these gardens, which at that time also covered the brackish waters of Lake Tezcuco.

Before 1860 half of the city consisted of churches, convents, and other ecclesiastical structures, most of which have been sequestrated and converted into libraries, stores, warehouses, and even stables, or pulled down for civic improvements. Nevertheless there still reinain fourteen parish and thirty other churches, some of large size with towers and domes, and their number has now been increased by six Protestant churches including the Anglican cathedral in San Francisco Street. This is the leading thoroughfare, and is rivalled in splendour only by the new Cinco de Mayo Street running from the National Theatre to the cathedral.

The city is supplied by two monumental aqueducts, from Chapul-tepec and the south-west, with good water at the rate of 44 gallons per day per inhabitant.

Its industries are varied but unimportant, consisting chiefly of gold and silver work, coarse glazed and unglazed pottery of peculiar form and ornamentation, paper, feather-work remarkable for its taste and beautiful designs, toys, rosaries, crucifixes, religious pictures, lace, and some weaving.

Mexico enjoys an equable climate, witha temperature varying from 70º to 50º F., but rendered unhealthy by the exhalations from the lakes. and the bad drainage. The death-rate in 1876 was 59 per 1000, and 45 in 1878, pneumonia being most fatal (12 per cent. of the total). Standing at the lowest level of a lacustrine valley, 1400 square miles inextent, and completely encircled by hills with no natural outlet, the city has always been subject to floodings from the overflow of the neighbouring freshwater Lakes Zumpango and Xaltocan on the north and Xochimilco and Chalco on the south, which, in the 17th century, laid the whole district under water in 1607, and again for five years from 1629 to 1634. To remedy the evil the engineer Martinez began in 1607 the great cutting 13 miles long through the Nochistongo hill in order to draw off the discharge of Lake Zumpango, the highest in the valley, to the river Tula, a tributary of the Panuco, flowing to the Atlantic. This work, which cost the lives of 70,000 natives, was completed in 1789; but the result was not satisfactory, and the city is still often flooded.

The chief public promenades are the Alameda, planted with stately beeches; the Vega, skirted by the Yega Canal, and adorned with the colossal bust of Guatemozin, the last of the Aztec emperors; the Paseo de la Riforma, a fine avenue 3 miles long running south to the famous castle of Chapultepec, a place intimately asso-ciated with the names both of Montezuma and Maximilian. The present castle, erected in 1785 by the viceroy Galvez on the site of Montezuma’s palace, commands a superb view of the city and sur-rounding district, and is approached by avenues of gigantic cypresses (Cupressus disticha) dating front Aztec times, growing to a height of 120 feet, and measuring front 30 to 40 feet round the stem. Other good roads with horse or steam trams lead to Tacubaya and the "Noche Triste" tree, where Cortes is traditionally supposed to have rested after the disastrous retreat front Mexico on the night of June 30, 1520, to the pleasant summer suburb of Tacubaya, and to the renowned shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 3 miles to the east on the border of Lake Tezcuco. Here stands the most famous church in Mexico, erected to commemorate the legendary apparitions of the Madonna to the Indian Juan Diego in December 1531, and still visited by thousands of pilgrims or sightseers.

Mexico dates either from the year 1325 or 1327, when the Aztecs after long wanderings over the plateau were directed by the oracle to settle at this spot. For here had been witnessed the auspicious omen of an eagle perched on a nopal (cactus) and devouring a snake. Hence the original name of the city, Tenochtitlan (nopal on a stone), changed afterwards to Mexico in honour of the war god Mexitli. With the progress of Aztec culture the place rapidly im-proved, and about 1450 the old mud and rush houses were replaced by solid stone structures erected partly on piles amid the islets of Lake Tezcuco, and grouped round the central enclosure of the great teocalli. The city had reached its highest splendour on the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519, when it comprised from 50,000 to 60,000 houses, with perhaps 500,000 inhabitants, and seemed to Cortes "like a thing of fairy creation rather than the work of mortal hands" (Prescott). It was at that time about 12 miles in circumference, every where intersected by canals, and connected with the mainland by six long solidly constructed causeways, as is clearly shown by the plan given in the edition of Cortes’s letters published at Nuremberg in 1524 (reproduced in vol. iv. of H. H. Bancroft’s History of the Pacific States, San Francisco, 1833, p. p. 280). After its almost total destruction in November 1521, Cortes employed some 400,000 natives in building it on the same site; but since then the lake seems to have considerably subsided, for although still 50 square miles in extent it is very shallow, and has retired 2 _ miles from the city. During the Spanish rule the chief event was the revolt of 1692, when the municpal buildings were destroyed. Since then Mexico has been the scene of many revolutions, and after the battle of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847) the city was held by the United States troops till the treaty of Guadalupe, May 1848.But since the disorders ending with the death of Maximilian it has turned to peace ways, and has become a great centre of civilizing influences for the surrounding semi-barbarous peoples. (A. H. K.)


FOOTNOTES (page 220)

(1) In December 1882 a party of seventy-five Mexicans and Americans were massacred in the state of Chihuahua by a band of Bravos.

(2) Between 1821 and 1868 the form of government was changed ten times; over fifty persons succeeded each other as presidents, dictators, or emperors; both emperors were shot, Iturbide in 1824, Maximilian in 1867, and according to some calculations there occurred at least three hundred pronunciamientos.

(3) Consulted shortly before his death as to the future prospects of Mexico, with which his name was so intimately associated, Humboldt ventured to prophesy that "die Vereinigten Staaten werden es an sich reisser und dann selbst zerfallen."

Read the rest of this article:
Mexico - Table of Contents

The above section on the City of Mexico (Mexico City) was written by
Augustus Henry Keane, F.R.G.S., Emeritus Professor of Hindustani, University College, London; late Vice President, Anthropological Institute; author of Stanford's Asia, Africa, Ethnology; Man, Past and Present; etc.

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