Cempoala (or Zempoala) was an important
Mesoamericancity. It was the largest city on the Gulf of Mexicoand the capital of the kingdom of Totonacapanoccupied by the Totonacpeople. At its peak, it had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000. The name means "place of the twenty waters" due to several rivers meeting near the site and is eight kilometes from the current city of Veracruz, Veracruz, one kilometre from the banks of the Río Actopanand six kilometres from the Gulf. The city was an important staging post in the conquest of Mexicoby Hernán Cortés.
History before Cortés
The city was populated at least 1,500 years before the arrival of the Spanish and there are signs of an
Olmecinfluence. Although not much is known about the Preclassic and Classic Era, the Preclassic town was built on mounds to protect it from floods.
The Totonacs moved into the area during the peak of the
ToltecEmpire having been forced out of their settlements on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The Totonacs ruled the area of Totonacapan which consisted of the northern part of Veracruztogether with the Zacatlándistrict of Pueblawith a total population of approximately 250,000 and some 50 towns. At its peak, Cempeola had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000.
The bulk of the buildings on the current archaeological site date from the 14th and 15th century. The archaeological sites of interest include the Great Temple which resembles the Temple of the Sun in
Tenochtitlanwhere human sacrifices also took place. The site also features other temples including the Temple of the Little Faces covered by stuccoed faces and writing, the Temple of Quetzalcoatland the Temple of Ehecatl, the god of the wind.
In the middle of the 15th century, the Totonacs were defeated by the
Aztecarmies of Moctezuma I. The Aztecs levied a heavy tribute being forced to send several hundred children a year for human sacrifice and for use as slaves.
When Cortés arrived on the coast of Mexico, he heard of Cempoala and headed towards it. On arrival in the town, they were greeted by 20 dignitaries and cheering townsfolk. Cortés quickly persuaded the Totonac chief
Xicomecoatl(also known as King Chicomacatt) to rebel against the Aztecs. The Totonacs and Spanish quickly evicted the Aztecs and the Totonacs helped to establish the town of (Villa Rica de la) Vera Cruz (now Veracruz) which was his starting point for his attempt to conquer the Aztec empire.
In August 1519, Totonac soldiers joined the Spaniards in their attempts to conquer the Aztec culminating with the conquest of Tenochtitlan. While in Tenochlitan, Cortés heard that the Governor of Cuba had sent troops led by
Pánfilo de Narváezto deprive Cortés of his position and these troops were in control of Cempoala and Vera Cruz. Cortés returned to the area leaving a garrison in charge of Tenochtitlan defeating Narváez and persuading Narváez's troops to join his cause.
In 1575–77, the Totonac fell victim to the "
matlazahuatl" epidemic that claimed an estimated two million lives in Mesoamerica and the population of Cempoala dropped dramatically. In 1600, the entire population of Cempoala was removed under a viceregal scheme of concentration and the town became a village. It is now an important archaeological site.
* [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14794a.htm Catholic Encyclopaedia article on the Totonac Indians]
* [http://www.latinobeat.net/HVC/Opinion/Guest_Columns/112204schmal.htm Hispanic Vista article on the fall of the Aztecs]
* [http://www.delange.org/Zempoala/Zempoala.htm Article on the Cempoala site]
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