Stones and Memories

November 11, 2022

The 2017 earthquake that struck central Mexico was the worst that anyone born after 1985 could remember. The death-toll was a few hundred (totals are contested) but it damaged or destroyed many buildings, especially the old churches and monasteries in the area around the volcano Popocatepetl. Together, these constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Convent before the 2017 earthquake.

Our Convent of the Nativity in Tepoztlan, built between 1555 and 1580, is almost cathedral-sized, and has been a tourist attraction since then-President Lazaro Cardenas came across it in 1935, and declared it worthy of conservation. Until the ‘quake, it was a popular destination for weddings, and hosted four or five Masses on a typical Sunday. I would often drop it into the adjoining monks’ quarters, which are a museum, to enjoy the quiet and the restored 16th Century wall-paintings.

Restoration work began a short while after the ‘quake, but stalled in the pandemic. More recently, a scientifically qualified team took over, not just to rebuild the damaged walls and roof, but also to research the original materials to see what survived through the centuries, and what failed. This became especially important because torrential rains here in 2021 did further damage, and part of the Convent’s perimeter wall collapsed.

I’ve been heartened to watch these people working on the site. The two damaged towers at the front are being partially dismantled so that the original stones can be re-cut and used again. The facade is covered in scaffolding, men and women in orange safety gear are clambering around, and the restoration work is much more ambitious than was originally planned. It will take another year or two to finish, but the work is finally proceeding at a discernible pace. Additionally, the chapels at the corners of the extensive courtyard are being rebuilt, and previously unknown wall paintings have been discovered by researchers using modern equipment.

The Convent has a dark side, of course. It was the work of Dominican monks, who were generally intolerant of traditional customs. (Remember, these are the guys who ran the Inquisition, which had its Mexican headquarters in Mexico City). But they appreciated the local people’s attitude that if God was up in the sky, then worshipping Him underneath a church roof made no sense. As a result, many old churches in Mexico have outside chapels, allowing God an unobstructed view of His converts’ devotions. This was true in Tepoztan as well as elsewhere.

Restoration work proceeding on the chapel in the north-west corner of the grounds. This is the best-preserved one on the site.

Further, the structure was set up as a fortified compound. The natives were not considered entirely friendly for very many years, and a need for defence was recognised. The Convent usually had less than half a dozen monks in residence, despite its size, but it could easily accommodate a few score musketeers and other soldiers if needed. 

But this very contradictory aspect to the structure makes it all the more fascinating. Its history is complex, and it embodies all the paradoxes and tragedy of the Spanish Conquest. Even for people who re-enact what little is known of old, preHispanic traditions, it throws into sharp relief the oppression, conflicts and subtler interactions between the traditional inhabitants and their new masters, and offers value as an object for meditation on the past.

Scaffolding for the work on the southern front tower. First it must be partly dismantled, then re-assembled.

At a time when we are reconsidering the colonial history of the Americas and their peoples (even if some obstinately refuse to join in the reconsidering), this massive structure, a monument to the faith and aspirations of the conquerors, is coming back to life. I can’t look at it without knowing what its darker side represents, but I also value it as something expressing a hope for a better world from a half-millennium ago.

And beyond that, its sheer size and grace commend it for a visit. I’ll be happy when once again I can walk through the doors under the angels carved in relief above the entry.

The interior of the Convent cloisters. The circular emblem divided in eight parts is the escutcheon of the Dominican Order.

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