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Cempoala, Veracruz (Mexico)

The Totonac Capital


Cempoala, Veracruz (Mexico)

Cempoala, Totonac culture, Mexico


Cempoala (or Zempoala) was the capital of the Totonacs, a pre-Columbian group that reached the Gulf coast of Mexico in the Postclassic period. The city, a major center on the coast of Veracruz, reached its florescence between the 12th to the 16th century AD. Its name in Nahuatl means “twenty, or abundant water”. It was the first urban settlement saw by the Spaniards.

Cempoala, the most populous city on the Gulf Coast, lied near the Actopan river. The city was surrounded by a canal system and a series of aqueducts which provided water to the farmfields around the urban center as well as the residential areas.

The City of Cempoala

Cempoala was a large city inhabited by about 80-120.000 people. The urban center was organized in nine precincts. The major compounds were composed by large temples bordered by platforms. High platforms elevated the buildings above the flood level.

The urban core of Cempoala, occupied by the monumental sector, covered a surface of 120,000 square meters (1,292,000 square feet), with much more represented by domestic housing.

Architecture at Cempoala

Most of the architecture at Cempoala is characterized by the use of river cobbles and roof in perishable materials. Temples, shrines and elite residences had, instead, a masonry architecture.

Some round structures have been identified as shrines dedicated to Ehecatl, the wind god.

Other important buildings are: the Sun temple or Great Pyramid; the Quetzalcoatl temple; the Chimeney Temple, with a series of semicircular pillars; the Temple of Charity (or Templo de las Caritas), named after the numerous stucco skulls that adorned its walls; the Cross temple, and the  El Pimiento compound, whose exterior walss are decorated with skull representations. Many of these buildings were decorated with polychrome murals, other were painted in white.

Cempoala and the Aztecs

In 1458, the Aztecs, under the rule of Moctezuma I,  invaded the region of the Gulf coast and Cempoala, among other cities, was subjugated and became a tributary of the Aztec empire. The inhabitants were heavily taxed and hundreds of them became slaves. When in 1519 the Spaniards arrived on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Cempoala was on of the first cities visited by Cortés. The Totonac ruler, hoping to get rid of the Aztec domination, soon became allies of Cortes and his army. Cempoala was also the theatre of the battle between Cortez and the captain Pánfilo de Narvaez, for the leadership in the Mexican conquest.

Decline of Cempoala

In 1575 and 1577 a smallpox epidemic struck many regions of Mesoamerica and the centers of the Gulf suffered many losses. Cempoala was abandoned and the survivors moved to Xalapa, another important city of Veracruz. Only at the end of the 19th century, with the exploration of the Mexican scholar Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Cempoala was re-discovered and the first archaeological studies were carried out.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams, Richard E. W., 2005 [1977], Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman

Evans, Toby Susan and David Webster (eds.), 2001, Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and central America: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing Inc., New York.


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