In Mexico City there are many emblematic sites, vestiges of ancient culture, palaces with centuries of history and monuments from different eras, but few spaces have been the protagonists of as many and as important events as the Chapultepec Castle.
The building is located on top of a mountain (an extinct volcano) that was a sacred place in the pre-Hispanic world. At the time of New Spain, it was a site occupied by a dozen viceroys.
He overcame the attack of the invading US troops. And it was the abode of Mexican emperors and presidents for many years.
Its architecture, ornamentation and location have made it one of the most fascinating venues in Mexico.
“Chapultepec has been the heart of Mexican political power, at least from the 16th century until now,” historian Salvador Rueda Smithers tells BBC Mundo.
“100 years ago, in 1922, the poet Rubén Campos said that Chapultepec was the most precious jewel in the crown of the Republic. And I think it’s true. It is still the place where the most important decisions that marked Mexicans were made,” says the director of the National Museum of History, located on the same site.
For the inhabitants of the Mexican capital, it is also a source of pride.
“People always say ‘Look, there’s the castle, how beautiful it looks!’ It is something endearing about Mexico City for the residents of the capital, highly valued”, explains the urban chronicler Enrique Ortiz García.
At BBC Mundo we invite you to take a tour of the history and architecture of the majestic palace, which is unique in its style on the American continent.
the door to another world
The Mexicas, the people descended from the Aztecs who founded the city of Tenochtitlan, created the city that is now Mexico City around the year 1325 after spending time in Chapultepec.
Those founders of the Mexica nation soon realized the importance of the mountain called “chapulín hill” in their language, which is how grasshoppers are known in Mexico.
It was considered a sacred mountain, in addition to the fact that due to its height it was an excellent astronomical observatory that largely defined the layout of the great Tenochtitlan, as well as a place where the fresh water that fed the pre-Hispanic city emanated.
Nezahualcóyotl, one of the most important rulers of the time, was the one who ordered the first construction of a “teocalli”, the base of the pyramids seen in many pre-Hispanic archaeological sites. And he built an important aqueduct.
“He was the first builder with a name and surname in Mexican history. He made some canals to bring clean water to the city of Tenochtitlan and that was one of the bases for this city to become hegemonic and the heart of the empire”, explains Rueda.
The historian recalls that a pre-Hypanic legend says that there is an entrance to the Tlalocan, which is a Mexica mythological site. “There is a cave that is the entrance to a paradisiacal and aquatic underworld,” he points out.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, in 1519, a unique moment occurred, according to the chroniclers’ accounts.
“It is said that when King Moctezuma heard that the conquerors were coming, he wanted to flee. And when he got into the Tlalocan de Chapultepec, he was confronted by one of the priests of Huitzilopochtli [el principal dios mexica] that he blamed him for being a coward and that he had to face his destiny”, says Rueda.
One of the keys to the taking of Tenochtitlan was the cutting off of fresh water ordered by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521, which sealed the establishment of a new viceroyalty world.
The first viceregal palace
Viceroy Luis de Velasco (1590-1595) was the first to have a palace built, which was enlarged by another ruler, Rodrigo Pacheco y Osorio (1624-1635), who decided that this place would be used as a place for parties and entertainment. .
The first palace of Chapultepec -located on one of the slopes of the mountain- housed numerous celebrations for viceroys and distinguished visitors for more than two centuries, explains Ortiz.
“This palace was the venue for great celebrations for the viceroys. There, 15 viceroys of New Spain were received. In this place great parties are held to receive the viceroys who were going to establish themselves as rulers of New Spain.
Tragically, the building was razed to the ground in the mid-18th century, when a nearby gunpowder factory exploded: “It exploded in November 1784 and the viceregal palace was blown up and many people also died.”
In 1784, Viceroy Matías de Gálvez undertook the construction – which was continued by his son, Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez – of a new palace, but now located on the top of the hill, that is, the base of the enclosure that exists to this day and which underwent many transformations in the following two centuries.
“But from Madrid construction is suspended and the building remains half-finished from 1785 until the end of the 1920s. And in 1819 an earthquake knocked down some of the walls that were already badly damaged,” says Rueda.
The War of Independence of 1810 arrived, which ended in 1821.
“On the last night of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the dawn of independent Mexico, the Trigarante Army sleeps in Chapultepec and from here a parade leaves for the center of Mexico City”, one of the most important historical events in Mexico, Wheel explains.
Then came a new era for the palace.
the military lair
Shortly after independence, the Mexican government determined that the palace would become the seat of the Colegio Militar, which opened its doors to cadets in the early 1840s.
There was a major expansion to create the officers’ pavilion, butlers’ quarters, officers’ refectory, student refectory, armory, library, and cadet dormitories.
And the exterior acquired a more military structure, including the erection of a keep – a tower that stands out in a fortification – called the “Tall Knight”, as well as the installation of weapons on its perimeter.
That is why the enclosure began to be called as it is known today: “The name of Castillo de Chapultepec comes from 1840, when they put cannons on the building and the Military College was established. Then it ceases to be just a palace.”
Then came another of the key moments in the history of Mexico.
The castle’s walls and strategic position were put to the test on September 12 and 13, 1847, when the United States Army launched an onslaught to take Mexico City during that year’s invasion of the country.
It was on the second day of battles that the confrontation that gave rise to the mythical action of the Children Heroes of Chapultepec took place.
The story says that six young cadets from the Military College gave their lives -one saving the Mexican flag by wrapping himself in it and jumping into the void- to defend the Castle and the country (several historians affirm that this was a nationalist narrative established some time later by the Mexican governments).
“Let us remember that they did not have to fight because the Military College is an educational institution, not a war institution. But they stay there and kill six”, explains Ortiz.
It is said that one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, at one point took the flag and threw himself off the cliff with it to prevent the Americans from taking it.
“Of course, obviously this is a myth. Not about Juan Escutia, because he did exist. But there is no evidence that he threw himself with the flag,” says Ortiz.
In the end, Mexico was defeated in this war of invasion that cost the country the loss of half its territory.
The castle closed that tragic chapter with some damage, but then came its period of greatest expansion and splendor.
The lavish imperial palace
The establishment of an empire by a group of conservatives led the Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg and his wife Carlota to be crowned emperors and establish their residence in the Castillo de Chapultepec in 1863.
The new residents called it the Imperial Palace of Chapultepec and Miravalle, the latter as a reference to their old residence in Italy, the Miramar Castle.
The architect Ramón Rodríguez Arangoity and the engineer Eleuterio Méndez were the ones who received the commission to remake a space that “not only housed works of art but also became one of them,” according to what they established.
Neoclassical arches, European-style gardens, the Bacchantes (paintings of Greek muses) and decorations were erected throughout the rooms with the style of the old continent that the emperors wanted.
Also in that period, this enclosure became the starting point of the Paseo de la Emperatriz that Carlota ordered to be built. Today it is the current Paseo de la Reforma, the emblematic avenue of Mexico City.
“All the features that give it European palatial characteristics largely come from the Maximiliano and Carlota period, who invested too much money in embellishing it,” explains Ortiz.
But much of it was renovated when the castle passed into other stages and no more sumptuous rooms were required.
The reinstatement of the republic in 1867 put an end to imperial Mexico, but Chapultepec Castle continued to witness the decisions of power by becoming the residence of Mexican presidents.
The symbol of progress
Being the residence of presidents of Mexico, the castle underwent more years of beautification and renovation, mainly during the period of the autocratic government of General Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911).
In the emblematic tower, the National Astronomical Observatory was established in 1878 -for a brief period.
Díaz wanted the building to be a showcase of artistic and technological progress in Mexico, since it was the site of visits by foreign personalities. So he ordered various improvements, including groundbreaking inventions of his time like elevators and even the first movie showing in Mexico in 1896.
“There is a large stained glass window that was bought in France in 1898 and mounted in the castle in 1905. They are the Greco-Roman goddesses and muses,” explains Rueda.
“Here you can see the taste of Porfirio Díaz or the one in charge of doing the interior decoration. It is very clearly directed to thinking that you are in the middle of a forest. There are many vegetal elements attached to the architecture”, he adds.
Díaz was a great admirer of the French architectural style and culture, which was reflected in the castle and in many buildings in Mexico City.
“During the Porfiriato, the great national influence was everything French,” says Ortiz.
the modern castle
Another great event in Mexican history occurred in February 1913, when President Francisco I. Madero led the Loyalty March.
The cadets of the Military College accompanied the president on a walk to the National Palace while a coup d’état took place that days later ended with the assassination of the president.
“Since then, a sort of political pact has been celebrated between the Army and the National Executive Power every February 9,” explains Rueda.
In the following decades, the castle continued to be repaired, creating pergolas, a reflecting pool and the Monument to “The Homeland Grateful to its Fallen Children”,
At the initiative of President Lázaro Cárdenas, the castle was declared the seat of the National Museum of History and was inaugurated as such on September 27, 1944.
“It has 106,000 registered pieces, 12 permanent history exhibition rooms and 22 site museum rooms. An emperor and 14 presidents have lived here at the time,” says Rueda.
For foreign visitors, the Chapultepec mountain castle is a “surprise”.
“They cannot imagine what they are going to find up here. Then suddenly they see the murals by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco and they are stunned. When they pass Juan O’Gorman’s they ask what he means. They go up to the gardens of the Alcázar and are always surprised”, says the director of the museum.
Ortiz adds: “It is a space of great importance due to the great collection that the National Museum of History possesses. with priceless works of art.
But for Mexicans, it is even more special.
“When you come here, even for a walk, even to repeat romantic stories, legends, etc., you have a trip to the past and to memory, to what you have wanted to be, to what you have believed you are, to what you would have liked what would happen,” says Rueda.
“All that is Chapultepec.”
Paul is a talented author and journalist with a passion for entertainment and general news. He currently works as a writer at the 247 News Agency, where he has established herself as a respected voice in the industry.