Where Am I? And What Day Is It?

Here’s a clue: If it hadn’t been for this event, the colonial gem of La Antigua Guatemala arguably might not exist. Here’s an almost contemporary account of the event, and to keep you guessing the place and, more interestingly, the date, the anwers are far below.

This has been a year of much rain, and having been raining Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with strong winds and not much water, the mentioned “lavada” (wash, means heavy rain or debris flow) happened two hours into the night. A great storm of water came from atop the volcano 1* which is above the city, it was so sudden that (we) did not … prevent the deaths and damages that happened; the stone storm was so huge that it swallowed the water in front of it, and much wood and trees, those who saw it were impressed, it entered through the house of the “Adelantado” don Pedro Alvarado, and it took away all the walls and the roof.

The well-remembered (event) of 2** that totally destroyed old Guatemala City (this first capital is now named 3***) lasting many days. Were it not for the noisy uproar underneath the earth that the earthquakes caused, many more deaths would have taken place than those that happened there, a number greater than 600 people. The meetings and functions of the town council state this tribulation, since during each meeting they had to achieve the move of the City, they say, the earth was constantly trembling.

The account, written some 40 years after the fact by Bishop Francisco Marroquín, describes the cataclysmic event that led to the decision to move the colony of the country of Guatemala to La Antigua Guatemala aka Santiago de Guatemala. It is now generally accepted by volcanologists that the notion of Agua’s crater filling up with water and then bursting is a myth. In fact, what happened was that a huge accumulation of lahar was so soaked by the incessant rain that it slid down the slopes. (Lahar is the volcanologists’ word for a mudflow or subsequent deposit of mud after a flow.)

Could it happen again without warning? Almost certainly it could not. The crater and the slopes of Agua are heavily monitored with sensors in the crater and frequent over flights and inspections during periods of heavy rainfall.

Interestingly, cartographers disagree on the location of the former Ciudad Vieja, with some placing it where it is today and others placing it farther across the valley nearer to San Miguel Escobar. A couple of aspects of this narrative by the Bishop have always puzzled me. How do you lose a capital city, San Miguel or Ciudad Vieja, which are not exactly right next to one another? And was the iconic Bishop Marroquín engaged in a little rewriting of history of his own, when he refers to the old Guatemala City/Ciudad Vieja as “this first capital?”

Guatemala’s first capital was a good 50 kilometers away at the ancient Kaqchiquel site of Iximché in modern Tecpán. It was abandoned in the face of continuing hostility from the not-completely subjugated Kaqchiquel, who were presumably also not particularly happy with the presence of the perhaps thousands of Tlaxcalteca “foreigners,” who accompanied the Spaniards in their march from Mexico and subsequent campaigns in Guatemala. How convenient of Bishop Marroquín to overlook the unpleasantness at Iximché. But that’s another story.

Answers: 1* Agua 2** Sept. 11th, 1541 3*** Cuidad Vieja

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