Cempoala: Totonac Capital and Ally of Hernan Cortes

Why Did Cempoala Choose to Fight for the Spanish Conquistadors?

Cempoala, Coastal Totonac Site in Veracruz

Flickr / Adam Jones

Cempoala, also known as Zempoala or Cempolan, was the capital of the Totonacs, a pre-Columbian group that emigrated to the Gulf Coast of Mexico from the central Mexican highlands sometime before the Late Postclassic period. The name is a Nahuatl one, meaning "twenty water" or "abundant water", a reference to the many rivers in the region. It was the first urban settlement encountered by the Spanish colonization forces in the early 16th century.

The city's ruins lie near the mouth of the Actopan River about 8 kilometers (five miles) in from the Gulf of Mexico. When it was visited by Hernan Cortés in 1519, the Spaniards found a huge population, estimated at between 80,000-120,000; it was the most populous city in the region. 

Cempoala reached its fluorescence between the 12th and 16th century AD, after the previous capital El Tajin was abandoned after being invaded by Toltecan-Chichimecans.

The City of Cempoala

At its height during the late 15th century, Cempoala's population was organized into nine precincts. The urban core of Cempoala, which includes a monumental sector, covered a surface area of 12 hectares (~30 acres); housing for the city's population spread far beyond that. The urban center was laid out in the way common to Totonac regional urban centers, with many circular temples dedicated to the wind god Ehecatl.

There are 12 large, irregularly shaped walled compounds in the city center that contain the main public architecture, temples, shrines, palaces, and open plazas. The major compounds were composed of large temples bordered by platforms, which elevated the buildings above the flood level.

The compound walls were not very high, serving as a symbolic function identifying the spaces which were not open to the public rather than for defense purposes.

Architecture at Cempoala

Cempoala's central Mexican urban design and art reflect the norms of the central Mexican highlands, ideas which were reinforced by the late 15th-century Aztec dominance. Most of the architecture is built of river cobbles cemented together, and the buildings were roofed in perishable materials. Special structures such as temples, shrines, and elite residences had a masonry architecture built of cut stone.

Important buildings include the Sun temple or Great Pyramid; the Quetzalcoatl temple; the Chimney Temple, which includes 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, which has exterior walls decorated with skull representations.

Many of the buildings have platforms with multiple stories of low height and vertical profile. Most are rectangular with broad stairways. Sanctuaries were dedicated with polychrome designs on a white background.


The city was surrounded by an extensive canal system and a series of aqueducts which provided water to the farm fields around the urban center as well as the residential areas. This extensive canal system allowed water distribution to fields, diverting water from main river channels.

The canals were part of (or built onto) a large wetland irrigation system that is thought to have been built during the Middle Postclassic [AD 1200-1400] period. The system included an area of sloping field terraces, on which the city grew cotton, maize, and agave. Cempoala used their surplus crops to participate in the Mesoamerican trade system, and historic records report that when famine struck the Valley of Mexico between 1450-1454, the Aztecs were forced to barter their children to Cempoala for maize stores.

The urban Totonacs at Cempoala and other Totonac cities used home gardens (calmil), backyard gardens which provided domestic groups at the family or clan level with vegetables, fruits, spices, medicines, and fibers. They also had private orchards of cacao or fruit trees. This dispersed agrosystem gave the residents flexibility and autonomy, and, after the Aztec Empire took hold, allowed the homeowners to pay tributes. Ethnobotanist Ana Lid del Angel-Perez argues that the home gardens may also have acted as a laboratory, where people tested and validated new crops and methods of growing.

Cempoala Under the Aztecs and Cortés

In 1458, the Aztecs under the rule of Motecuhzoma I invaded the region of the Gulf Coast. Cempoala, among other cities, was subjugated and became a tributary of the Aztec empire. Tributary items demanded by the Aztecs in payment included cotton, maize, chili, feathers, gems, textiles, Zempoala-Pachuca (green) obsidian, and many other products. Hundreds of Cempoala's inhabitants were enslaved.

When the Spanish conquest arrived in 1519 on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Cempoala was one of the first cities visited by Cortés. The Totonac ruler, hoping to break away from Aztec domination, soon became allies of Cortés and his army. Cempoala was also the theater of the 1520 Battle of Cempoala between Cortés and the captain Pánfilo de Narvaez, for the leadership in the Mexican conquest, which Cortés handily won.

After the Spanish arrival, smallpox, yellow fever, and malaria spread throughout Central America. Veracruz was among the earliest regions affected, and the population of Cempoala sharply declined. Eventually, the city was abandoned and the survivors moved to Xalapa, another important city of Veracruz.

Cempoala Archaeological Zone

Cempoala was first explored archaeologically at the end of the 19th century by Mexican scholar Francisco del Paso y Troncoso. American archaeologist Jesse Fewkes documented the site with photographs in 1905, and the first extensive studies were conducted by Mexican archaeologist José García Payón between the 1930s and 1970s.

Modern excavations at the site were conducted by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) between 1979-1981, and Cempoala's central core was recently mapped by photogrammetry (Mouget and Lucet 2014).

The site is located on the eastern edge of the modern town of Cempoala, and it is open to visitors year-round.


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Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Cempoala: Totonac Capital and Ally of Hernan Cortes." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/cempoala-veracruz-mexico-170308. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2021, July 29). Cempoala: Totonac Capital and Ally of Hernan Cortes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/cempoala-veracruz-mexico-170308 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Cempoala: Totonac Capital and Ally of Hernan Cortes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cempoala-veracruz-mexico-170308 (accessed June 6, 2023).