A 16th century church and its bloody history re-emerge from a lake in southern Mexico
The lake is the Nezahualcoyotl reservoir, created when the local Grijalva River was dammed back in 1966. The church ended up submerged under water.
But now it's visible again, as the reservoir's waters have receded. The reservoir's level has dropped by more than 80 feet because of a long drought.
“The church in the Quechula locality was built by a group of monks headed by Friar Bartolome de las Casas, who arrived in the region inhabited by the Zoque people in the mid-16th century,” says Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce, “so this is the first wave of Spanish conquerors who arrived to Mexico, and the first wave of colonization of southern Mexico.”
It’s a grim chapter of history.
The Spanish conquistadors were there to conquer Mexico and impose their European religious culture, and they went about doing it in the name of the King of Spain and in the name of God. Along the King’s Highway, the monks were tasked with converting the indigenous people to Catholicism.
“They were going to be slaves or dead,” says Arce. “Basically they had no option. The indigenous Zogue people could either become a Catholic servant of the Spanish king or you were going to be killed.”
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“At first arriving at the lake, I was a little disappointed because the plan was to have the beautiful morning light to give the church a warm light, “says the documentary photographer David von Blohn, who travelled to the site on assignment for the AP to photograph it.
But instead the morning turned out very cloudy and foggy. With the help of a local fisherman, von Blohn was able to venture out onto the lake and shoot photographs from different perspectives, and he says the photos capture the church emerging from the lake as a kind of sacred space.
“So the church is very beautiful, mystical and maybe spiritual, but it also reflects the violence and drama that took place when the Europeans, the Spanish people, arrived here in Latin America,” says von Blohn.
It’s not the first time the church has reappeared. A dozen years ago the waters receded so far that local villagers could actually walk out to the church and hold a mass there. Arce says it illustrates how deeply the Spanish culture was ingrained in the minds of the indigenous people. “They come back to the church, whether it is by boat or walking, they even hold processions. So that there’s no way that we can erase history. This is the powerful message that this emerging church is sending us. There is no way we can erase history.”
The recently exposed ruins of a 16th century church known as the Temple of Quechula built by Dominican friars in the region inhabited by the Zoque people. It was submerged in 1966 when the Nezahualcoyotl dam was built.
David von Blohn/AP
But it’s the historical violence and drama that really make the ruins a powerful symbol of the past, says Arce.
“Six monks with maybe two dozen soldiers imposing, forcing hundreds, thousands of indigenous people to work as slaves to build this beautiful church. To me, as a Spaniard and a Mexican, the conquerors were savages. But how they could build such beautiful churches? How could they teach indigenous people to be masons and architects, to sing songs in Latin for the church?
"It’s amazing how two dozen men coming from the poorest part of Spain in the 16th century could travel thousands of miles and create these masterpieces … the history was absolutely violent and cruel, and unjust. There’s no justice in it, but it's history, it’s epic.”
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