Saturday, January 19, 2013

Water, Water: Los Arcos de Zempoala

After looking at the colonial hydraulic systems of selected Mexican cities, we now turn our attention to the most essential, usually ingenious and often spectacular of their components—the aqueducts. We begin with perhaps the earliest, best known and longest colonial example: Los Arcos de Zempoala.

Los Arcos de Zempoala

Originally constructed between 1553 and 1570, this aqueduct is considered the most significant work of hydraulic engineering built in Mexico during the 16th century. It extends 45 kilometers from the Tecajete volcano, near Zempoala, in Hidalgo, to Otumba in the state of Mexico.

   Also known as Los Arcos de Tembleque, its design and construction is ascribed to the Franciscan friar Francisco de Tembleque, some time Guardian of the convento of Otumba. 
Fray Francisco oversaw much of the construction with the assistance of mastermason Juan Correa de Agüero, who supervised hundreds of indigenous workers from Texcoco and Tlaxcala.

Relación Geográfica de Zempoala (detail).  ©The Nettie Lee Benson Library
This 1580 map shows the aqueduct from the caja on the slopes of the volcano Tecajete (left) to the arcaded section near Tepeyahualco (top right), with a feeder channel to the octagonal fountain in the atrium of the church of Todos Santos Zempoala.

Cisterns and channels below Tecajete

water tanks and channels at Zempoala
A caja de agua at Tepeyahualco
Although some sections go underground, most are above ground. There are three arcades along the aqueduct, that stretch over ravines and valleys: the first has 46 arches, the second has 13, and the third, known as the Main Arcadewhose construction alone took five years of efforthas 67 arches spanning the Papalote ravine, with its tallest arch standing almost 40 meters high.
The aqueduct is built of both local and volcanic stone, upon which an approximately one-foot-wide concave channel of smoothed stone transports the water. Feeder channels supplying neighboring communities and haciendas were built at intervals via a complex system of storage tanks, cajas, water troughs and channels. 
Some of the aqueduct's terracotta pipes, embedded in stone masonry, can still be seen. And a number of pictographs or inscribed motifs, thought to be the native masons' marks or seals, adorn some of the supporting arches. 
Otumba water station © Leigh Thelmadatter
The aqueduct ends at Otumba, where the remnants of an enclosed complex of water tanks and channels can still be seen.  From there water was channeled to the town and the monastery church and gardens.
16th century baptismal fonts in the church at Otumba
Today, conservation efforts are under way to repair the aqueduct that focus not only on addressing deterioration caused by natural exposure and vandalism, but on restoring its function so that water can once again run and serve the local communities.

This aqueduct was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List and is also listed with the World Monuments Fund.  
The Mexican Ministry of Culture of Mexico (CONACULTA) and FOREMOBA have committed to a conservation plan for the entire aqueduct with the initial restoration of a 1,000 meter section across the Barranca de Tepeyahualco.
text © 2013 Richard Perry

For more on the early colonial architecture of Mexico, consult our classic guide book


  1. Are the pictographs unique to the Zempoala aqueduct? If not, where else can they be seen? They are surely intriguing.

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  3. Hi. Who is the photografer of "16th century baptismal fonts in the church at Otumba"? or Where was published that photo?

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