The Legend or Cibola, the Lost City of Gold

WORLD HISTORY | March 14, 2019

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Tales about undiscovered cities filled with vast riches were prevalent in medieval times and several of them remain today. The story of Cibola, the seven cities of gold, originated in 713 AD when the Moors were invading Spain and Portugal and the Iberian peninsula was under Arab control. Portuguese bishops carried away gold and priceless religious artifacts from the city of Oporto and sailed away to a secret location that was only accessible by boat. But no one knew where this mysterious place could be. When explorers set foot in the Americas and observed the natives with gold trinkets, it renewed interest in the old Cibola legends. Perhaps, the lost cities of gold were located in the Americas. 

Hernan Cortes, detail from the Allegory of the Dominions of Charles V, by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880), Throne Room, Miramare Castle, Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Cortez Finds New World Riches

Hernan Cortez’s discovery of the wealth of the Aztec people, and his subsequent looting of their cities and killing of their people, only added to the myth that the Americas were home to seven cities of gold just waiting to be discovered and plundered. The complex and sophisticated society of the Aztec and the gold artifacts they created only fed the Spaniard's lust for gold in the New World. 

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The Narvaez Expedition

The Narvaez Expedition of 1527, under the leadership of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, was 600 strong when the Conquistadors left Cuba for Florida and the Gulf Coast. The official purpose of the expedition was to colonize the region for Spain, but off the record, the group was searching for the fabled gold of the Aztecs. Lost in unfamiliar territory, the expedition soon ran low of supplies and were repeatedly attacked by hostile natives. Still, they pushed on. It took eight years for de Vaca and three other members of the group to reach northern Mexico. During that time, the men had many interactions with the indigenous people. 

Estaban, a Muslim slave. Source: (topimages.com)

The Story of Estaban

One of the surviving members of the Narvaez Expedition was a Spanish slave named Estaban. Estaban was described as a “black Muslim from Azamoor,” a city on the Moroccan coast. Estaban spoke several languages and was an educated man, despite his position as a slave. During the Narvaez Expedition, Estaban was often sent ahead of the group to act as a scout and to announce the group's arrival to the tribal chiefs. It was on one of these solo scouting trips that Estaban was told a fantastic story about seven cities of gold located to the north where the citizens were all wealthy and wore fine clothing and the buildings were build with multiple levels. 

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A Franciscan Friar was Sure Cibola was in Mexico

Fray Marcos de Niza, an Italian Franciscan friar, and missionary was one of the first explorers of the American southwest. He journeyed into this area after hearing Estaban’s story because he was certain that the lost cities of Cibola were located there. He also got his information from the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America who told him that the gold in their possession came from great cities to the north. De Niza searched and searched for Cibola in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. 

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Did De Niza Find Cibola?

When de Niza returned to Spain, he had a wondrous tale to tell. He told about venturing north and eventually stumbling upon a stunning city of gold. He described it as having grand streets, beautiful statues, and soaring buildings. But most historians believe the good Friar was lying. If he was, his plan backfired on him when he was appointed to guide the next expedition to the area, the Coronado Expedition. 

The adobe buildings of the Zuni people. Source: (onlytribal.com)

The Coronado Expedition

De Niza joined the Coronado Expedition that was led by Vazques de Coronado. Like Cortez before him, Coronado was sure that he could amass great wealth from the lost cities of the Americas. His expedition found a Zuni village with multi-story adobe houses. There were wide streets through the village and small quantities of gold, but this was not the Cibola that de Niza had described. It could, however, have been the “rich city to the north” that was described by the natives of Mexico. Coronado was not convinced. He attacked and tortured the Zuni in an attempt to get them to reveal the hiding place of their great gold caches. It soon became obvious that there was no rich treasure trove and Coronado was forced to return empty handed. 

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Are There Lost Cities Still Waiting to be Discovered?

Modern-day archaeologists are finding undiscovered ancient cities, temples, and structures that have been lost to the jungle overgrowth. New aerial scanning technology is allowing explorers to peel back the jungle canopy and see what is underneath. Could it be that one or more of these new discoveries will turn out to be Cibola? 

Tags: Cibola, the seven cities of gold

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