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At the shrine itself the supplicants are made of bronze, but all around, as far as the eye can see, there are pilgrims of flesh and blood. The most devout shuffle along on their knees, sometimes for miles, the blood from their lesions staining the steps that lead to the Basilica. Red Cross medics dab at their wounds or prop up the elderly and infirm. There are hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, edging forward in waves, some to seek cures, others simply to give thanks or pay their respects. To Mexico's Catholics, who account for more than 90 per cent of the country's population, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, on the Tepeyac hillside outside Mexico City, is the equivalent of Lourdes.

Many never make it to the shrine, collapsing with exhaustion or dehydration. Others drop out after being robbed of their possessions by conmen or pickpockets who infiltrate the crowd, slashing bags with razor blades in the confusion. There were 5,000 robberies on a single day last year. The day was 12 December, the occasion of the annual festival commemorating the vision of a poor Mexican Indian woodcutter called Juan Diego, who, according to legend, saw a dark-skinned virgin on the same hillside in 1531. Few believing Mexicans have not visited the shrine that day.

For the Spanish conquistadores, the peasant's vision was fortuitous. Cortes had conquered Mexico 10 years earlier but was having trouble fulfilling what was ostensibly the purpose of his voyage: converting the local Indians to Catholi-cism instead of worshipping the Sun and Moon.

As luck would have it, Juan Diego had his vision at the site of an old Aztec shrine to the Goddess Tonantzin (Mother God) and the virgin was dark-skinned - like the local Aztecs - in contrast to the newcomer Spaniards and their icons. Needless to say, she asked him to have a Catholic church built on top of the Aztec site. When the Spanish bishop in Mexico City dismissed Juan Diego's story, an image of the Black Virgin suddenly appeared on the peasant's crude cactus-fibre cloak. The church, which eventually became the current Basilica, was quickly built, and pilgrims to this day file past to touch the glass case which contains the purported tattered cloak.

Myth or no, the story served perfectly to fuse the Indians' pagan beliefs with the cult of the Virgin Mary. It was a key breakthrough in the Spanish conquest. The Black Virgin of Guadalupe became patron saint of Mexico and later of much of the New World.

Did it really happen? Earlier this year, the Catholic abbot in charge of the Basilica stunned most Mexicans when he described Juan Diego as "more of a symbol than a reality". Devout Catholics were outraged. "It's like an American doubting the existence of Abraham Lincoln," said one. Abbot Guillermo Schulemberg eventually resigned, but it emerged that there may have been more to the controversy than mere faith or the lack thereof. The Basilica, especially on 12 December, rakes in millions of dollars in collections, as well as taking a percentage of the officially-authorised trinkets - from Black Virgin dolls to Black Virgin sweets - sold outside. The word on the street was that the Abbot was "set up" by rival clergy who, wishing to gain control of the Basilica, encouraged publication of his controversial but originally private comments.

For most Mexicans, meanwhile, the power of the myth transcends such trivial questions as whether or not the vision ever occurred. Mexicans fought below a Black Virgin banner in the mid-19th-century war with the United States. Taxi drivers dangle her image from their mirrors. And, on Thursday, outside the Basilica, pilgrims will pose for souvenir pictures in front of backdrops which juxtapose the Virgin and Santa Claus. !