Valley of Mexico, north east of Mexico City
What makes this site special?
unique Urban design
Teotihuacán started off around the time of Christ as one of several competing chiefdom centres in the Valley of Mexico. After lava from the eruption of Mt. Xitle (around 245-315 AD) destroyed its main competitor, Cuicuilco, Teotihuacán entered a period of rapid urbanization. Two huge pyramids were built and the city expanded over 20 square kilometres. The urban design is different from other ancient cities in Mesoamerica. The whole city shows an orthogonal layout (involving right angles, like a chessboard). The city was laid out around a central avenue, the Street of the Dead, instead of the usual public plazas. Along the avenue apartment compounds were built (multi-family residences). The degree of standardisation in housing and the extent of chessboard planning are without precedent in Mesoamerica.
In Aztec mythology, the universe itself was created in Teotihuacán [teotiwa'kan]. The huge pyramids were designed ‘to turn men into gods’, using the layout of a celestial plan: the city had been apparently built as a 'map of heaven', a scale model of the solar system, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (not rediscovered until 1787, 1846 and 1930 respectively). The layout of Teotihuacán’s pyramids (right in the image below) is often compared to the pyramids at Giza (left), also built along the lines of the Orion constellation (source: ancient-wisdom.com). You feel that cosmic power as soon as you walk along the Street of the Dead. You realize instantly that some cosmic game is in play here.
I felt very 'small' when visiting this majestic place (in 2004). Its scale made me think about the creation of the world and the universe and where we stand in it. That was exactly what the builders meant to achieve: to intimidate and evoke awe. At the same time, you can soak up the energy from this spiritual place. It is a must see, if you are in Mexico City.
The original name of the city is unknown, but it appears in hieroglyphic texts from the Maya region as 'Puh' or 'Place of Reeds'. This is similar to other Central Mexican settlements that took the name Tollan such as Tula-Hidalgo and Cholula. Tollan was a general term, used for large settlements. In the concept of urbanism of the time, it was used as a metaphor. It was a generic name for many settlements: it linked the bundles of reeds and rushes from the Valley of Mexico (used for dwellings) and the large gathering of people in a city. The city was already in ruins by the time of the Aztecs. When they discovered it, they named it Teotihuacán (in their Nahuatl language). It means 'Birthplace of the Gods'.
Around 300 BC, people of the central and south-eastern area of Mesoamerica began to gather into larger settlements. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacán date to about 200 BC. The largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, was completed by 100 AD.
Major monuments were under construction until about 250 AD. In 278 AD, the rulers of Teotihuacán defeated Tikal (Guatemala) and founded their own dynasty there (they put on the throne the ruler called 'Spearthrower Owl'). In 426 AD they took over Copán (Honduras) and Quiriguá (Guatemala). In Copán they put on the throne their own ruler, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo (Sun-Eyed Green Quetzal Macaw), who wore 'goggles', the hallmark of Teotihuacán. The Teotihuacános had intensive relations with the Zapotecs, and they possibly ruled over Monte Albán for a certain length of time. At its peak around 450 AD, it was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000. The city then covered over 30km². The city lasted until some time between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 AD.
And what caused its dramatic collapse? Perhaps civil war swept through Teotihuacán, culminating in a fire that damaged vast sections of the city. A conquering army could have destroyed it or a large-scale migration occurred. By 750 AD the city was abandoned. The former residents of Teotihuacán, if they were not killed, were presumably absorbed into the populations of neighbouring cultures. They took their secrets with them.
Rather than asking why the city collapsed, it is more interesting to ask why it lasted so long. What were the social, political, and religious practices that provided such strength and stability?
When the Aztecs arrived from the North on the Mexican Central Plateau in the first half of the 14th century, they discovered the abandoned ruins of the city and connected it with their own creation myth. They named the main road of the city (5km long) the Avenue of the Dead as the mounds on the sides looked like tombs to them. In reality, the mounds were the residential palaces. The city was vast.
Teotihuacános were skilled urban planners, warriors and astronomers. They built stone-sided canals to reroute the San Juan River directly under the Avenue of the Dead and built amazing pyramids based on cosmological beliefs. Teotihuacán was laid out in a rectangular grid and oriented to the movement of the sun.
Between 150-300 AD the city was a centre of industry, home to many potters, jewellers, and other craftsmen. Locals harvested beans, avocados, peppers and squash on fields raised in the middle of shallow lakes and swampland (a technique known as chinampa). Turkey, dogs, wild game (deer, rabbits, and peccaries), wild plants, insects, frogs, and fish also supplemented a diverse diet.
Several trade routes were established, linking Teotihuacán to cacao groves near the Gulf of Mexico and to obsidian quarries in Pachuca. The enormous wealth of Teotihuacán was based largely on the monopoly they had on the trade of obsidian. Cotton came in from the Pacific Coast, ceramics from Veracruz. So who were these sophisticated people? They did not leave behind any written records although they did have writing system (more rudimentary than the Maya, limited to use of dates and names).
The ethnicity of people from Teotihuacán is a subject of debate. Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac ethnic groups. Scholars have suggested that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state, probably one of the first major melting pots in the Western Hemisphere. For many years, archaeologists believed it was built by the Toltec. Since the Toltec civilization flourished centuries after Teotihuacán, that theory does not work. Some investigators think that the city was constructed by the Olmecas-Xicalanca, a group of Mixtec speech.
Little is known about the rulers or form of government. It is assumed that at the beginning of the 2nd century the city had an individual leader. The seat of government was most likely located at different places: in the Xalla building compound (to the north of the Pyramid of the Sun) and in the living quarters of the Citadel. The city had compounds or districts such as Tepantitla, Tetitla, Techinantitla, controlled by elite families or religious orders (or both).
As for religious practices, we do know some of the gods worshipped here. The names of the gods are not known but the same deities can be found with the Aztecs, so their names are being used. One of them is, of course, Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, who was responsible for life itself.
The Great Goddess of Teotihuacán, known as Spider Woman (termed so by Karl Taube) reigned over the underworld, darkness, the earth, water and war. The mural from the Tepantitla complex shows her with a green bird headdress and spiders above her head. Vegetation is growing out of her head, perhaps hallucinogenic morning glory vines or the world tree. Spiders and butterflies are around. The jaguar, the owl, and especially the spider were considered creatures of darkness, often found in caves and during the night. The Great Goddess is therefore thought to have been a goddess of the underworld, darkness, the earth, water, war, and possibly even creation itself. This goddess does not appear outside the city except where Teotihuacanos settled.
Tláloc was the Storm God (for the Aztecs he was the God of Rain), usually depicted with goggled eyes and jaguar fangs. The 'goggles', which some writers have speculated are proof of ancient alien activity (as pilot's goggles), were not for eye protection but part of the god's or king's ceremonial headdress. It is sort of the brand of Teotihuacán. One suggestion is that the goggles provided the ruler's separation from the common people by indicating the penetrating gaze of the gods (or rulers, who were divine). Other opinions maintain that it represents the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the underworld (the Storm or Rain God dwelt in a cave, in the underworld).
Teotihuacán's warfare was also a key part of its success. Fearsome warriors also wore goggles, perhaps as a spiritual armament, alongside impressive costumes with feather headdresses and mirrors on their backs. They were spear-throwers (atlatl) wearing animal attire as a symbol of military order. The depicted heraldry includes such entities as a bird, a canine, and a feathered serpent; there were also eagle, jaguar and coyote warriors. The rank depended on how many captives they had on their record (this military ranking system was adopted later by the Aztecs). The captives were most likely destined for human sacrifice (again, this was something adopted by the Aztecs, and, inevitably, the Maya).
Some evidence of that practice has certainly been found. A vault containing 12 bodies, ten of which had been decapitated, were discovered in the chamber of the Pyramid of the Moon.
Another tomb containing the remains of four men was also found in the pyramid (two of the men were Teotihuacános, while two were foreigners). This firmly contradicts earlier theories that Mexican civilisations were relatively peaceful people. It would not help to be of royal blood either as rulers were captured and decapitated too. Actually, they were the ‘precious victims’, while the commoners were often used as slaves.
The war costumes (particularly headdresses) and spear-throws of the Teotihuacános were adopted by the Maya kings to promote victory. That indicates how strong Teotihuacán's military reputation and links would have been across the Mesoamerican region.
The Focus: The Pyramid of the Sun
I am always puzzled at the ancient Mesoamerican sites by a contrast, or perhaps a disparity, between the culture of men who wore feathers and sacrificed people ('primitive culture', if you wish) and their astounding astronomical knowledge.
Take the Avenue of the Dead. An exact north-south or east-west orientation might have been expected as the site's layout was pretty geometrical. However, the architects deliberately chose to incline the Street of the Dead 15°east of north. Various theories exist to explain this alignment, for example that it was built to face the setting of the Pleiades (Gerald Hawkins) or that that the street might represent the Milky Way (Stansbury Hagar). It reproduced on earth a celestial plan of the sky world where dwelt the deities and spirits of the dead.
The Pyramid of the Sun sits in the middle of that layout. It is the largest pyramid at Teotihuacán and was by far the largest building in the New World when it was completed in the 2nd century.
Almost unbelievably, the base of the Pyramid of the Sun is virtually identical in size to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. At its base, the Pyramid of the Sun measures 223.5m (the height is not the same). There is also a triple set of pyramids at Teotihuacán, similar to Giza, reflecting the alignment of the three stars of Orion’s Belt, as I already mentioned above. This has brought about some notable theories on ancient trans-oceanic contact. It is, of course, more plausible that both sites were using the same symbolic calculations.
There is a further alignment of the pyramid with the sunset on the 11 August, which was the day the world was created in 3114 BC (the First Dynasty of Egypt also began in around 3114 BC, with the legendary King Menes). The Pyramid of the Sun was built 260 standard units wide and had 260 steps to the summit. The period of 260 days was the length of the Ritual (Tzolkin) Calendar. Apparently the Pyramid of the Sun was built first (to record the origins of time) and the rest of the city was organised around it (to reflect the heavens!).
Buried at the heart of the Pyramid of the Sun is an ancient cave with four chambers. A tunnel leads from in front of the Pyramid for 130m in a serpentine manner to create the appearance of an umbilical cord or vaginal passage. The result is a symbolic womb of the earth. This cave may have been a 'place of emergence' from which the first humans came into the world (fire and water rituals took place here). Archaeologists also found the remains of three older structures buried beneath the Pyramid. It was a sacred location long before the pyramid was built.
It is an achievement to climb the pyramid, although we did not succeed with my husband during our visit. The line of people waiting to climb was just too long, and we had limited time for our visit, sadly, as we came with a tour (and this was our third stop of the day). Next time I will come here for the whole day, for sure. We did walk at the back of the pyramid, though, to get a feel of it without the crowds. It feels immense and majestic.
The Mystery: The Quetzalcóatl Temple
The Temple takes its name from the iconic carved heads on the eastern side. The relief images alternate between a serpent’s head surrounded by feathers, and a crocodile’s head with a headdress and goggles. The former is the Aztec creator god, Quetzalcóatl (a Nahuatl term which means 'Feathered Serpent'). The feathers around the serpent’s head represent the petals of flowering crops (he brings the harvest) as well as rays of light, and associate him with the Sun. The curling eyebrow represents duality (it's a double spiral), infinity and the swirling cosmos. The crocodile in Mesoamerican mythology represented the earth. The world was visualised as a large crocodile floating in a lake covered with water lilies. The crocodile was the representation of the God Tláloc, think of it as Crocodile-Tláloc (gods had many aspects) and he can be recognised by the Tláloc goggles. So he was the god of earth and water at the same time. This is rather specific to Teotihuacán (the Aztecs had different aspects of Tláloc). No wonder that the pyramid’s facade was also ornamented with some marine motifs: shells and what appear to be waves. In Michael Coe's view the temple represents the 'initial creation of the universe from a watery void'.
The tunnel under the pyramid is not open to the public but we are promised a virtual tour of the tunnel in the near future. Can't wait. It was discovered by Sergio Gómez, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, who spent the past three decades working in and around Teotihuacán. One morning in 2003, after heavy rain, he found a sinkhole at the foot of the Temple. The permission to dig was granted by the government in 2009 (the excavation still continues). The tunnel runs about 100m from the Citadel to the centre of the Temple and is 12m deep.
So if the pyramid from outside represented the creation of the world, what can we expect from the tunnel underneath? The representation of the underworld? A secret hiding place? A passageway? Burial place? Lasers and a pair of robots, Tlaloque and Tláloc II (named after the Aztec gods) helped the investigation in addition to manual excavation with spades and little brushes. Tons of earth were removed from the tunnel.
Thousands of objects have been recovered (different sources give different numbers hence my restriction to 'thousands'). There were fragments of human skin, elaborate necklaces, boxes of beetle wings, jaguar bones, balls of amber, rings and figurines, woven straw mats probably reserved for the elites, rubber balls used in an ancient ball game, ceramics pots from neighbouring states, animal bones from birds and jaguars and strange pyrite balls. An array of gigantic conch shells from the Caribbean, Pacific and Gulf coasts were also found, confirming strong ties between Teotihuacán and Mayan communities as far south as Guatemala and Belize. Everything was deposited deliberately and pointedly, as if in offering. Four greenstone statutes, three women and one man, were found near the entrances of the chambers. The women wore necklaces and earrings, and carried backpacks full of tiny mirrors (made of pyrite, fool's gold). Mirrors served as portals to a realm that could be seen, conduits of the supernatural forces, and as synonyms for the power of the sun.
If the sculptures represented the founders of Teotihuacán, women would have played a fundamental role in the power structure in the early phases of Teotihuacán.
But that is not all. Mercury was found alongside and the mineral pyrite (embedded in the rock by hand). Hundreds of clay spheres covered in golden pyrite littered the floor and metallic dust rubbed on the walls. Hmm! Was that just a replica of the sky full of stars? The effect apparently resembles a passageway through space when illuminated by torchlight. As pyrite and mercury held associations with the supernatural, the buried sub-chambers may have represented the entryway to the underworld (which lords had to enter before being reborn). Caves themselves were considered the places where gods were born, and it is possible that the elite used the caves to give birth, with the newborn baby being carried through the starry tunnel and out into the world, as though they were descending from the heavens (proving divine lineage?). Gómez is still continuing the excavation of the chambers.
Some scientists today focus on physical or chemical elements in research of the ancient structures (which archaeologists never do). In this case, they debate if the tunnel was used as an ancient generator, where combinations of chemical, mineral, water (and possible electromagnetic fields) inducted some form of energy (there are similar theories about the pyramids in Egypt). John Burke, a businessman and scientist, made a discovery on electromagnetic energy in pyramids at a number of North American and European megalithic and mound sites, including Stonehenge. Using state-of-the-art scanning equipment he determined that each location had been chosen because of its natural telluric energy field that pulsed up and into the structure. A telluric current (or Earth current) is an electric current that moves underground. Water can create and distribute telluric fields, either moving naturally through rivers or cenotes (found under El Castillo at Chichén Itzá) or by artificial canals or tunnels (found at the Temple of Inscription at Palenque). Many temples and sacred sites are determined by energy patterns and are found throughout the world representing the precise location of the Earth’s energy lines (the so-called 'ley lines'). We now understand that telluric energies may have a positive effect on human physiology and greatly enhance crop seeds. Wow!!!! But how did the ancient builders know how to find the telluric fields without scanning equipment? That brings us back to the main question: Who were the skilful builders of Teotihuacán? Aliens?
Don't Miss: The Pyramid of the Moon
We loved climbing this pyramid although I am sure this won't be allowed for long and rightly so, to protect the integrity of the pyramids. From the top we had a 2km view along the Avenue of the Dead and the layout of the city. That was the best part of our visit.
While the Pyramid of the Sun (completed around 250 AD) represented the ritual calendar of 260 days and the sun’s slow death towards the winter solstice, the Pyramid of the Moon (48m high) represented the sun’s transit north, to the summer solstice. It sits at the backdrop of the Cerro Gordo ('Fat Hill') and it seems the pyramid replicates the shape of the hill.
This hill is portrayed in one of the murals found at the Tepantitla apartment complex, called The Mountain of Abundance. It is referred to as The Paradise of Tláloc, because it shows a mountain that flows with water and irrigates the fields in which farmers are shown sowing seeds and reaping crops. This indicates that the Fat Hill provided the life-giving waters and fertility for the city. Around the hill some people are playing the ball game and others hunting butterflies.
It is not the paradise as we imagine it today, though. If you look closer, the mountain is being fed with humans, falling inside the hill from its top: their blood flowing down transforms into the life-giving waters. The people have different colours, probably representing different classes but they are being sacrificed without regard to their social status. The murals in the rest of the room show scenes of people in ritual attire, sowing seeds and giving offerings to the earth.
The talud-tablero style of the pyramid may have been designed specifically to represent this cascading water. Though not a local invention (it was developed in the nearby Puebla region), this architectural style became one of Teotihuacán's most distinctive exports. It was used for most of the Mayan pyramids elsewhere.
You won't be able to visit the burial chambers underneath but it may be worth visiting the site museum, time allowing.
How to get there:
If you are not taking an organised tour, take the metro to Station Autobus del Norte (5 pesos in 2014). The metro is easy to use. From here, cross the street, go inside the bus terminal, then to the Ticket Desk with the sign of the pyramids. You can buy round-trip bus tickets for 100 pesos per person. The journey takes about 90 minutes. If you get one way, you can also pay the bus driver at the site on the return trip. They pick you up where they dropped you off.
Get an early start, the place opens at 8am (to beat the crowds and the heat) and closes at 5pm. Set aside at least 1/2 day. You will walk about 8km in total to cover it all. There are restaurants on the site. The entry fee is around 5 USD.
Mix & Match
If you take an organised tour from your hotel, you will stop first at La Villa de Guadalupe, the area that houses the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, at the foot of the Tepeyac Hill. We did just that and as a result did not have enough time for exploring Teotihuacán in depth. The taxi drivers around our hotel were offering to take us to the pyramid city directly and I regret not doing that. I strongly recommend that option. Or taking a bus, as I indicated above.