Suitcase and World: Teotihuacán.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Located in the valley of the same name 30 miles north of Mexico City lie the remains of a great ancient city of Mesoamerica, Teotihuacán.

Although Teotihuacán used to be a thriving city and ceremonial center that predated the Aztecs by several centuries,  little is known about its ancient builders, including their name, precise religious beliefs, or language.

At its zenith around 500 AD, Teotihuacán's magnificent pyramids and palaces covered  31 square kilometers (12 square miles) and the city was larger in size and population than Rome. Through trade and other contact, Teotihuacán's influence was felt as far south as the Yucatán and Guatemala.  Teotihuacán began declining sharply around 650 AD, and was almost completely abandoned around 750 AD. No one knows exactly why though scholars believe the decline was probably caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources.

About 50 years after it was abandoned, Teotihuacán was destroyed by fire, deliberate destruction by the hand of unknown invaders, leaving some of its greatest monuments buried under millions of tons of earth.

Today, what remains of the once grand city, are the rough stone structures of the three pyramids and sacrificial altars, and some of the grand houses, all of which were once covered in stucco and painted with brilliant frescoes.

Layout of the City.
It was the Aztecs who gave Teotihuacán its name, when they arrived here in about 1320. The name means "City of Gods," and they believed the gods had gathered here to create the sun and moon after the last world ended. Teotihuacán was highly revered by the Aztecs and used as a pilgrimage center from their capital city,  Tenochtitlán, which is now modern day Mexico City.

Teotihuacán's main thoroughfare is Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead).  The avenue got its forbidding name from the Aztecs, who wrongly believed the little temples on either side of the avenue were tombs.

The Avenue of the Dead connects Piramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) at the northern end with La Ciudela (the Citadel) at the southern end.
The Citadel contains several structures including the prominent Temple of Quetzalcoatl which was believed to be the house of the city’s ruler.

Looking down the Avenue of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon.

Situated along the Avenue of the Dead, about half way between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Citadel, is the world’s third largest pyramid, the Piramide del Sol, or the Pyramid of the Sun.

By the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

The city of Teotihuacán is meticulously laid out on a grid, seemingly to be aligned astronomically. It is offset 15º.5 east of true north.  The front wall of its most impressive structure, the Pyramid of the Sun is directly oriented to a point 15º.5 north of west which is exactly perpendicular to the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the equinoxes.  The rest of the ceremonial buildings were laid out at right angles to the Pyramid of the Sun.  Avenue of the Dead runs from 15º.5 east of north to 15º.5 west of south and points at the setting of the Pleiades.

The Pyramid of the Sun, on the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, is the third-largest pyramid in the world surpassed only by the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.

The purpose of the Pyramid of the Sun is not entirely understood, but it is built on top of a sacred cave shaped like a four-leafed clover. Given the grand pyramid above, this cave was probably regarded as the very place where the gods created the world. The cave is not open to the public.

The first part of the Pyramid of the Sun was probably built around 100 BC, and the temple that used to crown the pyramid was completed about 400 years later. By the time the pyramid was discovered and restoration was begun in the 20th century, the temple had disappeared, and the pyramid was just a mass of rubble covered with bushes and trees. It's a 248 steps to the top of the pyramid and if my lungs allow me, I will scale it to catch a view of the surrounding landscape from high above.

The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun and is at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead.  A five-tiered platform was attached to the front of the Moon Pyramid. No cave or other feature has been discovered in its interior.  You can also climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon although at the top, you have about the same range of view as you from its larger neighbor because the Pyramid of the Moon is built on higher ground. The perspective straight down the Avenue of the Dead is suppose to be magnificent.

The Citadel is a huge enclosure, surrounded by stone walls, situated at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead. It measures about 400 meters on a side (i.e. about 160,000 m2), and the interior space is surrounded by four large platforms surmounted by pyramids.

The main plaza had a capacity of about 100,000 persons without much crowding.  It is believed that one of the main functions of this closed huge space may have been ritual performance.

When the Spaniards arrived, they mistook the stone structure for a fortress and so they named it as such. It is still referred to in such a manner although it was not a fortress. Rather, the Citadel is a well-leveled area surrounded by a wall over which there are several structures including the the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.

The Temple of Quetzalcoatl is not nearly as large as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, but instead it enjoys a central location, lavish offerings and fine decoration. The facade of the temple features fine, large carved serpents' heads jutting out from collars of feathers carved in the stone walls; these weigh 4 tons. Other feathered serpents are carved in relief low on the walls.

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid sits atop the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Archaeologists have tunneled deep inside the Feathered Serpent Pyramid and found more than 200 ceremonially buried skeletons of warriors, interred with precise detail and position.

Given all there is to see and the sheer size of the place, Teotihuacán will be a day long side trip from Mexico City.  I'm still working on the details of the trip with the tour agent but already I'm really looking forward to exploring the place!

The guidebooks are saying to keep in mind that Teotihuacán is located at an altitude of more than 2,121 meters (7,000 feet ) so I might need to bring along my inhaler so I can climb up the pyramids. As well, they advise to bring sunblock and water, and be prepared for almost daily afternoon showers in the summer.  And last but not least, vendors at the site sell drinks and snacks, but many visitors choose to bring a picnic lunch, which almost any hotel or restaurant in the city will prepare.  Picnicking among ancient that would be a lunch to remember!