Teotihuacan is on the list of places that you have to visit before you die
Teotihuacán (“teh-oh-tee-wa-KHAN”) is an ancient sacred site located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, Mexico. It is a very popular side trip from Mexico City, and for good reason. The ruins of Teotihuacan are among the most remarkable in Mexico and some of the most important ruins in the world.
Teotihuacán means “place where gods were born,” reflecting the Aztec belief that the gods created the universe here. Constructed around 300 AD, the holy city is characterized by the vast size of its monuments, carefully laid out on geometric and symbolic principles. Its most monumental structures are the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Sun (the third-largest pyramid in the world) and the Pyramid of the Moon.
History of Teotihuacán
The early history of Teotihuacan is shrouded in mystery. Little is known about its ancient builders, including their name, precise religious beliefs, or language. The city became the epicenter of culture and commerce for ancient Mesoamerica, surpassing Rome in size, yet its inhabitants suddenly abandoned it for unknown reasons.
People first moved to the area around 500 BC. Sometime after 100 BC, construction of the enormous Pyramid of the Sun commenced. Teotihuacán’s rise thus coincided with that of classical Rome, and with the beginning of cultures in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Oaxaca, and Puebla. At its zenith around 500 AD, Teotihuacán’s magnificent pyramids and palaces covered 12 square miles (31 sq km) 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.
Still, remarkably little information about the city’s inhabitants survives. Evidence from their murals indicates that the Teotihuacános were formidable warriors and that their aim in warfare was not conquest of territory but the capture of prisoners who were sacrificed to avert the end of the world. According to the mythology shared by most ancient peoples of Central America, the world had undergone four cycles or “suns.” They lived in the fifth sun, which was already old. Thus they expected the end of the world at any moment, which was expected to happen by earthquakes.
For reasons that are not known for certain, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan gradually abandoned their great city around 700 AD. Scholars believe the decline was probably caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources.
About 50 years after its abandonment, Teotihuacan was destroyed by fire, leaving some of its greatest monuments buried under millions of tons of earth. It is possible that the city was deliberately burned by its former inhabitants, or by invaders that regarded the religion of Teotihuacán as a false one – the Toltecs have been suggested as possible culprits.
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.
Teotihuacan was highly revered by the Aztecs and used as a pilgrimage center from their base in Tenochtitlán, modern Mexico City. Already astonished at the size and sophistication of Mexico City (Tenochtitlán), we can only imagine the reaction of Fernando Cortes and his men when they stumbled upon the great ceremonial center of Teotihuacán in 1520. Legend has it that one of the reasons the Aztecs were defeated so quickly by the outnumbered Spaniards was that they mistook him for Quetzalcoatl, who was expected to arrive from the Atlantic in the form of a bearded white man.
What to See at Teotihuacán
Today, what remains 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 (mainly in red). The whole city of Teotihuacan seems to be aligned astronomically. It is consistently oriented 15 to 25 degrees east of true north, and the front wall of the Pyramid of the Sun 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. The Avenue of the Dead points at the setting of the Pleiades. Another alignment is to the dog star Sirius, sacred to the ancient Egyptians, which has led some to suggest a link between the great pyramids of Egypt and Mexico.
Avenue of the Dead
The main thoroughfare, which archaeologists call the Avenue of the Dead (Calzada de los Muertos), runs two miles roughly north to south. The Pyramid of the Moon is at the northern end, and the Citadel (Ciudadela) is on the southern part. It was once thought that the Avenue ended with the Citadel, but it is now known that is actually twice the length and the city was divided into quarters. The great street was several kilometers long in its prime, but only a kilometer or two has been uncovered and restored.
The Avenue of the Dead got its forbidding name from the Aztecs, who wrongly believed the little temples on either side of the avenue were tombs. As you stroll north along the Avenue toward the Pyramid of the Moon, look on the right for a bit of wall sheltered by a modern corrugated roof. Beneath the shelter, the wall still bears a painting of a jaguar. Imagine the breathtaking spectacle the Avenue must have been when all the paintings were intact!
The Spaniards named the Ciudadela, or Citadel, at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead. This immense sunken square was not a fortress at all, despite its impressive walls. Rather, it was the grand setting for the Feathered Serpent Pyramid and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The feathered serpent is featured in the Ciudadela, but whether it was worshipped as Quetzalcoatl or a similar god isn’t known for certain.
The Temple of Quetzalcoatl
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 Temple of Quetzalcoatl is topped with a pyramid, known as the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. 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. In addition, a single slain captive was placed at each of the pyramid’s four corners.
The Pyramid of the Sun
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). It is the biggest restored pyramid in the Western Hemisphere and an awesome sight. 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 (300 AD). 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 worthwhile 248-step climb to the top. The view is extraordinary and the sensation exhilarating.
The Pyramid of the Moon
The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller and faces a plaza at the northern end of the avenue. No cave or other feature has been discovered in its interior. Its form may be patterned on that of the sacred mountain to the north, the Cerro Gordo. The summit provides about the same range of view as you from its larger neighbor because the moon pyramid is built on higher ground. The perspective straight down the Avenue of the Dead is magnificent (and featured in the photo at the top of this article).
The plaza fronted by the Pyramid of the Moon is surrounded by little temples and by the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl or Quetzal-Mariposa (Quetzal-Butterfly) on the left (west) side. The Palace of Quetzalpapalotl lay in ruins until the 1960s, when restoration work began. Today, it reverberates with its former glory, as figures of Quetzal-Mariposa (a mythical, exotic bird-butterfly) appear painted on walls or carved in the pillars of the inner court. Behind the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl is the Palace of the Jaguars, complete with murals showing jaguars and some frescoes.
The on-site Museo Teotihuacán is a good place to start a visit. This state-of-the-art museum features interactive exhibits and a glass floor on which visitors walk above models of the pyramids. On display are findings of recent digs, including several tombs, with skeletons wearing necklaces of human and simulated jawbones, and newly-discovered sculptures.
Keep in mind that Teotihuacan is located at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet (2,121m). Take it slow, bring sunblock and water, and be prepared for almost daily afternoon showers in the summer. 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. There is also a restaurant in the Museo Teotihuacán.