It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a pyramid.

Teotihuacan (The City of Gods) may have been named by the Aztecs, but it was around long before they were. Its original name is lost to history, along with most of its history. But archaeologists speculate. (And so do I…)

Somehow, they’ve decided human critters have roamed the area since 600 BC, with small villages congregating near Teotihuacan around 400 BC. This would have been contemporary with later Olmecs and the Toltecs, who were further east. Things were pretty humble for the next 400 years.

The next time you think you’re in a rut and life is boring, keep that in mind. 400 years of humble. Life in the sticks. Or more accurately, the reeds. It was swampy around there.

While life in early Teotihuacan was a snooze, the real action was much further east in the southern Yucatan, in what is now Guatemala, with the Mayans going gangbusters at Tikal. More locally, about 30 miles away in what is now Mexico City, the city of Cuicuilco was and had been going strong, including religion and possibly the original Mesoamerican pyramid.

It’s probably no a coincidence that around the time of Christ, when a volcano near Cuicuilco started having heartburn, folks started saying it’s time to blow off this burg and somehow Teotihucan started growing like crazy. I’d leave too, if a nearby volcano started farting in my general direction – especially if I was superstitious. Fire deities, and all that.

I get the impression that “church” and state were pretty closely intertwined. While the details of the religion are a riddle, the priest class ruled the roost. Is it possible that when moving to a new location, these folks might suggest grander monuments to the gods (and by extension grander powers for themselves?)

Pyramid of the Moon – approach

The Pyramid of the Moon is the second highest pyramid in Mesoamerica. Like Rome, it wasn’t built in a day, and it has seven hills (stacked on top of each other.) The first layer was built around 100 AD and the last around 450 AD. 350 years of high priests trying to be even higher and more powerful than their predecessors. The pyramid stands at the end of a long boulevard, mimicking the shape of the mountain Cerro Gordo behind it.

Its main function was as a platform for ritual sacrifice and burial. Among the sacrificial victims were felines, birds of prey, snakes, humans, and other remains such as figurines and obsidian objects. These objects, and the layers where they were found give hints of the theology, politics, and timelines. The hints suggest Teotihuacan philosophies (such as authority, militarism, sacrifice, and femininity) rather than the worship of a single ruler or deity. Just the same, murals of a Great Goddess of Teotihuacan seem to be a common theme, along with a feathered serpent god that seems to be a predecessor to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and the Mayan god Kulkulcan.

Whatever the case, Teotihuacan was the main attraction in the highlands of central Mexico between around 100 and 650 AD. Based on mapped (but not necessarily excavated) structures over an area of about 8 square miles, estimates suggest a population in the 100,000 neighborhood. This would make it the largest city in the western hemisphere before the 1400s. Evidence shows that Teotihuacan hosted a patchwork of cultures including the Maya, Mixtec, and Zapotec.

You’d think, with such a legacy, more would be known of the place. But by the time the Aztecs showed up in the early 1400s it had become a mystery, long buried in the historical past.

Pyramid of the Moon

A large plaza stands at the foot of the pyramid, suitable for a large reverential crowd. They’d likely have been hyped up by a religious procession beginning at one of the temples and progressing along the Avenue of the Dead.

Avenue of the Dead, looking towards the Pyramid of the Sun

“Avenue of the Dead.” Sounds ominous, no? More evidence from excavations? Lurid tales of corpses lining the road? Procession of zombies, shuffling towards the apex of their existence?

Nope. Well, not lurid anyway. What the original natives called it is anyone’s guess. It was the Aztecs, 1000 years later who named it, much as they named Teotihuacan. They thought the mounds on the side of the boulevard looked like burial mounds.

Avenue of the Dead, looking towards the Pyramid of the Moon. Imagine being a prisoner, being paraded towards your end. Yikes!

Dog person or cat person? The Teotihucanos were into cats – specifically, jaguars and/or pumas. Why? Dig the claws on that critter. It would rip you a new one in no time. Definitely not a lap cat. Cutesy outfits are not allowed.

Even to this day, while walking along the Avenue of the Dead, the shriek of jaguars occasionally splits the air.

But not to worry, no big cats were annoyed in the making of this blog post. The shrieks came from ingenious little clay whistles, slyly demonstrated by some of the many vendors that lined the avenue when passers-by had their backs turned. Yep, it’ll make you jump.

I can’t wait to try mine out on someone. 😉

The Pied Piper of Teotihuacan

This guy was playing a sweeter tune, on a flute, carved in the image of a feathered serpent. His wares also included intricate little sculptures of presumed ancient warriors, likely based on images from murals or steles. Historically Teotihuacan was also known for the creation of obsidian.

Ceremonial platforms(?), looking towards the Pyramid of the Sun.

Did you think the Pyramid of the Moon was impressive? There’s a bigger one…

Yes, it’s the Pyramid of the Sun.

About halfway down the Avenue of the Dead, this palace of pride piles high in the pantheon of pyramids. It is, in fact, at 71 meters the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica. And no, they wouldn’t let us climb it.

But it’s not as tall as the big Egyptian pyramids. And if you throw in modern edifices to ego it’s not even in the running.

Click here to see an interactive comparison of the world’s tallest pyramids.

One place you may have noticed in that chart was the Great Pyramid of Cholula. It lies about 60 miles ESE of Teotihuacan, just west of Puebla. Its claim to fame is its huge footprint. Although it’s not as high as the Sun, it is by volume the largest pyramid in the world, twice the volume of the pyramids of Giza. It also had a civilization contemporary with the Teotihucanos. Although we were in Pueblo, we didn’t get to Cholula. It’s largely covered with earth, and has an old cathedral from Cortes’ time on its peak. Most excavations are at the lowest levels.

Although the Pyramid of the Sun is the tallest, unlike many other pyramids almost its entire size was built in its first construction pass, around 200 AD. As the temple on its peak was completely destroyed, little is known of any relationship with a deity. A tunnel and chambers at its base hints at the possibility of a royal tomb. The pyramid was built on a carefully selected spot, from where it was possible to align it both to the prominent Cerro Gordo to the north and, in perpendicular directions, to sunrises and sunsets on specific dates.

As impressive as all this might sound, we didn’t make it to a third, possibly more interesting pyramid thanks to the quandary of our tour guide: “in the limited time we have, do I walk them another mile for a smaller pyramid or do I let them shop?”

Further down the Avenue of the Dead, we missed out on the Temple of the Plumed Serpent.

Remember this guy from the Museum of Archeology in Mexico City? It’s a reconstruction of a section of the pyramid. Pictures of the real pyramid show it’s in rough shape – time and violence have taken a toll. But yet, archeologically speaking, this pyramid is a gold mine.

In the fall of 2003, a heavy rainstorm swept through Teotihuacán, and a nearly three-foot-wide sinkhole opened at the foot of the pyramid. At the time, the archeologists working at the site didn’t know there was anything under the temple, but the sinkhole led to a tunnel, and the tunnel, carefully excavated, led inside the pyramid to thousands of artifacts. Read this article from the Smithsonian for more info on the excavation and Teotihuacan in general. It’s much more interesting and complete than my clunky prose.

So what happened to Teotihuacan? How and why did it come to an end?

The how part is more straightforward. Signs of fire and ransacking suggest the place had been attacked in the 7th or early 8th century. By that time the city appeared to be in decline. It was never designed to have military defenses. Perhaps the priests thought it was a holy site that no one would attack for fear of offending the gods. A Mesoamerican Vatican, so to speak.

The why part is more a mystery.

Maybe it was competition or war with other city/states. Remember Cholula? The giant pyramid suggests some giant egos – maybe their priests wanted to rule the roost. My religion is better than your religion.

Maybe it was internal politics – a civil uprising. A suffering people may have had enough of the ruling class and choose to overthrow them. The signs of fire and destruction were centered on major civic structures and elite residences along the Avenue of the Dead, rank and file residential areas not so much.

Maybe, at least the decline leading to the bad end, was environmental. The population was likely larger than the valley could support, maybe other regions choose not to feed or trade with them anymore. Maybe drought was an issue. Maybe, because the pyramids were originally clad in quick lime plaster and painted, the environment had been trashed creating the lime. The plaster would be created by burning limestone to produce quick lime, and it would take a lot of burning and deforestation to create that much plaster.

Maybe it was a combination of factors.

In any case, once the overthrow was complete, it appears that the population, many of whom came from other regions, decided to go home. Teotihuacan was largely abandoned.

And after 1700 words, so is this blog post.

24 thoughts on “Teotihuacan

    1. I don’t really know exactly how they’re built, but I think a lot of them are built one layer atop another. I suspect adding a layer is something that often happens after a change of power, when the new guy wants to make his mark.

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  1. The discovery of that secret tunnel in 2003 reminds me that even today we are still unearthing relics from the past that have been hidden beneath our feet for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Here on Java, farmers still stumble upon fragments of ancient temples which have been buried in volcanic ash for a really long time. This surely keeps archaeologists busy.

    I’ve read a little bit about the Great Pyramid of Cholula before, but I had no idea that excavations are still being carried out there. I wonder if one day all of its structures will be fully restored, leaving that lone church sitting on top of it. That would be quite a sight!

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    1. Just goes to show that all this emphasis on “me” and “now” ignores how much history is hidden under the covers, much of it showing a level of sophistication that would surprise a lot of people.

      I seriously doubt they’ll ever fully excavate the Great Pyramid of Cholula. First, because the grounds around the church would be considered consecrated and digging it up would outrage the current day Catholics, and secondly because of expense. There are many unexcavated sites (including at Teotihuacan) that remain that way because of both the expense of careful excavation and that of maintaining the ruins after they are excavated and exposed to the elements.

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  2. I love that “accidental” discovery of the artifacts. It brought to mind some of the work done in Egypt, not to mention what can be found in Texas fields. I lived for a time in an area of the state near to Matagorda Bay, where one of LaSalle’s ships went down. It’s since been excavated, but when I was there farmers occasionally would turn up things like Spanish anchors or pottery shards. So cool.

    There seems to be something innately appealing about the shape of a pyramid. Egypt and Mesoamerica have theirs, of course, but so does Galveston. These three lie next to Offatts’ Bayou, and contain such treasures as an aquarium, a rainforest, and an Imax theatre. I’ll bet the residents of Teotihuacán would be willing to trade — for the air conditioning if nothing else!

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    1. I was reading that they’ve just now uncovered the ruins of an ancient Mayan city near Merida, a modern city in the Yucatan. It sounds like it was discovered in 2018, when they started breaking ground for a new industrial park. All this makes me wonder what current things folks will be “discovering” in another couple thousand years. At the rate we’re going our current “civilization” may be going the way of ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

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    1. Yes. And while I’m not certain, I think pyramids from both cultures are astrologically aligned. I guess back in the day when you could actually see most of the stars at night they had a greater impact…

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  3. Interesting 1,700 words, Dave. Teotihucan is a massive site, large enough to imagine 100,000 inhabitants along the Avenue of the Dead and working the fields around the pyramids. I have visited the site on three separate occasions between 2018 and 2020, arrived early, and was allowed to climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Is it closed now due to Covid? The chart showing the relative sizes of the world’s pyramids is really cool. Although not as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza, I think the Pyramid of the Sun has the same size footprint. The pyramid in Cholula was made of mud bricks that have eroded over the centuries. Now it looks like a large hill covered in plants and trees. You wouldn’t recognize it as a pyramid, unless you pass thought the tunnels inside the structure.

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    1. That interactive chart is kind of interesting, I guess I need to learn about .svg files. One thing I’ve discovered is that chart seems to be missing the La Danta pyramid in the lost city of El Mirador in Guatamala. It looks to be about the same size as the Pyramid of the Sun, not sure of the footprint. I wonder if the Great Pyramid of Cholula was disguised as a big hill in Cortes’ time too? Did he know he was building a sacred site atop a scacred site, or was it just the vantage point?

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      1. Interesting question. My guess is that he would have recognized it as a sacred site given the tunnels inside and archeological ruins that surround the pyramid.

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    1. It’s nice to scratch the travel bug again. Hopefully, future stories from this trip will be a bit shorter. I have no idea what researching the additional sites will yield, but I expect some “second verse, same as the first” things I can gloss over.


  4. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to archaeological discussions, but gotta say you made it interesting to such as I! 😉 Seems like a whole lot of work went into them things… only to become a tourist destination. Sounds like we could be facing a similar demise. It appears that we never learn. 🥴

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    1. Who knows? Maybe, in 1500 years, if anyone still survives, they’ll restore the frame of the Trans-America pyramid in San Francisco and folks will come to check out the works of the barbarians.

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      1. Without a doubt future archaeologists will think we totally went off the rails. And that’s a big IF whether any of our kind will be around to do the digging. 🥴

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  5. My kinda people, into cats! Can’t wait to go back to Mexico. Feels nice to be traveling aga:). We just moved a couple months ago and I haven’t had time to write about those trips. I wasn’t feeling too good in the head during the last 2 years. We got back from BC and Seattle in May and it was exactly what I needed. It was amazing. It was really nice to socializing with different people.

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    1. It is nice to be traveling again, but there are still risks. We went to a wedding a week or two back and now Covid has reared its head. As for the mental part, we’ve survived pretty well, but it help to be introverted. Better to associate with a few well adjusted people than a bunch of extremist whack jobs.

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