Sunday, April 27, 2008


Teotihuacan, the biggest prehistoric city; bigger than Rome!

teotihuacan mexico sunmoonpyramid

Avenue of the Dead flanked by the Pyramid of the Sun in the background.

Where men became gods

It existed in a junction between BC and AD (between 500 BC and 700 AD) and influenced the entire Mesoamerican Civilization including the Maya City of Waka giving a new resurgence to the Mayan culture itself. Teotihuacan means ‘the place; were gods where born’; for them great men were gods; their own gods who were born, lived and ruled Teotihuacan. They built magnificent pyramids, temples and many other monuments for their ‘gods’ and painted it in red so that it should glow in the bright Mexican Sun. Now the monuments of Teotihuacan along with the Pyramid of Chichen Itza are hot tourist-spots and herald good old times that existed in Mesoamerica with Teotihuacan as its center.


great goddess of teotihuacan

A mural showing what has been identified as the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan.

There are evidences that Teotihuacan was an early settlement of substantial size since 150 BC, it is widely believed that it was the Olmec people who gave birth to the great Teotihuacan Empire. By some unknown reason people of the surrounding regions migrated and got settled around the Sun temple; eruption of the ‘Xitle Volcano’ might be the reason for this exodus; this made the proper city around the Sun Pyramid to flourish. The Sun-Pyramid rose to the status of a great religious center; underground tunnel networks beneath the pyramid were built (these tunnels led to natural caves in the adjacent area).

On the path of progress


View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from the Pyramid of the Moon.

By 1 AD to 250 AD the culture was in its growth phase; brisk trade took place with Monte Alban in Oaxaca and the Gulf Coast. This time was said to be devoid of war, strife or human sacrifices if the carvings and murals of that time are any indications. AD 250 to 450 was the peak time of the Teotihuacan City; by that time it became the 6th largest city in the world and its population swelled to 200,000 and most of the structures now unearthed belong to this era. Some of the structures are so large that it might have been used to accommodate construction workers who migrated from other cities.

Spreading to the entire Mesoamerica

Cultural and political interchanges that have taken place between Teotihuacan and the surrounding Maya regions of Mesoamerica were considerable that lasted more than two centuries. In fact ‘Fire is Born’ the king who founded Mayan dynasties and revived the sagging Mayan splendor also was a product of the Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan murals were basically different from Mayan and other surrounding cultures, because simply depicting kings and their successors were not the style of Teotihuacan they created more abstract depiction of deities.

The fall of a culture

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Pyramid of the Sun

Researchers have variant views about the fall of this city; an attack by a rival tribe had been so far pointed out to be the reason does not get accepted by many. The depletion of resources (obsidian stone that was main commodity of trade and labor), drought and famine are all cited as the reasons. A severe drought might have caused unprecedented famine leading to break down of law and order eliminating an entire city nation.

Neighbor’s envy!

The residences of the affluent alone seem to bear the mark of burning holds a view that the neighboring tribes like Cholula, Xochicalco and Cacaxtla had some role in the fall of Teotihuacan. Their immediate occupation of the Teotihuacan also supports the view that these three other cultures would have launched a combined attack on Teotihuacan leading to looting and arson. Many of the monuments bear the marks of systematic destruction.

Harold Wagner (1903 – 1973)

teotihuacan piramide de la luna

view, from the Pyramid of the Sun.

The ruins of the Teotihuacan were not forgotten by the world like those of Pompeii. This worked for destruction of the ruins. The sculptures and even the rare murals that were painted on the walls of most of the sites along the Avenue of the Dead had been subjected to wanton looting and these were sold in the streets. Harold Wagner an American (born in Fall City, Oregon happened to be in Mexico and he stayed around Teotihuacan bought about 70 murals. Understanding the real worth of what he had in his hand; Wagner donated his entire collection to the de Young Museum, San Francisco. This collection is known as ‘Wagener Murals’ and considered an asset of the Museum. Now extensive researches are done to decipher the bygone culture of Teotihuacan from these murals.

Sites to be seen

Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead, the Citadel and Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Palace of Jaguar and Quetzal-butterfly, Remains of Palaces are the main sites of interest. On the way to the relics there are interesting locations like the San Augustine Acolman a four hundred year old church, Shrine of Virgin of Guadalupe which are locations better left for other day since a full day is required for the relics itself.

Avenue of the Dead (Calle de los Murertos)

teotihuacan pyramid


It is a four km long straight and beautiful road that is overlooked by all the monuments of the site. The numerous platforms that are constructed on both sides of the avenue were mistaken by the Aztecs for tombs of the dead kings and hence they named the road as Avenue of the Dead! In fact these platforms were structures were temples stood.

A small museum with many relics received from the archaeological sites is there in front of the sites. This museum also has a scale sketch of the entire site so that a visitor can have an idea of the sites located around. In front of the museum there is a park for visitors to relax.

Pyramid of the Sun

It is the largest structure in the entire Mesoamerican area, it was built in two stages, the first stage was made in 100 AD, the second stage included the temple on the top made it the third highest pyramid in the world. The funny thing with this site is that no one knew the original name of the temple in Teotihuacan language; the present name Pyramid of the Sun was coined by the Aztecs who came there centuries after it was abandoned. The temple built on its top was deliberately destroyed rest of the job was done by the weather. Even the deity that was worshipped in the temple is not known. There is a tunnel system under this pyramid that leads to adjacent natural caves; it is believed that these were used for worships and associated rituals.

Pyramid of the Moon

teotihuacan pyramid

A Platform along the Avenue of the Dead demonstrating the talud-tablero architectural style.

It is located along the Avenue of the Dead; smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun but being built on a higher ground the top of both are roughly of the same altitude. This pyramid has steps made of bigger stones and climbing is more tiresome than that on the Pyramid of the Sun, from the top of this pyramid one can get a bird’s eye-view of the entire surroundings especially the Avenue of the Dead and the whole structures built along it.

The legend of Quetzalcoatl

As per the legend Quetzalcoatl was a white skinned and bearded man who arrived from unknown place; he gained high reputation for knowledge and educated the local people about good way of living. One day he bid farewell with the people on promise of return and walked toward the sea and disappeared. The arrival of the Spaniards was hence taken by the local people as the return of the Quetzalcoatl and gave them a warm welcome thus ringing their own death knell!

The Great temple of Quetzalcoatl in the most beautiful structures of this complex; it is

160 sq meters in area made as per astrological signs; its four axes pointed exactly towards four points of the compass. There is one altar behind that in the front with well preserved murals showing the plumed serpent –the sacred symbol to the culture. The temple is directed towards west so as to enable the priest while entering the temple in the morning rituals could face the rising sun.

Visitors’ part

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Frontal view of the Pyramid of the Sun

The ruins of Teotihuacan are one of the most visited tourist spot in Mexico and its relevance in history has made it a World Heritage Site recognized by the UNESCO. This Pre-Columbian City is located about 25 miles from the Modern Mexico City; the Capital of Mexico and in the City of San Juan Teotihuacan.

Both Mexico and San Juan offer facilities to visitors like lodging and transportation. Buses with a full day package as well as a half day packages are available. Better opt for San Juan as it is less crowded and economical.

Buses from San Juan and Mexico operate packaged tours to all major monuments but it would be a busy round up. Serious visitors better opt for a private car with a tour guide so that no major ruins will be left unseen and time can be allotted as per requirement.