Teotihuacan – near Mexico City
Teotihuacán is a massive archeological site 25 miles northeast of Mexico City. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. By many estimates, it was the largest urban center in Mesoamerica near the year 100 and the largest city in the Americas near the year 6001. Around the year 500 (called the Xolapan era) the population of Teotihuacán was near 85,000 people2. The original name of the city is unknown – it was named Teotihuacan (“Birthplace of the Gods”) by the Aztecs when they found the city.
We arrived at the site before the gates opened at 9am, aiming to beat both the crowds from the tour buses and the heat from the sun. An online tip led us to enter at gate 2 and head directly for the massive Pyramid of the Sun. We followed up our visit to the site with a tour of the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología), which truly helped to put this place in perspective. This museum is massive and well worth a visit. Notes and photos below are from both visits.
The simplest timeline for placing the inhabitants of Teotihuacan with the other Peoples of Mexico can be show by the arrangement of the rooms at the Museum. The image of the map to the right places Teotihuacan between AD 100-700, the Toltecs AD 700 – 1200 (which includes Xochicalco which we visited many years ago) and the Mexia (referred to by some as the Aztecs) from 1200 until the Spaniards came in 1521. The people of Teotihuacan also traded with the people of the Classic Mayan period on the Yucatan peninsula and inspired some of their cities. According to a display in the museum, “Teotihuacán’s control of the obsidian mines at Otumba and Pachuca allowed it to centralize the production of obsidian goods in the city. Some of these articles were for domestic sale, while others were exported. With its economy founded on the production of obsidian and a monopoly of the distribution of Thin Orange pottery, Teotihuacán developed a trading system that embraced almost every region in Mesoamerica, including places as far away as at the Maya area, the modern state of Guerrero, and the area around the Gulf of Mexico.”
The city collapsed in about 750AD. Many of the markers at sites along the Avenue of the Dead and some of the displays at the Museum cited “strong evidence of fires”, an indication that the city was burned. The fires could have been started by invaders or by a local population uprising.
Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun is 216 feet tall (according to one source3, 233.5 feet according to Wikipedia) in its current form. There used to be a “stone idol” at the top measuring 18 feet tall, but it was broken into pieces by an Archbishop in the 1500s. It is the third largest ancient pyramid in the world (after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Pyramid of Giza). There is a very cool graphic at this link that shows the relative sizes for several pyramids, including two that are at Teotihuacan.
From the sign at the base of the pyramid:
Its erection got under way more or less in the Tzacualli phase (1-100 AD), and in the next phase (Miccaotli, 100-250AD) a platform was added in front of its main facade and the, parallel to it, two temples were built on its north and south sides. Three overlaying levels of construction have been found. The last and most recent can be seen at the base of the north, south and east sides of the pyramid, where one notes that the building rests upon a huge platform surrounded by a moat. The overall shape of the monument as seen today belongs to the building’s penultimate construction phases. According to recent studies, there are errors in the reconstruction carried out early in this century, since it is shown with five terraces instead of the original four. The top of the pyramid was once crowned by a temple where religious rites associated with the deity to which the building was dedicated, were carried out.
There are 248 steps to the top. Many of the staircases are so steep that handrails (that are flexible rubber ropes, not solid) have been posted to help climbers. We read that the lines to climb the temple could get very long – one of our main reason for getting to the site early.
From a display at the museum4:
The Pyramid of the Sun is important, not only for its monumental size, but also for its meaning. The fact that it faces west suggests that, as stated in some sixteenth century texts, it was indeed dedicated to the sun.
The existence of a cave underneath the pyramid also seems to have a ritual significance, since caves were both symbols of origin and places where it was possible to communicate with the gods who were supposed to live in them.
Additionally the discovery of children’s skeletons at the corners of all its sides may be evidence of a cult in which children were sacrificed and offered to the storm god.
The video below shows a 360 degree view from on top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
As always, it’s nice to have proof that you did indeed make it to the top. The Temple of the Moon is in the background in the photo below (thanks George!). We headed there next.
The Pyramid of the Moon
The Pyramid of the Moon and the Plaza of the Moon are at the northern most end of the Avenue of the Dead. Below is a video of the view around the altar of the Plaza of the Moon. All of the temples in the square face toward the inside, which implies to some scholars that this was meant to control access to ceremonies taking place there. According to the signs in the plaza, the square that makes the plaza is 466 feet on each side.
The video below shows just how steep the stairs are on the Temple of the Moon. The upper part is roped off, and the stakes holding the barrier are cemented in – which presumes the top of this Temple has been closed for quite some time.
Below is a video from the top of the Temple of the Moon.
The Palace of Quetzalpapálotl
Below is the entrance to the Palace of the Quetzalpapálotl (butterfly) from the Plaza of the Moon. It was supposedly the residence of the elite of Teotihuacán. It was built on top of several other structures, and is by far the most colorful and most complex structure we visited. There are tunnels that led to several of the under-structures.
There are two entrances to the structure (visitors cannot enter from the front show in the photo above. There is one entrance that gets into the Palace, and a second one that shows some of the older structures including the Patio of the Jaguars.
From the first entrance, visitors can see several of the rooms in the Palace. The most colorful is the Patio of the Pilars (so it is called in the signage).
Carved into the pillars are images of owls and quetzals. The photo below shows a closer view of the pillars.
One of the other structures that was under the Palace is called the Patio of the Jaguars. This is reached through the second entrance. It consists of several “porches” with pillars that face a central patio. The picture below shows the pillars and the path to a tunnel that leads to the next section.
Here are the jaguars for which the patio is named.
The photo below shows the Temple of the Feathered Conches which is reached through the tunnel past the Patio of the Jaguars. It pre-dates the Palace, and there are several side tunnels that show other rooms underneath. The sides are decorated with shells, which were considered precious materials on a level with jade and turquoise.
Further behind these structures was the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados. It housed one of the most colorful murals at the site.
The photo below shows the size of the complex looking toward the front of the Palace and the Pyramid of the Moon. The Patio of the Jaguars is just to the left of the photo. One of the pillars of the entrance can be seen through the opening on the far right.
The Avenue of the Dead
The Avenue of the Dead is a 130 foot wide boulevard that in its current form stretches about a mile and a quarter from the Pyramid of the Moon to the Citadel. It runs roughly along a north-south axis through Teotihuacan, and it is believed to have continued almost two miles further south. There are six plazas between the San Juan River near the citadel and the Pyramid of the Moon, that are stepped up to compensate for the natural incline of the earth leading to the Pyramid of the Moon.
The photo below was taken looking down the Avenue of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is to the left.
There are many structures and on-going excavations along the Avenue of the Dead, as there would have to be to support a population such that Teotihuacán held. The photo below shows some of those structures looking back towards the Pyramid of the Moon.
In may cases structures were built on top of other structures. Below is a photo of one of many examples – this one where there are worn serpents on top with somewhat more intact serpents below. Also notice the curtain to the right; apparently it is pulled across to protect the uncovered serpents from the sun.
A better sense of the size and scope of the Avenue of the Dead can be seen in the photo below of the model outside of the Museo Nacional de Anthropología (the National Museum of Anthropology). This view of the model is from the other end from the picture above, facing toward the Pyramid of the Moon. It also shows the scale of the three main pyramidal structures at the site.
The Ciudadela/Citadel of Teotihuacán and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl
If you enter through gate 1, the Citadel and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl are the areas that you first encounter at Teotihuacán (then there is a LONG walk to the Pyramid of the Sun which is why we entered through gate 2!). The model at the museum above shows the size of the Citadel (the temple is at the back of the Citadel) which apparently was used as the administrative center of this ancient city. The photo below looks toward the temple from the entrance to the Citadel.
After climbing the two big temples our quads were starting to remind us that they were there. But we climbed the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The impressive pieces are at the back of the temple, climbing down to see what remains of the impressive wall.
Compare the photo above of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at the site to the colored replica in the museum.
There is a plaque at the site near a locked gate. It appears that visitors used to be able to walk closer through the chasm between the pyramid and the decorated walls. The plaque reads:
The structure known as the Temple of Quetzacóatl or the “Plumed Serpent” was built between 150 and 200 AD. It consists of several stepped bodies, with “slope and panel” designed walls on all four sides, decorated with plumed serpents, carved in stone, which move among sea shells. Their heads emerge out of the petals of a flower, while, on the other hand, the bodies, which are located along the borders of the stairways, enter the flower. There are also other figures of a monster with large fangs, no jawbone, two circles in front as well as two lateral circles (eyes), an indentation underneath and towards the inside of the maxillary, a tuft on the head and a grid texture, which are interpreted as being serpents of Tialoc, Yohualcóatly y Xiuhcóatl. Recent research points out that more than a deity, it is a headdress which the snake carried on its back. Quetzalcoatl is considered the originator of human activities on earth, creating the land and the calendar divisions. Its headdress represents time, since among its attributes, there is another calendar sign: cipcatli, the “Eye of the Reptile”, symbolizing time. The above makes one think that this temple was dedicated to the concept of time. Perhaps, with its construction, the moment was celebrated when Quetzacóatl created the calendar divisions in order to model time in the world of men, and a place was established to venerate the sacred calendar cycles.
Great coverage and insightful tips. I adored this place and the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Did you manage to find your way to nearby Tetitla? So many remarkable murals can be found there . Would love to go back and explore this place again when the doors open.
Lisa, thank you very much! We did not make it to Tetitla, there is indeed so much to see in and around Mexico City. We did get to do the “cruise” in Xochimilco which was outstanding.