In a valley 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, the ruins of Teotihuacan speak of the ancient civilizations of Mexico. Here the roads and pyramids are aligned with the places where the sun rises on the Summer Solstice, where Venus rises as the morning star and sets as the evening star, and even line up with the placement of Sirius, the star we know as the “Dog Star”. Sometime around 100 BC peoples of unknown origin came into the valley to establish a city that would hold 100,000-250,000 people by 450 AD. (Those widely varying population estimates came from some of the dozens of pamphlets, internet articles, and Museum of Anthropology plaques I read.) The influence of the Teotihuacans spread as far south as Tikal and other Guatemalan cities, west to the Veracruz area, and perhaps to the Pacific Coast. They made objects of obsidian discovered in many ancient cities in MesoAmerica. .
Discoveries are still being made at Teotihuacan to this day, including a 300 foot shaft underneath the Pyramid of the Moon, with skeletons of humans and jaguars, and fantastic balls which were probably coated with metal alloys. Recently a Wal-Mart was built right near the site in the picture. Workers were fired when they protested the removal and secret dumping of artifacts.
I visited here October 30 as part of a five-day trip exploring Mexico City. It was easy to take a taxi from our central hotel to a huge bus terminal, and from there a bus out to the ruins. The complex has a restaurant, many gift shops, and assorted vendors with local crafts, some quite stunning. We spent about four hours there, not enough time to see everything. Even though many tour buses deliver tourists there all day long, the complex is so huge that only when I was squeezed into small spaces with twenty others did I feel crowded.
After sixteen centuries rock walls still show the meticulous craftsmanship of the workers. Complex murals of jaguars, qeuzalpapalotl (bird-butterfly), serpents and mythological beings painted in red, green, blue and cream decorated the stucco walls of the homes and temples.
Teotihuacan is at an elevation of 7000′ above sea level, even higher than Mexico City. It’s one reason to acclimate for a few days in Mexico City , and to climb lots of stairs in your hotels before attempting to climb the pyramids. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third highest pyramid in the world, so of course Goat Woman had to climb it to see the view from the top, which involved lots of panting and puffing and a few stops along the way. Before climbing I contemplated the pyramid and imagined it as it looked in 450 AD, decorated and with a temple perched at the apex.
On top the views stretch north to the Pyramid of the Moon and the hills that echo the pyramid’s shape. Even farther to the northeast, right in a line with the wide Avenue of the Dead, lies an even larger mountain which isn’t visible even from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Did the architects of the complex know it was there?
This illustration shows an artist’s conception of the Pyramid of the Moon as it may have looked. The text is in Spanish, English and Nahuatl (the language of the peoples who lived in this area before Cortez arrived). Even though there were many languages being spoken by the visitors that day, we all sounded the same as we climbed the even-steeper Pyramid of the Moon, “whew…pant, pant, pant…huh, huh, huh”. But then there were some younger folks who maybe lived in Mexico City and had the advantage of living at altitude who sprinted up to the top!
Around 700 AD a mass exodus of people began, and then unidentified people burned the beautiful city of Teotihuacan. When the Aztecs arrived from the north in the area that is now Mexico City around 1300 AD they traveled to Teotihuacan and found it almost deserted. The Aztecs may have copied pyramid designs they saw there when they built Tenochtitlan, the grand city built on an island that became Mexico City. One model at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City shows the area around Mexico City with the causeways built by the Aztecs.
Diego Rivera, the famous muralist of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s painted scenes of Tenochtitlan on the walls of the National Palace, showing the great road leading into the city that so stunned Cortez when he arrived in 1519. In the foreground commerce and maybe even seduction take place. In the background bloodstains from the many ritual executions flow down the tops of the pyramid steps, and the fantastical pyramids of the central plaza of Tenochtitlan rise from the lake.
Here are some representations of what Cortez destroyed. Some said the Aztecs and their bloody religion of sacrifice needed to be crushed. Some said Cortez was a greedy Spaniard with no goal but wealth and glory. Some could draw parallels to the struggles of today for religious supremacy and power.
Mexico City probably began with a small settlement on Chapultepec Hill, to take advantage of the numerous springs, and now is a city of over 22 million. In the next blog I’ll explore modern Mexico City. Here is a view from Chapultepec Hill that Montezuma, king of the Aztecs, could never have imagined.