Monday, November 11, 2013


Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
On the central plateau of Mexico, just outside Mexico City, lie the ruins of another great city, the ancient ceremonial complex of Teotihuacan.  At its center, the enormous 210 foot high Pyramid of the Sun towers over the city.  When its was built nearly 2,000 years ago, priests climbed its 248 steps to worship and study the heavens.
On top of the world! Actually, the Pyramid of the Sun.
I climbed those steep steps on my first visit to Teotihuacan, in 1991.  I looked out over the ruins of the ancient city and tried to imagine what it was like when it was bustling with commerce.  The city of Teotihuacan was established around 150 B.C.  At the height of its development, between A.D. 300 and 600, it covered an area of eight square miles and had a population of between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

Pyramid of the Moon
The most important religious structures are concentrated in the ceremonial center of the city and a long, stone walkway with buildings arranged symmetrically on either side was the main thoroughfare. The Aztecs, who came later, named it the Avenue of the Dead because the large mounds on either side looked to them like tombs. Actually, they were the ruins of ancient temples.At the end of the walkway is the Pyramid of the Moon (seen behind my head in the above picture, framed by the hills of Cerro Gordo, which was believed to be the home of the Storm God and was sacred in Teotihuacan times.) The stepped construction of the Pyramid of the Moon is known as talud-tablero, a style developed at Teotihuacan.

View from top of the Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun faces west and looks across the Avenue of the Dead. It is situated so that its front faces exactly the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the days when it is at its highest point of the year. Because Teotihuacan is south of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is directly overhead twice a year, on May 19 and July 25.
Fresco from the Palace of the Jaguars. 
Today the predominant color of Teotihuacan is of natural stone.  But long ago, it was a riot of color. Nearly every structure in the ancient city was brightly painted on the outside, and many had beautiful paintings on the inside walls as well. Paint was made from natural dyes and applied directly onto wet plaster.  Red, which signified blood and eternal life, was a predominant color.  Black represented shadows and the underworld. In the fresco above, curved designs emerging from the figures' mouths indicate that they are speaking or singing.

Votive Figurine (reproduction)
Thousands of handmade clay figures just a few inches high have been found in the excavations at Teotihuacan.  Most of these tiny figures have been found in the places where people lived.  It is believed that they were used as part of daily household rituals.  Copies of these figurines are found in the local tourist shops.

The Teotihuacan culture in central Mexico collapsed in the 8th Century A.D.  It was followed first by the Toltecs, who built their capital at Tula, and then the Aztecs, whose capital was Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City.)  During centuries of disuse, what was left of the buildings at Teotihuacan gradually fell down and became overgrown with weeds.  Their colorful murals faded and disintegrated with exposure to the weather.  Objects that had been left behind were broken or buried.  What we see today only hints at the greatness that was Teotihuacan.
Coatlicue (Museum of Anthropology)
Note: Today, like most of the other ancient sites in Mexico, the pyramids of Teotihuacan are closed to climbing by tourists, but you can still visit the surrounding grounds and appreciate the richness of the culture. You can also view many of the treasures of Teotihucan–giant sculptures, masks, pottery, jewelry and more--in the wonderful Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

My visit to Teotihuacan in 1991 inspired a second trip when I went to research my book City of the Gods: Mexico’s Ancient city of Teotihuacan (Clarion, 1994), illustrated with photographs by Richard Hewett. The pictures on this blog are mine from the first trip.

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