Teotihuacan, the Birthplace of the Gods

Alex sitting in front of the Pyramid of the Sun

Before we set off for another adventure, I believe we need to catch up a bit on our recent whereabouts. Remember the trip around Central Mexico we took at the turn of the year? Well, that didn’t finish in Cholula. After staying couple days in Puebla, the next morning we visited Cholula, the biggest pyramid in the World. It was quite impressive, but frankly not even remotely as impressive as the tourists “must see” attraction near Mexico City – the old Aztec city of Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan, is  just 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Mexico City, which makes it a perfect day trip destination for side trips from the country’s capital. The main attraction are of course the pyramids, which are the largest structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Apart from them, there are also large residential complexes, and the famous Avenida de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead).

We arrived at the archaeological site mid afternoon and started our visit with a quick walk around the museum, set up next to the ancient buildings, gravel parking lot and wooden tiendas (stores, selling cheap, Chinese made, pseudo-Aztec, pre-Columbian tourists junk). In fact, with 83 square kilometres (32 sq mi) the site is so large, that there are five different entrances, each capable of handling thousands of visitors.

In the times of it’s splendor, Teotihuacan is believed to have been home for as many as 125,000 people, which makes it one of the largest metropolis of that era, not only in Mesoamerica, but World wide. Some of the very well preserved structures are supposedly multi-level living quarters, but the two, most remarkable are of course the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

A model of Teotihuacan, with a fraction of the Pyramid of the Sun in lower left corner, Avenue of the Dead running across center and the Pyramid of the Moon in upper right corner.
A model of Teotihuacan, with a fraction of the Pyramid of the Sun in lower left corner, Avenue of the Dead running across center and the Pyramid of the Moon in upper right corner.04-Jan-2012 16:47, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400
View from the Pyramid of the Sun (half way to the top)  towards the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
View from the Pyramid of the Sun (half way to the top) towards the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 17:05, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 16:58, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
Nadia, Agnieszka and Alex standing on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico. In the background, the Pyramid of the Moon and the plaza.
Nadia, Agnieszka and Alex standing on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico. In the background, the Pyramid of the Moon and the plaza.04-Jan-2012 17:12, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
Alex, in the middle of the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Alex, in the middle of the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 17:46, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
Nadia posing on the stairs of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Behind her, the plaza, Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun on the side.
Nadia posing on the stairs of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Behind her, the plaza, Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun on the side.04-Jan-2012 17:52, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
Nadia and Alex on the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Nadia and Alex on the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 17:55, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
The entire family standing on the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun in the background, the ceremonial plaza and the Avenue of the Dead to the side.
The entire family standing on the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun in the background, the ceremonial plaza and the Avenue of the Dead to the side.04-Jan-2012 17:57, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
Sitting on top of one of the smaller structures around the ceremonial plaza, with the Pyramid of the Moon as backdrop. Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Sitting on top of one of the smaller structures around the ceremonial plaza, with the Pyramid of the Moon as backdrop. Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 18:08, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 
Alex with the Pyramid of the Sun, the ceremonial plaza and the Avenue of the Dead in the background. Picture taken on the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Alex with the Pyramid of the Sun, the ceremonial plaza and the Avenue of the Dead in the background. Picture taken on the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 18:01, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico viewed from the top of one of the samller structures around the ceremonial plaza.
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico viewed from the top of one of the samller structures around the ceremonial plaza.04-Jan-2012 18:05, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
A view from the sacrificial platform in the center of the plaza towards the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The Avenue of the Dead in front, the Pyramid of the Sun to the left. Teotihuacan, Mexico.
A view from the sacrificial platform in the center of the plaza towards the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The Avenue of the Dead in front, the Pyramid of the Sun to the left. Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 18:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
The street vendors at the Teotihuacan archaeological site even take credit cards...
The street vendors at the Teotihuacan archaeological site even take credit cards...04-Jan-2012 18:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 400
Alex and Nadia running towards the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent on the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico. In the background, the Pyramid of the Moon.
Alex and Nadia running towards the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent on the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico. In the background, the Pyramid of the Moon.04-Jan-2012 18:29, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 400
Nadia and Alex finger tracing the letters on the entrance sign. Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Nadia and Alex finger tracing the letters on the entrance sign. Teotihuacan, Mexico.04-Jan-2012 18:40, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 800
 

The original name of the city is actually unknown. Teotihuacan, which means the Birthplace of the Gods, was assigned many years after the fall of the city. The earliest buildings date back to 200 BCE, and it’s still unclear who developed them. The sudden decline and fall of the site is estimated to have taken place in the second part of the 6th century CE.

The largest structure is the seat of the emperor, the Pyramid of the Sun – second largest in the World, dwarfed only by the one in… Cholula. As a side note here – even though I didn’t plan it that way – accidentally and quite unwillingly, we’ve managed to see the two largest pyramids in the World, all on the same day! And quite frankly, we didn’t even realize that until doing the long overdue homework of checking facts in Wikipedia.

The second largest structure in Teotihuacan is the Pyramid of the Moon. Even though smaller than the imperial structure, the layout of the entire city suggests, it has been the central point of this ancient metropoly. The Avenue of the Dead  runs in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, but it ends (or starts?) on a large plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. That suggests, that the ceremonial sacrifices were either starting or taking place in front of the smaller pyramid, the seat of the religious leaders.

On the other end of the Avenue of the Dead is the third, smallest of the three pyramids of Teotihuacan. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is famous mainly because of the fairly recent discovery of hundreds of bodies buried underneath it. Most probably, those were the victims of the ceremonial sacrifices.

Sounds that, living in Mexico in the old times was even more exciting then today…

A Church on Top of an Ancient Pyramid

From a distance it looks like yet another catholic church, among hundreds of others in this small town. Except, it’s not in town. It sits high above it, on top of a small hill. Build in the sixteenth century, the church is cute – in a sense church can be considered cute, but not outstanding. And yet, it draws tourists from all over the World in thousands every year. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why…

The town of Cholula is just a few miles west from the city of Puebla, one could probably consider it it’s suburb. Therefore, despite the usual morning traffic in the center, it only took us few minutes to get there from the hotel we stayed at the night before. Traveling on the highway, we’ve noticed a large mountain on the left. Despite it’s peak being covered in clouds, we’ve noticed something familiar. The top of the mountain was covered with…snow! What so surprising about it…? Well, nothing in particular. After all in was the beginning of January, and for most of our friends in Poland and upstate New York, that’s a very common view that time of year. Except, we were not in Poland, nor in the US. We were in central Mexico, where temperatures, even at night rarely fell below few degrees Celsius (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit). This was definitely a tall mountain. And the clouds also looked a bit funny. Instead of passing through the peak, they seemed to linger around way too long. Turns out, they have a good reason to do so. They are no ordinary clouds, but.. smoke, and the mountain is an active volcano! It’s name is Popocatépetl and it rises to 5426 m (17802 ft) above sea level.

Cholula is said to be a town of 365 churches – one for every day of the year. On our way in, we passed at least a dozen of them. Even if the legendary number is exaggerated (in reality here are only 37 churches), the number of  catholic temples in a town of roughly 120 thousand people is overwhelming (159 including chapels). Which makes the allure of the hill top sanctuary even more mysterious. We parked the car on a nearby private lot, and started to climb the hill. It’s neither very high, nor steep and it apparently serves as a great exercise spot for local athletes. I counted two of them, vomiting in public, exhausted by their workout. Must be a Mexican thing…

The sanctuary at the top of the hill is a sixteenth century church. All yellow, with white accents on the outside and the usual tons of gold and paintings on the inside. Build in 1575, the basilica of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios has great 360 degree views over the valley of Puebla. But what’s significant about this building is not it’s history, or the views. It is its localization. The hill on the base of the basilica is a man made structure. The church sits on top of… the largest pyramid of the ancient world! Turns out, the conquistadors, in the typical christian, loving and forgiving way build their temple on top of a “pogan” one, to reinforce their superiority over the indigenous people…

Pyramid of Cholula, Tlachihualtepetl
Model of Tlachihualtepetl

Only when we climbed down several flights of stairs, to the base of the “hill” on it’s opposite side, we realized the size and magnificence of that structure. The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as the Tlachihualtepetl is 450 by 450 meters (1480 by 1480 ft) on it’s base. With the height of 66 meters (217 ft), this structure is almost double the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza (even though the Egyptian one is much taller, at over twice the height). The structure dates back to the 3rd century BCE and it’s architecture resemblances the buildings found in Teotihuacan, the most famous ancient city of Mexico. Apparently, in the ceramics found on the site during excavation, there are also traces of the Golf Coast civilizations. Especially El Tajin, which we visited just a few days earlier. To be honest, I couldn’t tell one from the other. Their art, all looks like hieroglyphs to me…

The main part of the pyramid is covered with dirt and therefore keeps the main chambers off limits for the tourists.  The structure, considering it’s size, localization and significance to Mexican history, is fairly unknown. The excavation works started only in the the 1930’s, so fairly recently and could never been completed. That’s because of the small christian church sitting on top of the pyramid…

04-Jan-2012 11:32, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 45.0mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 11:32, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 11:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Jan-2012 11:48, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 85.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 11:51, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Jan-2012 12:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 45.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Jan-2012 12:24, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:24, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:44, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Jan-2012 12:46, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 55.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:49, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
04-Jan-2012 12:28, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 55.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 

We have spent only few hours in Cholula and I wish we could have stayed longer. The pyramid itself deserves at least a full day, and then there are so many other attractions in town, we didn’t have time to see.  Before lunch we waved the mysterious Tlachihualtepetl goodbye and headed towards it’s more acclaimed cousin, the Teotihuacan. Leaving town, I watched the smoke over Popocatépetl in my rear view mirror and I wondered how would this place have looked like today, if it wasn’t for the christian conquistadors, who destroyed so much of Mesoamerica’s culture.