Chances are, you have seen images of Chichen Itza or Palenque, the stunning archeological remains of grand Mayan cities in Mexico. Perhaps you’ve even visited these sites at some point. Considerably less well-known, though, is Teotihuacan, or “the place where the gods were created.” In my mind, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Teotihuacan is western hemisphere’s ultimate pyramid city, vastly more impressive than even its more famous brethren on the Yucatan peninsula. Only 10% of the city has been excavated – and it is still enough to cause the most seasoned traveler to gape in astonishment.
Teotihuacan is located in central Mexico, only about an hour bus ride from Mexico City, making it a perfect day trip destination. It features a large array of remarkably well-preserved pyramids, temples ornately adorned with art, grand boulevards interwoven with remnants of centuries-old streets, and numerous marketplaces. Even a river diverted through the city center in ancient times remains today. At the far end the main boulevard known as the Avenue of the Dead, the giant Pyramid of the Moon watches over a grand complex of religious and royal courts, much as it has for the past two millennia.While the sheer size of the Pyramid of the Moon is certainly impressive, it pales in comparison to its big brother, the gargantuan Pyramid of the Sun. Austere, imposing and visible from almost any place in the city, it is striking by any measure. In fact, at 1.2M cubic meters in volume, it is the seventh largest pyramid in the world (only marginally smaller than the pyramid of the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas.) Built around 100 C.E., it originally rose a remarkable 75 m (246 ft) above the valley floor, and each side spans 225 m (733 ft) across. While that is large even by today’s standards, it must have been a marvel of unspeakable proportion to its builders. Today, it still stands at 60 m and visitors are free to ascend its hundreds of steps to the top to take in beautiful views of the green valley surrounded by hills, as well as ponder the full scope of Teotihuacan.
Just as fascinating as its grand architecture, though, are Teotihuacan’s incredibly well preserved art murals decorating the walls of its many temples, including at the Temple of the Jaguar and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The plethora of temples dedicated to various gods certainly point to Teotihuacan’s pre-eminent role as a religious epicenter. One can see why later societies, such as the Aztec, referred to it as “place where the gods were created.” Red, white and green dyes dominate throughout the religious and royal buildings and this color scheme is said to have inspired the very colors of the modern Mexican flag.Teotihuacan is ancient by any measure, dating back by more than 2,000 years, though it really began to take on its importance and size by the middle of the first millennium of the common era. In its heyday, Teotihuacan was the New York of the western hemisphere, the largest and most populous city in all of the Americas – and indeed, one of the largest in the world – with an estimated 125,000 inhabitants. It actively traded with a myriad of Mesoamerican civilizations, some of which were located hundreds of kilometers away. Wandering through the ancient city, it is not difficult imagine the hustle and bustle of life in the ancient city. It’s quite likely that the inhabitants had the same sense of pride and self-importance as residents of New York today have.
Teotihuacan began to steadily decline in the middle of the seventh century C.E. and was finally completely abandoned after a massive fire destroyed most of it. While it was never really re-settled, Aztecs began to use it for regular ceremonial purposes centuries later as they migrated to the region.
Today, Teotihuacan’s fantastic scale bears witness to the capabilities of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. I invite you to ascend the stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and imagine this city before it was reconquered by the jungle. Just imagine, the very gods were created here!
[Author’s note: all photos except one of hot air balloon taken by me]