City of the Gods: Who Built the Ancient City of Teotihuacán? | History Hit

City of the Gods: Who Built the Ancient City of Teotihuacán?

Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán
Image Credit: dmi-sky /

Known for its striking pyramids and sprawling size, during its prime the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán was the largest city in the Americas, and the sixth-largest city in the world. Situated in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico, around 40 kilometres outside modern-day Mexico City, it was once home to up to 200,000 people and featured stunning monuments such as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. However, in spite of the remarkable remains still standing today, very little is known about who built the ancient city and when.

So who built the ancient city of Teotihuacán, and what still remains today? 

It was probably established from around 100 BC

Teotihuacán is thought to have been established in around 100 BC. It likely began as a religious centre in the Mexican Highlands, with its major and famous monuments being continuously constructed until around 250 AD. At its height, it was home to multi-floor apartment compounds which housed the large population. Indeed, it went on to become the largest and most populated civilisation centre in the pre-Columbian Americas.

A jewel of Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan was a vibrant, painted city - but who built it?
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It’s unclear where the Teotihucáns came from

The origin and ethnicity of and languages spoken by the inhabitants of Teotihuacán have been debated for centuries. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been made up of ethnic groups the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac. 

Others have suggested that it was founded by the Toltec culture; however, it is noted that the Toltec culture peaked far later than Teotihuacán’s prime, which casts doubt upon the theory. What is clear, however, is that it was a very multicultural society, with surviving architecture demonstrating an influence from both the Maya and Oto-Pamean cultures. 

Migrants arrived from all over, but particularly from Oaxaca and the Gulf Coast. Indeed, the city carried on trade with distant regions and was home to many merchants. It is thought that many of these migrants may have arrived because of a volcano eruption which forced them to move.

Around two thirds of the urban population were involved in farming, while others worked with obsidian or ceramics to make weapons, tools and ornaments. 

Teotihuacán-style mask, Classical period. Walters Art Museum

Image Credit: Walters Art Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

It features stunning architectural remains

Teotihuacán was the largest city in the western hemisphere anywhere before the 15th century. It featured a staggering 2,000 or so single storey apartment compounds, as well as temples, a river with canals, palaces for nobles and priests and great plazas. The main buildings are connected by a 130-metre wide road called the ‘Avenue of the Dead’, which stretches some 1.5 miles and was once lined with palaces.

The complex is perhaps most famous for the enormous Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is the most imposing structure at the site. It is the third largest pyramid in the world at 65 metres high. The Pyramid of the Moon is 22 metres shorter. 

Both were built at different times from 100 AD onwards, and were originally decorated with lime plaster covered in bright murals as well as sculptures such as jaguars, stars and snakes.

Interestingly, Teotihuacán doesn’t contain any military buildings, even though it would have engaged in military conflict with surrounding areas.

View from above of Plaza of the Moon and Dead Avenue with Sun Pyramid on Background

Image Credit: Diego Grandi /

The culture practiced human sacrifice

The priest-rulers who governed the city staged elaborate religious ceremonies and pageants. Many involved human sacrifices, with burial sites discovered around the temple in 1925, the 1980s and more recently containing the ceremonially interred remains of some 130 men and women attesting to this.

Similarly, beneath the Pyramid of the Moon, archaeologists discovered buried animals and bodies with heads that had been decapitated, likely as offerings to gods as well as sanctification for successive layers of the pyramid as it was built. 

The Aztecs named it

The name Teotihuacán is used to refer to both the whole civilisation and the cultural complex associated with the site. However, it was the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs who named the site, some 1,000 years after it was first built, upon arriving in central Mexico.

Undoubtedly awestruck by what they found, the Aztecs named it Teotihuacán, which means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl. 

Four Aztec warriors wielding topoztopilli (spears). Image from the Codex Mendoza.

Image Credit: Historic Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It may have fallen because of an uprising against the elite

Though the city was likely occupied until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned in around 550 AD. It has been theorised that this may be due to an internal uprising against the ruling classes, in part because there is also little evidence of foreign invasion.

This uprising may have been due to unrest caused by extreme weather. It is thought that severe drought caused by climate change between 535-536 AD likely led to famine, possibly caused by the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. Skeletal finds showing an increase in malnutrition during the 6th century appear to support this theory.

The final death knell for Teotihuacán came in 1521 after the siege and destruction of the city by Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors. Today, the remains of Teotihuacán offer us an insight into the once thriving, mighty city.

Lucy Davidson