Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archaeological sites. Incredibly well-preserved, despite a fire which tore through the city in the 7th century, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains a hugely popular destination for international and domestic tourists alike.
History of Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan reached its zenith around the year 400AD: it sprawled over 30 square kilometres and housed around 150,000 people, making it roughly the 6th largest city in the world at the time. The city’s relatively sudden collapse remains something of a mystery to historians and archaeologists – some believe it was sacked and burned by neighbouring rival city states, whilst others have correlated the city’s decline with major droughts and climate change at that time.
Whilst today the buildings around the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) are grey, they would once have been painted with bright ceremonial murals. The road still forms the heart of the complex today: over 40m wide, most of the 4km site is centred around it.
Literally translated as the place “where gods are created”, Teotihuacan was clearly a city of significant religious importance to its inhabitants, as illustrated by the wealth of monuments at the site. Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments.
Teotihuacan is a big site, so go wearing comfortable footwear and take a hat / raincoat – there isn’t much shelter from the elements. Bring water and refreshments if you don’t want to buy overpriced food on site. Take your time, photograph a map on arrival, and enjoy this majestic site. Climbing the pyramids where possible gives phenomenal views and helps understand the layout of the site.
1. La Ciudadela
La Ciudadela is a large sunken square complex: many believe it served as the city’s administrative centre and as the residence of the ruler. Its walls, topped with 15 pyramids, are sculpted in relief and contain traces of the original bright colours that they would have been painted. Look out for the heads of Quetzacoatl and Tlaloc, which also feature.
This complex also encloses the Temple of Quetzacoatl, which was another site of ritual sacrifice. Teotihuacan was a cultural melting pot, with a variety of ethnicities living in the city. The same was true of those they sacrificed: DNA testing suggests they were brought from a variety of corners of Mesoamerica to Teotihuacan.
2. Pirámide del Sol
The third largest pyramid in the world, the Pyramid of the Sun remains one of the most awe-inspiring features of Teotihuacan. Unusually, the pyramid was built almost all at once: typically, structures were built on top of existing structures, building up over time. There would once have been an altar atop the pyramid.
The Pyramid is nearly 70m high, and built from 2.5 million tonnes of stone and earth. It was built on an incredibly specific axis and alignment: the rest of the city was built in accordance to the cardinal points of the pyramid.
In the early 20th century, much of the original pyramid was destroyed when an enthusiastic archaeologist, Leopoldo Batres, blasted large amounts of the south-facing side with dynamite in an attempt to discover the foundations. This was subsequently rebuilt to the structure standing today. The purpose and deity associated with the Pyramid of the Sun remain unknown, and little has been excavated from the site around it.
3. Pirámide de la Luna
The Pyramid of the Moon sits at the end of the Calzada de los Muertos, and completes the symmetry of the temple complex. Like its slightly older sister, the Pyramid of the Sun, it can be climbed, giving panoramic views across the whole site: the pyramid is approximately 43m tall.
It is widely understood that the Pyramid was used as the backdrop for ritual sacrifices, and as a burial ground for sacrificial victims: excavations have found a range of personal possessions and bones that fit with this interpretation.
The pyramid was dedicated to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, a goddess associated with water, fertility and the earth. Historians have hypothesised that this is therefore what the moon was also linked to, given the pyramid’s name.
4. Museo del Sitio
Make sure you fit in a visit to the Museo del Sitio, which contains a variety of artefacts discovered at Teotihuacan – from everyday objects like ceramics and knives to ornamental jewellery and religious objects, the full span of life at Teotihuacan is on show. There’s also a very handy model of the whole city if you want to visualise what it would have looked like.
Getting to Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan is on the sprawling outskirts of Mexico City in the modern day. It’s accessible by public bus from Autobus del Norte, or you can go on organised day trip. Taxis are expensive and slow but arguably the easiest way of getting there, especially if you don’t feel comfortable navigating Mexican public transport.
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