An ancient religious capital of Mexico thrived a thousand years before the height of the Aztec Empire. Who built it? What were the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon? What caused its downfall?
The awe-inspiring ruins of the vast city of Teotihuacan lie at almost exactly the same altitude as that other great New World city, Machu Picchu, in Peru. But there the resemblance ends, for whereas the latter is squeezed into precipitous ravines, Teotihuacan is laid out on a spacious plain in the Valley of Mexico. This topographical carte blanche gave free rein to the city's designers to try out their ideas about the relationship of mass to area, of light to shade. For Teotihuacan, indeed feels to the visitor like a great experiment in the organisation and control of a large population by means of fear and authority.
The Pyramids Of The Sun and Moon
Teotihuacan covers an area of 23.5sq.km (9sq.mi) and is dominated by the gigantic Pyramid of the Sun which was built on the ruins of an earlier structure in the 1st century AD. Each side is 225m (738ft) long - a similar dimension to its Old World counterpart, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, though its height of 70m (230ft) is less than half the latter. This in no way belittles the organisation required to assemble nearly two and a half million tons of sun-dried brick and rubble into one structure.
Archaeologists accidentally discovered in 1971 that, some 6m (20ft) below the pyramid and running for some 100m (328ft) to the east, is a natural cavern that was used as a sacred centre both before and after the construction of the pyramid. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, Mexicans considered such caverns as wombs from which the sun and moon, as well as the forerunners of the human race, had emerged in remote antiquity. The recently restored Pyramid of the Moon is a similar edifice, constructed in the second half of the 2nd century AD on a smaller scale with sides 145m (476ft) long at the base. The disparity in size between the solar, or masculine, and the lunar, or feminine, monuments are not confined to the New World. For example, the spire of Chartres Cathedral which is crowned with the sun is appreciably taller than the one surmounted by the moon.
Running south from the Pyramid of the Moon and stretching for about 3.2km (2mi) is the Avenue of the Dead. This is, in fact, a series of open courtyards, each up to 145m (476ft) wide and lined with smaller platforms which the Aztecs believed to be tombs. This was not so, for the inhabitants of Teotihuacan cremated their dead and wrapped the remains in a shroud before buying them in the floor beneath their houses.
The avenue passes the Ciudadela, "the citadel", a huge enclosure about 640m (2,100ft) square. On its eastern side is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a six-tiered step pyramid constructed in the characteristic "talud-tablero" fashion with rows of rectangular panels superimposed on the sloping walls. Here, carved with extraordinary boldness, alternate the Feathered Serpent, bearer of the Sun on its daily passage, and the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, who represents the union of air and land, heaven and earth.
Modern-day excavations have shown that the Avenue of the Dead continues for a further 3.2km (2mi) beyond the Ciudadela, where it is bisected by an east-west avenue of equal length. Thus the city has been divided into quarters, like the much-later Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in the heart of modern Mexico City.
Who Built Teotihuacan?
The people responsible for constructing the largest city of pre-Colombian times have not been identified. They were once believed to be Aztecs, but when this race discovered the city it had already been in ruins for seven centuries. Indeed, the ruins so impressed the Aztecs that they named the place Teotihuacan which, in their own Nahuatl language, means "the place of those who have the road of the Gods".
Whoever did build this magnificent city were masters of both the architectural and governmental arts. Their sculpture is at its most impressive in the austere stone masks fashioned from greenstone, basalt, and jade, with eyes of mussel-shell or obsidian. Their characteristic ceramics are vase-shaped pots and cylindrical vessels with three slab-shaped feet and decorations reminiscent of Chinese Bronzes.
Obsidian, obtained from the volcanoes that ring the plan, was highly prized in the ancient world owing to the keenness to which it could be sharpened. At least 350 places in Teotihuacan were used for working obsidian and these probably represented the foundation of the city's mercantile wealth.
Teotihuacan traded with, and may even have ruled over, the central highlands of Mexico and possibly much of Central America. Elegant vases manufactured in this mysterious city are found in the graves of important people all over Mexico during the period 150-600 AD when Teotihuacan was the height of its power. The population at this time would have approached 200,000, making it the sixth-largest city in the world.
The excavation of bone needles and bodkins shows that the people manufactured clothing and basketry. Though none have survived, there must have been books, for they certainly knew how to write. Although this writing has not yet been decoded, it is known that they used bars and dots for numerals as did their predecessors, the Olmecs. And their died makes mouth-watering reading even by today's standards; deer, rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, fish, maize, climbing beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, and avocado pears.
What Befell This Magnificent Metropolis
The end of Teotihuacan is as shrouded in mystery as its beginnings. The seeds of ruin probably set in as the climate became increasingly arid, causing agricultural yields to diminish. But the coup de grace was delivered in about AD 700 when the heart of the city was put to the torch by barbarian invaders from the north, who lived on in the city for a further 200 years.
Thus ended one of the most brilliant civilisations of the New World. Its ruins are spectacular enough today, but how much more impressive it must have been when the black basalt was stuccoed and painted in all the colours of the rainbow. The fragments of boldly designed frescoes in blue, red, yellow, and brown that still adorn some palace walls provide a tantalizing hint. At a time when the grandeur of Rome had crumbled into dust, and Europe was reeling under the assault of barbarian hordes, Mexico produced a civilisation embodying the highest order of social cohesion and artistic sensitivity. But years of painstaking research lie ahead before the mysteries of Teotihuacan can be unearthed from the shifting sands of the Valley of Mexico.