Mexico City’s Teotihuacan: The City of the Gods

Once the largest city in the New World, Teotihuacan is now a fascinating archeological site located outside of Mexico City. (Bob Sessions photo)

In a valley about 30 miles from Mexico City lies one of the world’s greatest archeological treasures: Teotihaucan.

Begun in the first century BCE, this city reached its zenith around 500 CE, an eight-square-mile expanse of towering, multi-stepped pyramids surrounded by hundreds of palaces, residences, ceremonial plazas, and bureaucratic buildings. Home to as many as 200,000 people, it was once one of the largest cities of the ancient world. And then, in the seventh century, it was abandoned, for reasons not entirely understood.

When the Aztecs arrived two centuries later, they were so astonished by the city’s scale and grandeur that they concluded it must have been built by the gods. They dubbed the tallest structure the Pyramid of the Sun and the next in size the Pyramid of the Moon, believing that the two major celestial bodies had been created there.

A painted mural inside one of the buildings at Teotihuacan hints at the elaborate decorations that once adorned the city. (Bob Sessions photo)

And with their usual predilection for connecting everything they found to death, the two landmarks were linked by a wide avenue they called the Avenue of the Dead.

I knew what those first Aztec visitors must have felt when they entered Teotihucan, because I experienced it too: sheer amazement and awe. Walking the expansive Avenue of the Dead, I craned my neck to see the Pyramid of the Sun, which towered 233 feet above me.

A short distance away, the Pyramid of the Moon was just slightly smaller. In between were the remains of hundreds of buildings, giving a sense for the bustling life that once filled this metropolis.

Pointing at the Pyramid of the Moon, our guide told how its shape mimics that of the mountain behind it. “The pyramids were built because the priests didn’t have time to climb a mountain each day,” he said. “Instead they went up the steps of the temple to reach a high place where they could communicate with their gods.”

I thought of the mountains climbed by religious figures in my own tradition, from Moses on Mount Sinai to Jesus on Mount Tabor. The urge to go up to talk to God seems to be perennial and cross-cultural. I’d felt it myself, more than a time or two.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Teotihuacan, a temple that stands 233 feet tall. (Bob Sessions photo)

My musings were suddenly interrupted by a loud, roaring sound that made me jump.

“That’s a jaguar,” explained the guide.

Seeing my startled look, he added, “The sound is made by a whistle sold by the vendors here. The jaguar was one of the animals most highly prized by the ancient peoples of Mexico.”

That wild, piercing sound is indelibly linked to my memories of Teotihuacan, a symbol of the enigmatic power of its massive structures. If the Aztecs were an inexplicable culture to me (see The Aztecs and Templo Mayor), the people who constructed this city were even more of a mystery. I felt like an ant as I wandered through what they’d built, the pyramids so far above me that I could barely see their tops.

Trying to convince myself I wasn’t nearly as scared of heights as I thought, I climbed the steps of the Temple of the Moon, clutching a guide rope that didn’t seem nearly strong enough to prevent a fall. At the top, I gazed at the expanse of Teotihaucan spread below me, baking in the hot Mexican sun, and I wondered what rituals had taken place on this very spot. I scoured the stones below for telltale stains of blood, but saw nothing.

After descending the steps—-a process even scarier than coming up—-I followed our guide to another incredible structure: the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which lies at the other end of the Avenue of the Dead. Like many temples in Mesoamerica, it contains within it a series of smaller structures, because the native peoples of this region often built over existing buildings to create even larger and more impressive edifices.

The lower level of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent has carved heads representing Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, and Tlaloc, the god of rain. (Bob Sessions photo)

Archeologists have removed the outer layer of this temple, cracking it open like an egg to reveal an inner pyramid with a remarkable façade: a series of finely carved heads that jut out from its lower level. Gargoyle-like, the figures alternate between Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, and Tlaloc, the god of rain.

The heads had once been brightly painted, a fact I recalled from seeing a reconstruction of this temple in the National Museum of Anthropology, but even in their current brown, weathered state they were striking.

The National Museum of Anthropology has a reconstruction of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent showing its original coloring. (Bob Sessions photo)

“The period between when this pyramid was completed and when it was covered up by another layer was probably only around 13 years,” our guide said. “But those who lived here likely knew that these heads were underneath, like the skeleton inside a body.”

As he spoke, I thought of the skull/face videos in National Museum of Anthropology, the constant shift of perspective between what is on the surface and what lies underneath.

At the end of our tour, we returned to the Pyramid of the Sun, an appropriate place to hear about the final days of the civilization that had built Teotihuacan. Our guide explained that around the year 600 CE, invading armies had conquered the people who lived here. Its citizens scattered, leaving the city to their enemies.

“But the group that conquered Teotihuacan didn’t stay very long,” the guide said. “And the mystery is why its original residents didn’t return to the city they’d worked so long and hard to build. Perhaps it was because they believed so strongly in the duality of life and death. The city was born, it flourished, and it died. And then its time was done.”

In the distance I could hear the sound of a jaguar whistle, played by a vendor trying to entice a tourist into buying an inexpensive souvenir. But for a few moments, the sound seemed to come from much farther away-—not in distance, but in time.

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