There is little known about the origins of the people who established the Teotihuacan pyramids or what they called this ancient city. Located a half hour outside modern day Mexico City, the city came into existence sometime around 200 BCE, with the major pyramids and structures built between 100 and 250 CE. It was not named Teotihuacan, “the place of the gods,” until the Aztec arrived hundreds of years later.
Teotihuacan flourished between 250 and 500 CE, peaking in 550 CE with a population of 200,000, making Teotihuacan the 6th largest city in the world at the time. Extending eight square kilometers, only five percent is currently excavated.
Between 550 and 650 CE the city experienced a downfall. A rapidly declining population, evidence of malnourishment from skeletons uncovered, and the burning of temples suggest the end was not a happy one. With only theories, it is unknown what role internal strife or external invasion played in the part of demise.
After arriving at Teotihuacan we walked down the ancient city’s wide boulevard, named Way of the Dead by the Aztecs. Oriented on a north – south axis, hidden shrines line the way. The boulevard is not all one elevation, instead dipping down into valleys, before stone steps rise back up.
Our destination was the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest pyramid in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica at 200 feet. The pyramid was used as a temple, but for what purposes is not clear. A cave system found under the pyramid in 1971 belies the sacred nature of the structure, with the cave entrance angled towards the arcing sun.
The line for the pyramid reached a quarter mile from the base, with hundreds of people waiting to reach the top of the sacred monument. It took us over an hour to make our way up the tiny stone steps to the top of the steep pyramid.
To the north, standing before the volcanic mountain Cerro Gordo, is the Pyramid of the Moon. Known as Tenan, “our mother of stone,” construction of the pyramid began in 100 CE. Burials were interred between layers of the pyramid, where excavators found human bodies buried along side falcons, eagles, owls, rattlesnakes, pumas and a wolf.
The residential areas of the ancient city consisted of apartment compounds, with windowless buildings secluding the interior life from city life. Shrines, platforms for rituals, and dwellings are all found in the neighborhood complexes. There is also evidence the city was home to neighborhoods of Mayans, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs.
At the height of Teotihuacan’s power, its influence was felt across Mesoamerica. Architecture and art of the Teotihuacan school was found in other cities, such as Mayan cities to the south. Might and power once radiated from this now mysterious city.
Miller, Mary Ellen. 2012. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. 5th ed. Thomas & Hudson Ltd, London.
National Geographic – Who Built the Great City of Teotihuacan?
Met Museum of Art – Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Teotihuacan
New World Encyclopedia – Teotihuacan
UNESCO – PreHispanic City of Teotihuacan
Ancient Scripts – Teotihuacan
World Mysteries – Mystic Places: Teotihuacan
Paper Great – Illustrated map of Teotihuacan