Teotihuacan

100 BCE-700 CE

I VISITED Teotihuacan long ago—some time in the early 1970s I think it was—during a period in my life when I was fascinated by the likes of Erich von Däniken and half expected to find a startling (and gratifying) scale drawing of a flying saucer on some pyramid wall. The visit lasted a scant two hours.

Thirty years later it's not quite right to say that I returned to Teotihuacan, for on that long ago occasion I didn't really come to see Teotihuacan but rather to seek a fantasy—and found neither. But was the Teotihuacan I visited for a full two days this time round any more real for being viewed through the analytical eyes of archaeologists? I like to think it was.

However, there was nothing analytical, at least in our sense, about the way fifteenth-century Aztecs thought about Teotihuacan and those who had built and lived in the ruined city only thirty miles from their own capital, Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City). By the time of the Aztecs, Teotihuacan had been a ruin for 700 years but its mystery, its mystique, lived on. In fact, even after the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, Aztec rulers made pilgrimages to the ancient shrines, pyramids, and temples. They went to the City of the Gods.

According to an Aztec legend that survived the Spanish conquest, ancient gods gathered at Teotihuacan in a dark time to determine which of them would sacrifice himself to bring light to the 5th world. When one of them threw himself into the fire and became the sun, it was not considered enough so the rest of the gods made the sacrifice as well to create the moon and all the heavenly bodies.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that the theological idea of multiple worlds, or suns, which follow one another in sequence, is common in the lore, not only of ancient but present-day western hemisphere peoples. The Hopi, for instance, live in the Fourth World.

Like Mexico City today, Teotihuacan was one of the world's greatest cities—at about 500 CE, give or take a few years here or there. It wouldn't be "great" by today's standards but, with as many as 200,000 inhabitants, it was larger than contemporary London, Paris, or Rome.

What made Teotihuacan great was not just the size of its population but the vision of its builders, who created a city like no other of its time in the western hemisphere. This city, which at its height encompassed more than eight square miles, was planned from its very beginning.

It was divided into quarters by two intersecting main thoroughfares. The orientation of its streets and buildings, public and residential, was uniformly on a north-south line that was only a few degrees to the east of true north. There was no precedent for it—and no one knows why it was done or even, strictly speaking, by whom.

The plan of the Street of the Dead (named by the Aztecs; it's anyone's guess what it really was called) offers a schematic overview of the ceremonial center of the city. At the top (north) of the plan is the Pyramid of the Moon. To the center right (east) is the Pyramid of the Sun, and at the bottom is a huge plaza called the Ciudadela or Citadel, which includes the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl to the later Aztecs). The latter is a large pyramid even though it seems small when compared to the Moon and Sun.

The Street of the Dead runs for approximately two miles from the Pyramid of the Moon to the Ciudadela but that is only half its original length. Not shown on the plan is the East Street, stretching east from the area of the Cuidadela, and the West Street, which begins on the west side of what is called the Great Compound on the other side of the Street of the Dead. This East-West Street was also about four miles long.

Notice that the Street of the Dead hardly functions as a "Street" between the East-West Street and the Pyramid of the Sun. It is cut through by walls in six different places to form plazas for the buildings on either side. The walls across the Street may be seen on the plan and also in the photograph above, which is taken from near the Ciudadela looking toward the Pyramid of the Moon. Click on the picture for a closer view.

And now the Feathered Serpent can take you to the Ciudadela and his very own pyramid.