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Pirámide de la Luna

Photo: Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon). The prominent mountain behind it is the sacred mountain Cerro Gordo (Fat Mountain).

The archaeological zone of Teotihuacán is located in the State of Mexico, some 48 km north-east of Mexico City. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, it is one of the most important and most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.

The large, sprawling complex of pyramids, plazas, temples and avenues, was once the centre of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants and may have been the largest and most influential city in pre-Hispanic North America at the time.

These are among the most important pre-Hispanic ruins in the Americas due to their masterful urban layout, the monumental architecture and the strong religious and political influence that Teotihuacán held over other cities. 

The city was built by a relatively little-known culture that reached its height between 100 B.C. and 750 A.D. It was abandoned by the time the Aztecs arrived in the area in the 1300s and gave it the name “Teotihuacán,” which means “the place where men become gods.” It was highly revered by the Aztecs who believed that gods created the universe here. It was an important place of pilgrimage for them from their base in Tenochtitlán, modern Mexico City.

Since no names, images or other references to rulers have been found in Teotihuacán’s stone carvings and exquisite murals, one theory is that city rule may have been shared among multiple leaders, its four precincts possibly ruled by alternating leaders.

Teotihuacán is also a very spiritual place for those who observe the pre-Hispanic traditions and is still used for ceremony by many native Mexican tribes. It is believed to be a place of great energy. For this reason, every year on March 21, at the time of the spring equinox, thousands of visitors descend on the site to absorb its strong energy.

Constructed around 300 AD, the holy city is characterized by the vast size of its monuments, carefully laid out on geometric and symbolic principles. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third-largest pyramid in the world surpassed only by the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.

The site’s most notable constructions are:

Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun):

Located in the centre of the archaeological zone, this roughly 200 feet high and 700 feet wide monument towers over the other buildings.

Pirámide del Sol

The purpose of the Pyramid of the Sun is not entirely understood, but it is built on top of a sacred cave shaped like a four-leafed clover. Given the grand pyramid above, this cave was probably regarded as the very place where the gods created the world. The cave is not open to the public. Some experts believe it served as a royal tomb, while others have speculated that it represented a portal to the underworld.

Since the past few years, researchers from Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) have been excavating tunnels and wells on their way to the Pyramid of the Sun’s elusive base. They have been inching toward the pyramid’s core, entering long-sealed tunnels and using ground-penetrating radar to navigate the maze. Their discoveries have revealed a collection of treasures on a pile of rubble at the pyramid’s centre. Thought to have been given as offerings to the gods, the items include pieces of obsidian, pottery, animal bones and three human figures; one of these, a delicately carved serpentine mask, is so lifelike that archaeologists believe it may have been a portrait. The trove’s position within the structure suggests it was placed there before construction began.

The first part of the Pyramid of the Sun was probably built around 100 BC. A temple once perched on its tallest steppe, accessible via precipitous stone staircases. By the time the pyramid was discovered and restoration was begun in the 20th century, the temple had disappeared, and the pyramid was just a mass of rubble covered with bushes and trees. It’s a worthwhile 248-step climb to the top. The view is extraordinary and the sensation exhilarating.

Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon):

The Pyramid of the Moon is one of the site’s oldest structures, and has long been suspected to be its ceremonial centre. The second largest structure on the site, the 132 feet high pyramid has a huge temple and a staircase that leads to a platform and continues on to the top of the structure.

Excavations beneath the pyramid have revealed sacrificial burials with a wide variety of offerings including human skeletons, animal bones, jewellery, obsidian blades and previously unknown artwork. This discovery suggested that the Pyramid of the Moon was significant to the people of Teotihuacán as a site for celebrating state power through ceremony and sacrifice. Militarism was apparently central to the city’s culture.

Templo de Quetzalcoatl (Temple of the Feathered Serpent):

This edifice, built in honour of Quetzalcoatl, is one of the site’s most important structures. The façade features fine, large carved serpents’ heads jutting out from collars of feathers carved in the stone walls; aquatic motifs of conches and seashells; and representations of Rain God Tlaloc. Other feathered serpents are carved in relief low on the walls. Archaeologists have excavated deep inside the pyramid and found more than 200 ceremonially buried skeletons of warriors, interred with precise detail and position. In addition, a single slain captive was placed at each of the pyramid’s four corners.

Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl (Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly):

It is believed that the high priest lived in this palace. It contains the remains of bas-reliefs and murals.

Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead):

This 40 metre wide main thoroughfare cuts through the centre of the archaeological site. It runs two miles roughly north to south, covering the Plaza de la Luna (Plaza of the Moon) at the northern end and the Ciudadela (Citadel) on the southern part. The Avenue of the Dead got its forbidding name from the Aztecs, who wrongly believed the little temples on either side of the avenue were tombs.

Ciudadela (Citadel):

It is the 400 metre complex at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the central pyramid of this large complex.

Patio de los Jaguares (Patio of the Jaguars):

Located behind the Palacio de Quetzalcoatl (Palace of Quetzalcoatl.), this structure is complete with murals showing jaguars and some frescoes and with ornamentation such as conches, seashells and feathers. Archaeologists believe the scenes depict rituals to bring rain.

The whole city of Teotihuacán seems to be aligned astronomically. It is consistently oriented 15 to 25 degrees east of true north, and the front wall of the Pyramid of the Sun is exactly perpendicular to the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the equinoxes. The rest of the ceremonial buildings were laid out at right angles to the Pyramid of the Sun. The Avenue of the Dead points at the setting of the Pleiades. Another alignment is to the dog star Sirius, sacred to the ancient Egyptians, which has led some to suggest a link between the great pyramids of Egypt and Mexico.

It appears that the primary deity at Teotihuacán was a female, called the “Spider Woman” by scholars. There are also depictions of other female deities, including a Water Goddess. According to archaeoastronomer John B. Carlson, the cult of the planet Venus that determined wars and human sacrifices elsewhere in Mesoamerica was prominent at Teotihuacán as well. Ceremonial rituals were timed with the appearance of Venus as the morning and evening star. The symbol of Venus at Teotihuacán appears as a star or half star with a full or half circle.

Other important deities at Teotihuacán included: the Rain God Tlaloc; Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent; the Sun God and Moon Goddess; and Xipe Totec, the god associated with renewed vegetation. Incense burners have been found related to the Old Fire God, a creator divinity possibly associated with the Spider Woman.

Although at its peak around 500 AD, the inhabitants of the great city had abandoned Teotihuacán 250 years later. The reason for this remains a mystery, but scholars have suggested a gradual decline caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources.

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