view from Sun Temple


looking from the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun north along the Street of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Moon and Cerro Gordo in the background . The green, grass in the middle ground is growing on debris of tightly packed buildings.

(photo courtesy David R. Hixon, American Photo Archives)

If you have been to "the pyramids" from Mexico City, you have been to Teotihuacan. The name is Aztec and means something like "place of teotl". It is usually translated as "home of the gods" but the Nahuatl word "teotl" also applies to the force(s) of nature responsible for existence, life, weather, sun, moon, etc. These forces that affect just about everything that happens from the greatest to the least, can be generalized in Nahuatl as "teotl" forces. The name "Teotihuacan" seems to incorporate a reference to them in some way.

No one knows how the site was named originally. The people who built Teotihuacan are unknown. Their language is unknown. The names we have to-day; Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Sun, Street of the Dead, are all Aztec names from Aztec mythology applied long after the site had been abandoned, when it was just a huge field of earthen, grassy mounds. Aztecs imagined the place had been built by giants and then used by the gods to create the world in which they (the Aztecs) lived (more on this below).


mapYet, during the first six centuries A.D. tens of thousands of people lived here. It was a true city. More urban in form than any other Mesoamerican centre. It is often described as a grid city but if you look closely at the map it is not so, or at least not a regular grid. There are innumerable shifts in the grid lines. What we really see is a close packing of rectangular blocks all with consistent orientation about fifteen degrees east of north. The meaning and purpose of this orientation have been the subject of a immense number of studies still being debated although some good interpretations have emerged recently (more on this below).



This image of a small part of the site shows its unusually urban character and also shows the irregularity of the grid. The larger rectangles are apartment blocks that had solid outer walls pierced by a few entrancs leading to a series of rooms around several different courtyards. Many interior surfaces had very fine mural paintings. These apartment compounds are where the residents of the city lived and worked. There is a range in quality in the different compounds that probably corresponds to levels of wealth and status among the inhabitants of the city.

The maps, above, are from Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Vol 1, The Teotihuacan Map, Rene Millon, 1973.

The consistent orientation, which is typical of Mesoamerican cities, has still not been fully explained. At Teotihuacan, sun-set is in the east-west direction on August 12and returns to this point on April 29, 260 days later. The number 260 is highly suggestive since it is the number of days in the astrological calendars used by the Maya and the Aztecs. Two glyphs on one pot provide the only evidence found so far to show that this calendar was also used at Teotihuacan. The orientation itself may reflect its use, but we can never be sure of this. It just seems very plausible that the calendar would have been used here and that orientation would be tied to it.

After some five or six centuries the most powerful centre in Mesoamerica abruptly lost this status and was abandoned by is inhabitants around AD 650, a date that is still under review. There is evidence of burning and destruction but it is unclear whether this represents invasion and defeat at the hands of outsiders, or a kind of termination ritual intended to eliminate the supernatural presence assumed to have been here when it was a place of power.

In the older literature Teotihuacan was described as a culture based on reverence for divinity and sacredness, in contrast, for example, to the war-like an blood-soaked Aztec culture. If this is an attractive picture, it has unfortunately been wiped out by recent investigations. We now know that human sacrifice was practiced extensively here and we strongly suspect that many of the powerful people who ruled the city were military figures. It now appears that the Teotihuacanos were probably not so very different from the Aztecs after all.

A very good book to read is Teotihuacan, an Experiment in Living, by Esther Pasztory.

Teotihuacan is in the north-west corner of the Valley of Mexico, which is the largest stretch of relatively flat land, good for agriculture, in the whole of north central Mexico. Up to the first century of the Christian Era, there had been only small farming communities on the site of Teotihuacan. Archaeological surveys have shown that in the first century CE the people who had up to then lived in scattered hamlets all over the Valley of Mexico, on the shores of a large lake, moved into the urban zone of Teotihuacan and built the huge structures we see there. It is still not clear why this happened. There are, also, big questions about how a city of 50,000 people could have sustained itself. It seems unlikely that the residents of Teotihuacan continued as farmers, many miles away from their fields. The people initiallly living at Teotihuacan must have pretty well occupied with building the city.

Earlier, there had been a complex of large-scale ceremonial structures at Cuicuilco, in the south-west of the Valley of Mexico, which is where the very best agricultural land is located. Around 50 B.C. Cuicuilco was partially covered with volcanic lava and abandoned. Teotihuacan emerged right after this catastrophe. One can hardly help but wonder if the two were not connected. The volcanic eruption could have been cited as a sign from the gods and used as a basis for a new political order. The people who controlled the settlement and construction of Teotihuacan may have been able to make a very powerful and convincing claim that they enjoyed the favour of the gods and that future success depended on the kind of development we now see as the ruins of Teotihuacan (although not under that name). They may have been proved right. Teotihuacan flourished for about 600 years as the most powerful and influential centre in Mesoamerica. It's presence was felt all over Mesoamerica, although the exact nature of its impact is still under debate.


This is a drawing by James langley of a figure that appears frequently in Teotihuacan murals, known as "The Goddess". This seems to refer to one of the principle forces of nature that the authorities might have used as a basis for their establishment of Teotihuacan. The figure seems to be female and somewhat resembles a mountain. The lower parts represent a mouth (a cave?) with elements flowing out of it.

This figure may relate to the later Aztec mythology of a mountain from which good crops and generally beneficial effects flow. The mountain that lies to the north of the site (Cerro Gordo) may be one such mountain inhabited by supernatural powers that can bring either good or bad outcomes (according to the ancient world view). Human authorities might have considered themselves as agents of this kind of power. This image might represent this kind of idea - that a human person provides the agency through which the powers of nature act beneficially for the people of Teotihuacan, so that a female ruler is depicted as a kind of mountain. The huge pyramidal temples might have had a similar significance.

Sun TempleThe Temple of the Sun is built over a cave oriented toward the point where the sun sets on April 29 and August 12. Recent investigations suggest the cave was man-made for extraction of building materials. Many such caves are known at Teotihuacan. Whether man-made or natural, the cave/pyramid combination parallels the structure of the Goddess figure. Thousands of people must have felt that it was worth while to engage in the construction of this huge artificial mountain. They must have felt that building it at the scale of the natural landform was really necessary to bring very material benefits and to fend off disasters like the Xitle eruption.

Recent studies have made it very clear that large scale Mesoamerican constructions, roughly pyramidal in form, were thought of as artificial mountains. But they were certainly not made to look like natural mountains. The forms chosen by their designers might have been intended to encourage the powers of nature to come there for receipt of offerings and to witness ritual performances. The architectural forms probably embodied beliefs in ways that would have been very obvious to the experts who used the structures.

Recent research at Teotihuacan is presented by the Archaeological Research Institute of Arizona State University.

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