The Giant Pyramids of Teotihuacan

The story behind Teotihuacan

A sweeping view towards the Pyramid of the Moon from the Avenue of the Dead

When the Aztecs stumbled upon this ruins over 700 years ago they thought it was the birthplace of their gods and those pyramids were their resting place.

An aerial view of the ruins

The 5 km long avenue on which these flat-topped pyramids line on both sides is so wide and majestic to them that they thought giants once walked on it.

The Avenue of the Dead from the top of Pyramid of the Moon

They named the place Teōtīhuacān, roughly translated as “ Birthplace of the Gods “ and its major thoroughfare “ The Avenue of the Dead “ as they presumed those flat-top ( talud-tablero ) pyramids were tombs.

They were so impressed with the architecture of this place they began to build their only very capital Tenochtitlan on the same grand design, hoping to copy their gods whom they believe they themselves were their true heirs and descendants.

The remains of Tenochtitlan in present day Mexico City

Little did they know they were actually picking up on a civilization that preceded them by almost a millennium that has left very few clues about themselves.

And like them their gods were only mortals who had succumbed to war, famines and diseases.

They were not supreme either for during their reign in the valley of Mexico there were rivalling Mayan states south of them principally Tikal and Palenque respectively.

The Maya State of Palenque in southern Mexico

The period between A.D. 200 to 500 must be an interesting and testing time for many expanding Maya states and the multi-ethnic state of Teotihuacan and indeed Tikal was briefly conquered by Teotihuacan in the latter half of the 4th century.

The Mayan State of Tikal in Northern Guatemala

Cultural exchanges also flourished during this period. A case in point would be the so called talud-tablero pyramids – this architectural style of flat-topped pyramids seems to have originated from the Teotihuacan but copied by many other Maya states. They also seemed to have worshipped various versions of the same deities as well, a well-known case is the Feathered Serpent god.

One of the many Feathered Serpent sculptures found in Teotihuacan

We do not know what happened precisely that have suddenly killed off this civilization but there was an sudden upheaval in the climate system starting in A.D. 536 that plunged the world into many long cold years afterwards with aberrant weather patterns that wreaked havoc with many Central and South American civilizations. Known victims include the Moche who left many great adobe pyramids on the north coast of present day Peru.

Excavation at the Moche Temple of the Moon in Trujillo

Fascinating stuff and who could have thought that a massive volcanic eruption in a far-flung corner of the world ( candidates includes Krakatoa, Rabaul and Llopango ) could have such a knock-on effect ?

Anyway present day archeological findings suggest both civilisations suffered the same fate: a sustained period of crop failure led to an extended famine that ultimately consumed the authority of the ruling class and aristocracy, whose status relied on their perceived ability to communicate with deities to bring good and stable weather to the people. This was also the period when the practice of human sacrifice became rife to appease their gods. All to no avail as strife and unrest followed and finally and abruptly brought an end to both civilisations at the hands of their own people. In Teotihuacan’s case, there was widespread evidence of arson and the city or a large part of it particularly the aristocratic sector was burnt, ransacked and razed to the ground.

The northern coast of Peru saw the worst ever El Niño during that period in history

The damage was so great that the city was finally abandoned for good at the latest by the 7th century.

The demise of Moche culture also happened at the same time

Next time when you are in Mexico City don’t forget to come and visit the ruins of Teotihuacan and really there is no excuse for missing it as it only lies 30 mins by bus on the northeast outskirts of Mexico City.

Begin your virtual visit from the first landing on the Pyramid of the Moon.