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Teotihuacán, the enigmatic city at the center of the universe

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture out of the Maya world to one of Mesoamerica’s largest and most influential cities, the enigmatic Teotihuacán. 

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The grandeur of Teotihuacán is hard to overstate. It is easy to understand why their cultural descendants, the famed Aztecs, thought the great city lay at the center of the universe itself.

Panoramic view from the summit of the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun, Citadela, and Avenue of the Dead in view. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Teotihuacán is an ancient Mesoamerican metropolis in the Valley of Mexico, in what today is the State of Mexico, roughly 40 kilometers from Mexico City. 

Restored temple complex in Teotihuacán, Mexico State. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Teotihuacán was given to the city by Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs sometime after the fall of the great city in the 4th century CE. In the Nahuatl language, Teotihuacán is often interpreted to mean “birthplace of the gods” or “place of those who have the road to the divine.” The name reflects the Aztec belief that Teotihuacán was at the center of all creation. 

The original name of the city is unknown, but appears in hieroglyphic inscriptions in the Maya region as puh, meaning “place of the reeds.” 

Figure with the head of a jaguar and tongue of a snake at the base of a partially buried stairway in Teotihuacan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacán was first settled as early as 600 BCE. During these early centuries the settlement likely only supported a population of approximately 6000 people. However, with the passage of the centuries the city’s population ballooned to well over 100,000 — making it one of the largest urban centers of antiquity. 

For such an important city almost nothing is known about Teotihuacán’s founders. In the early 20th century, archaeologists assumed that the city had been built by the Toltec, but advancements in radiocarbon dating proved the city to be much older. Some scholars have also suggested that the city may have been built by the Totona people of Veracruz, while others maintain that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state connected to Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya peoples. 

Teotihuacán’s Ciudadela or Citadel, opposite from the Pyramid of the Moon. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This latter theory has picked a fair deal of consensus over the past few years as entire neighborhoods of Maya and Zapotec people have been unearthed within the great city. Though the distance between the Valley of Mexico and the area traditionally thought to be occupied by the Maya is considerable, it is important to keep in mind that Maya political and cultural influence is also on display as the Tlaxcaltec capital of Cacaxtla.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that no Teotihuacan texts are known to exist, a fact that has long puzzled scholars given that they clearly had the technology at their disposal. 

Carved column in the Quetzalpapálotl complex of Teotihuacán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Not content with being the single largest power in the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacán set its sights on expanding its influence and went as far as conquering some of the greatest Mayan cities, including Tikal and Copán.

But Teotihuacán’s influence on Mesoamerica was not only political or military. Thanks to its vast trade networks and relationships with vassal and client kingdoms, Teotihuacán spread its culture, religion and architecture to just about every corner of Mesoamerica, and beyond. Because of this, to this day it is not uncommon to come across Nahuatl place names in countries as far away from the Mesoamerican region as Nicaragua and Costa Rica. 

But the most visible sign of Teotihcán’s influence visible today has to be the talud-tablero architectural style visible across the entire region, in cities as grand and different as Chichén Itzá and Calakmul. Talud-tablero architecture, also sometimes known as slope-and-panel style, consists of an inward-sloping surface or panel called the talud, with a panel or structure perpendicular to the ground sitting upon the slope called the tablero. 

Platform along the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán’s typical talud-tablero architectural style. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city is dominated by two gigantic pyramids known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the moon. 

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Teotihuacán, and one of the largest in the entire world. It was likely built sometime in the second century and is located between the Pyramid of the moon and the complex known as La Ciudadela.

Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the sun is 65 meters tall, or 216 feet, and has a width and length of roughly 224 meters, or 740 feet. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

For the size of Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun, relatively few artifacts have been found within its interior chambers. This is likely the result of the great temple drawing the attention of later peoples such as the Aztec who likely removed many of these items.  An artifact known as the Teotihuacan Ocelot was removed from the foot of the pyramid in the 19th century and now is on display in the British Museum. 

The Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest structure in Teotihuacán and is 43 meters tall, or 141 feet. It is believed that given its lunar symbolism that the structure may have been associated with fertility.

Teotihuacán’s pyramid of the moon features a talud tablero shape and is made up of seven layers of buildings, all on top of each other. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure that eventually became the pyramid of the moon seems to have begun construction in the 1st century CE and was approximately 23 meters long. The seventh and final phase of construction visible today appears to have been completed in the 3rd century. The pyramid was also likely the site of several religious functions including ritual human sacrifice. 

The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent is one of the most ornate structures in all of Teotihuacán. The structure owes its name to the many feathered serpent heads on its facade, which are alternated by depictions of the rain god Tlaloc. 

During antiquity, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid of Teotihuacán was painted bright red. This pigmentation can still be seen in some small sections of the structure today. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Over two hundred sacrificial burials have been found within the pyramid and are thought to have been carried out as part of the dedication of the temple. The remains of people adorned in garbs reserved for nobles have also been found beneath the temple, though their names and precise rank is unknown. 

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is located at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead within the Ciudadela complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Palace of Quetzalpapálotl is a structure within a complex of the same name in Teotihuacán. The palace has survived the ravages of time surprisingly well, but has also been reconstructed to a considerable degree. 

Courtyard within the Palace of Quetzalpapálot in Teotihuacán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Quetzalpapálotl comes from the Nahuatl words quetzali, meaning precious feather and papalotl meaning butterfly. 

Mural of a jaguar found within the Temple of the Jaguars in the Quetzalpapálot temple complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The temple complex was rediscovered in 1962 and has undergone several restoration efforts, the most recent being in 2011. 

Images of birds, conches, and other imagery associated with water can be observed throughout several areas of the Quetzalpapálotl temple complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city’s central avenue, known in the Nahuatl language as Miccoatli, or Avenue of the dead, runs along an impressive ceremonial center featuring several of Teotihuacán’s largest structures, with the Pyramid of the Sun at its east.  

Teotihuacán’s avenue of the dead gets its name from the Aztec belief that the massive pyramids and temples lining its path were the tombs of ancient kings, lords, and perhaps even deceased gods. Photo: courtesy

In recent years there has been increasing concern that illegal construction and encroachment onto the grounds of Teotihuacán is putting the ancient city in danger.  

There is still much to learn about Teotihuacán and archaeological excavations are likely to continue on its grounds for the foreseeable future. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Your entrance fee to Teotihuacán also covers entrance to the site’s museum, which is itself certainly worth a visit. 

Scale model of Teotihuacán found at the site’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

IF YOU GO

Getting to Teotihuacán is fairly easy from Mexico City, as there is a great abundance of tour companies shuttling visitors back and forth from Mexico’s capital to the ancient city about two hours away — if traffic is not too bad, which it often is. 

A map shows the location of Teotihuacán in central Mexico. Image: Google Maps

Unlike most archaeological sites in Mexico, Teotihuacán is surrounded by a fairly dense urban area, therefore wildlife found at the site is fairly limited. Being one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, it is really a good idea to arrive just before 8 a.m. when the gates open to avoid the crowds. This is especially true on Sundays and over the summer and Easter holidays. 

One of the many large flowering cacti found on the grounds of Teotihuacán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacán is full of vendors selling replica figurines, t-shirts and other items to tourists. They can be quite insistent, so if you are not interested it’s best to be quite direct. Prices are often quite inflated, so haggling up to a certain point is expected. 

Entrance gate to Teotihuacán archaeological site in Mexico State. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Teotihuacán is 80 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

Large stone head at the base of a temple in Teotihuacán’s Avenue of the Dead. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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