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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The imposing Toltec capital of Tula and its mighty stone warriors

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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.
A panoramic view of the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli and Pyramid C. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Better known as Tula, Tollan-Xicocotitlan was the capital city of the Toltec state in the post-classic period. 

The remains of a residential complex adjacent to the entrance of the archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Before the rise of Tenochtitlan and after the fall of Teotihuacán, Tula was arguably the most powerful city in the Valley of Mexico. 

A decapitated granite Chaac Mool in the Toltec city of Tula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But its influence was not limited to central Mexico as it was also projected south into the Yucatán and Central America. 

Some of the most famous sites in the Mayan world, including Chichén Itzá, are so heavily influenced by Toltec architecture that some scholars refer to them as outright Toltec. 

The Pyramid of Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá is perhaps the most recognizable structure in the Mayan world. But what most people don’t realize is that its architecture is almost entirely Toltec. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though calling Chichén Itzá 100% Toltec is an oversimplification, the depth and breadth of Toltec influence in the Mayan region in the post classic period are undeniable. 

In fact, recent excavations in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula suggest that the influence of the Toltec extended beyond the borders of what is usually considered Mesoamerica’s frontier in eastern Honduras.

A great many “Mayan” cities in Central America such as Tazumal in El Salvador exhibit a high degree of Toltec influence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Toltecs arrived relatively late on the scene of Mesoamerican power politics, with the first evidence of their civilization dating to the 7th century CE. 

It is believed that, like many other groups that settled in central Mexico during the post-classic period, the Toltec migrated from northern Mexico in search of more fertile land for agriculture. 

When entering the archaeological site, one of the first structures you are likely to come across is Tula’s main Mesoamerican ballcourt. 

Unlike ballcourts in other regions of Mesoamerica, many in central Mexico often take on a walled and sunken configuration. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The most iconic structure in the city of Tula is the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli — say that quickly five times!

The pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli is known notable for its take on Tablero Talud architecture, as well as sections of beautifully preserved stucco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli is a manifestation of the feathered serpent deity known as Quetzalcóatl, the city’s chief god. 

But what makes this flat-top pyramid really famous are the four massive warrior sculptures at its top, known as the Atlantes de Tula. 

The name Atalante was likely inspired by Atlas, the son of Zeus who in Hellenic mythology was charged with holding up the world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These column-like sculptures are nearly 16 feet tall and all depict the mythical warrior, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, also known as the morning star. 

The Atlantes de Tula watch over their city atop the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli as they have done for well over a millennia. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The nearly identical figures show Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli wearing ceremonial armor including a butterfly chest plate, as well as weapons such as a knife and darts. 

A closeup of a shield worn by the Atlantes on their backsides. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Surrounding the Atlantes are other elaborately decorated sculpted pillars, though they are not nearly as well preserved.

The carved image of a Toltec lord on a pillar behind Tula’s Atlantes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Adjacent to the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli is a large complex known as el Palacio Quemado, or Burnt Palace.

If Tula’s Burnt Palace reminds you of Chichén Itzá’s Temple of 1,000 warriors, you are in good company. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As its name implies, this massive complex is thought to have been the residence of Tula’s ruling family, though this is hardly a certainty.

View of the Burnt Palace from the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli in Tula, Hidalgo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This maze-like structure has many rooms and niches and is dominated by a series of large rectangular columns. 

A room within the Burnt Palace, complete with stone carvings and well preserved and heavily restored columns. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

On the western end of the main plaza is another large pyramid, known simply as Pyramid C. Though structurally this pyramid is fairly well preserved, it possesses only a few remnants of its once grandiose stucco facade.

Pyramid C is notable for its great size, but unfortunately, it is no longer possible to climb.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The perimeter of Tula’s main ceremonial center is surrounded on all sides, save one, by pyramids, ceremonial structures, and artificial platforms.

As the archaeological site of Tula is located on the outskirts of the town of Tula de Allende in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, the site itself is surrounded by contemporary constructions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

On the northernmost quadrant of the ceremonial center is a second ball court,  which is larger than the structure considered the site’s main ballcourt.

Tula is believed to have had as many as a dozen ballcourts, but to this day only the two inside the city’s main ceremonial center are visible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When visiting Tula, one may get the impression that the city did not extend far beyond the observable ceremonial center. However, this would be a mistake as constructions belonging to the city have been found as far afield as what today is the downtown of the city of Tula de Allende.

Tula de Allende’s downtown and its main colonial church can be easily seen from the archaeological site. Like is common across Mesoamerica, colonial constructions were often erected by pillaging building materials from ancient structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from the archaeological site itself, the grounds of the Tula National Park itself are quite impressive and full of fascinating flora and fauna. 

Cacti of every conceivable size and shape, as well as several species of birds, make the nearly one-kilometer walk to the archaeological site from the entrance of the park feel like nothing else. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

A map shows the location of Tula, in the state of Hidalgo to the north of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps

The archaeological site is about a 10-minute taxi ride away from downtown Tula de Allende and the city’s bus station.

On your way to Tula, you will notice that the area is full of oil refineries and power plants. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you are planning to visit Tula on a day trip from Mexico City, make your way to CDMX’s Estacion Norte. Buses to Tula de Allende leave roughly every hour and cost 150 pesos.

Altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe inside Mexico City’s Estacion Norte. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The bus ride can take anywhere between one-and-a-half and three hours, depending on traffic, so it may be wise to schedule your trip on the weekend or do your best to avoid rush hour. 

Flowering cacti are all over Tula national park and attract insects and birds alike.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entrance fee to Tollan-Xicocotitlan (Tula) is 65 pesos and the site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents with ID.

Stucco representations of Jaguars on the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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