Teotihuacán, the place where men become gods, remains to this day one of the great archeological mysteries of the Western Hemisphere.
The city was built in the Mexican highlands fifty kilometers northeast of modern-day Mexico City approximately 2000 years ago. By the year 400 AD, the influences of the sixth largest city in the world—advances in agriculture, new technologies, trade routes, and religions—were undeniably felt throughout Mesoamerica, yet 300 years later Teotihuacán was utterly abandoned. The city's original name, the ethnicity of its builders, the language they spoke, and the reason they spent over 200 years constructing the pyramids and edifices that remain to this day are completely unknown.
Undeniably, whoever built the enormous Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the vast Avenue of the Dead which stretches for 2.5 kilometers before them were the ancestors of the subsequent Toltec and Aztec cultures. It was the indigenous Nahuatl speakers who gave the necropolis its poetic name around the year 1000 AD, though significantly the site was left completely uninhabited throughout the years of Toltec and Aztec prominence. It is this fact which leads archeologists to posit that Teotihuacán was probably the most sacred site in a New World full of holy places.
It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that serious excavation took place at Teotihuacán. The Pyramid of the Sun was first explored by Leopard Batres during the first decade. The 225 meters-on-a-side monument is 63 meters high and is constructed of limestone and volcanic rock. It is located, significantly, in the exact center of the city's monumental zone, on the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, directly over a cave which scholars believe was used for sacred rituals.
The Avenue of the Dead comprises the symbolic North-South Axis of the city and it connects the Pyramid of the Moon at the extreme North of the complex to the Ciudadela and the Great Compound in the South. Buildings, palaces, plazas and altars extended symmetrically from both sides of the thoroughfare, which basically divided the city of at least 125,000 inhabitants in half. Beneath the avenue is an aqueduct that evidently gathered rainwater from adjacent sloping architecture and drained it into the Rio San Juan.
The Pyramid of the Moon, facing due South, though smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun, is built on higher ground and is thus of equal height. It has been extensively excavated since 1998 and has been found to contain many other structures within its walls, including seven additional monuments, burial sites, and a number of sacrificial offerings.
Extremely comprehensive archeology has been carried out at el Templo de Quetzalcóatl—the Feathered Serpent Pyramid—since 1917 by Mexican scholars. Located at the geographical center of the city within a huge enclosure 400 meters on a side called the Ciudadela, this pyramid must have been the site of hugely important ceremonial occasions. Before it is the city's main plaza, which has room for over 100,000 people. In 1925 Pedro Dosal discovered a grave at each corner of the four-sided Templo de Quetzalcóatl. Since that time hundreds of ceremonial gravesites have been excavated, many of them arranged symmetrically. Quetzalcóatl was, of course, one of the primary deities of all the Mesoamerican cultures that followed the Toltecs.
And the purpose for all of this? Pyramids that in many ways exceed those of the Pharaohs? A city-plan as symmetrical and well-conceived as Washington or Paris? A populace committed to deeply religious ways, to a lifestyle in total communion with nature and incomparably resonant with the seasons and astronomical absolutes?
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Spanish priest and scholar whose writings exist today as the most comprehensive of all European first-person accounts of the Aztec people at the time of the Spanish conquest, wondered the same thing. He asked the Aztecs—with whom he conducted extensive interviews—what was meant by the name Teotihuacán, "the place where men become gods," and he received their reply in the form of a song:
They called this place Teotihuacán
because the kings were buried here,
for the ancients said:
"When we die, truly we become gods,
we awaken out of the dream
and begin to live again,
for this is our happiness."
And so they spoke to the dead, saying:
"Lord or lady, arise,
already the dawn is red,
already the sun is rising,
and the flame-colored birds are singing,
and the many-colored butterflies are flying."
And so when anyone dies,
they say he has become a god,
and to say: "He has become a god"
means: "He is dead."
Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror—the Gods and Cultures of Ancient Mexico,C.A. Burland and Werner Forman,
G.E. Putnam's Sons,
Orbis Publishing Limited, London 1975
Aztec Thought and Culture,
A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind,
Miguel León-Portilla, translated from the Spanish by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, 1963
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico
Miguel León-Portilla, Translated from the Spanish by Grace Lobanov and the author, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1969.
The Flayed God—The Mythology of Mesoamerica
Rebecca H. Markman & Peter T. Markman,
The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula
, Nigel Davis, 1977
Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe
, trans by B. Keen (1976)
, Robert Payne, photographs by Dick Davis, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1968
On Mexico and the Aztecs:
An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Below the Line