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Published: December 31st 2016
I first read about Teotihuacan on my laptop whilst taking a break from completing assignments for my online TEFL qualification. This was 3 years ago now, and I still remember vowing to see it if I could get TEFL work in Mexico. The mystery of the site was one of the things that first grabbed my attention, and justified my procrastination; archeologists have very little idea who built it. What they do know is that the site was built about 2100 years ago, and that the major structures such as the pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the palace, and the avenue of the dead were all planned and construction of them was started at this time.
The Aztecs talked about Teotihuacan with reverence, and it should be remembered that their empire begun over 500 years after this ancient city was already ruins. We know that the buildings were burned, and the city was deserted for a time, until the Aztecs decided that they rather liked it;l and gave it the name we know it by today. The most common translations of Teotihuacan into English are "city of the gods" and "the place where men became gods", and the reason the Aztecs chose this type of name is because they believed that the gods created the world there, and that the original people who built the city had flown to heaven to join their creators.
Actually walking around this place, even without having read about it with an enormous amount of interest, is phenomenal. It's huge, and the imposing structure of the Pyramid of the Sun is the first thing you see from entrance 2, which is the way we went in. I say "we", as I went with two Argentinian women I met in the hostel. As you stand in the queue waiting to pay, you gawp at the aforementioned pyramid that overlooks the scene; a behemoth of gigantic stones hewn from the surrounding area. I knew full well that human sacrifices were conducted atop those very stones, and that knowledge serves only to increase your excitement. By the time we'd paid and bought water, all three of us were practically bouncing with excitement. This pyramid is actually the 3rd biggest in the world, and building it must have been a colossal task.
A quick word or two about my companions for the day; I met two Argentinian ladies in the hostel the night before and when discussing plans for the coming day, they and I both had Teotihuacan in our sights. We mostly spoke in Spanish, unless I got stuck with a difficult word, as one of them had some conversational English. They're interesting people, and we compared countries, and chatted about Mexico as we arranged our day. I found out that in Argentina the double L sound isn't pronounced as " ya", it's pronounced as "sh". This accent is difficult to understand if you're still learning Spanish, as it's very different, and pervades even the basics like " Como te llamas?" ("Como te shamas") They turned out to be excellent companions, however, and we met up later on that evening to say goodbye before I flew to Peru. Anyway, back to the historical place I've strayed from a tad!
We'd agreed to get to the site as it's opened at 9am, so as to avoid the dreaded midday tourist rush, and we were glad we did. There were already quite a few tourists there, with selfie sticks at the ready! The closest thing to do upon entry is to scale the Pyramid of the Sun, and we undertook it with an alacrity that was infectious. Scaling the Pyramid of the Sun is no joke, as it's 63 meters high. Luckily, there were few queues to get to the top, but that also meant that we didn't have many pauses for rest. We sat and ate some snacks, taking in the view, discussing the functions of different buildings, and making reverent remarks about the place we were looking around at. Only once we'd descended from our lofty ancient lunch spot, which is probably the most disparaging way to describe it, did we realise just how high up we'd been sitting.
As always, it's hard to describe the feeling of walking around a historical site, especially one with such a huge impact on Mesoamerican culture at the time. The original inhabitants of Teotihuacan traded as far south as Guatemala, and were famed for their proficiency when it came to producing obsidian objects. The influence was not only emphasised in their trading; the Aztecs and Mayans, as well as numerous other tribes from the Central and Southern Mexico regions, were all influenced by the Teotihuacanians. Their buildings, religion, and manufacturing all show Teotihuacanian influence. There's a Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent there, and it was constructed hundreds of years before Quetzalcoatl became a central part of Aztec religious beliefs. They were conducting human sacrifices in the temples that stood on the pyramids at the time, which is something that most people will mention if you talk about Mesoamerican cultures of the time. According to accounts, mural evidence, and archaeological evidence, sacrifices commonly took 5 people to perform. 4 held the victim/sacrifice down and the fifth person sliced open the victim's chest, pulled out the heart, and put it into a special vessel from which the soul could ascend to the deity of choice. The body was discarded down the steps of the temple, as the heart was the only important part. Mesoamerican theology concerning their gods appears to have been centered around their strength being directly reliant on human and animal sacrifices; every 52 years, the world could end if the gods weren't strong enough to sustain it. There's a huge amount of evidence for human sacrifices that's been excavated at the Pyramid of the Moon, which is over 40 meters high. Our best guess is that the Teotihuacanians worshipped their gods in a similar fashion to the way the Aztecs worshipped theirs, and the preceding passage is actually Aztec theology.
The Street of the Dead cuts through the site, in a precise straight line that leads one to the Pyramid of the Moon. If anything, the views here were even more beautiful, as we could see the gigantic pyramid of the sun, and surrounding ruins of buildings. As I walked through this street, my imagination took me back to times when people could had been being coerced to the steps of the pyramid by guards. I imagined how fast the heart would beat as one thought about the obsidian knife that awaited them at the top. I imagined the clamour of the marketplace, the ritual dances and chants that preceded festivals, the majesty of the unspoiled view from atop the pyramids. Now, there are houses, radio masts, and other modern paraphernalia scattered about the amidst the rolling hills that encircle the city. I imagined the shattering revolt that historians have concluded is what eventually brought the city to ruin; it's believed that the poorer classes became disillusioned with the ruling classes (sound familiar?) They subsequently decided to burn their buildings to the ground by way of expressing their discontent. Archaeological evidence shows that only the high class buildings were subjected to this fate during the revolt. I imagined the site without the seething mass of tourists, souvenir hawkers, and kids blowing whistles. What a sight it is now! But what a splendorous spectacle it must have been to those who came here to trade from other cultures at the time. Conservative estimates still put 125,000 people there at its zenith, which made Teotihuacan the 6th largest city in the world at the time. I always imagine the marketplaces, the kids running around in the street, and daily lives of the inhabitants. The people of Teotihuacan had running water, they had a bountiful food supply, and they had a culture that influenced centuries of Mesoamerican development.
I'm flying to Peru as I write this, and I still feel a sense if wonder as I look at my photos of the site. I've visited a place that, not for the first time, is going to make me read more about the culture that built it after I've visited. There are still numerous parts of the site that haven't been excavated fully; the Pyramid of the Sun has barely even been touched. I hope that changes in my lifetime, if it's to change at all, because I only want to read more and more about this wonderful site.
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