16 Apr

I know Mesoamerican isn’t technically medieval but I enjoyed the visit to Teotihuacan and it isn’t so off base that anyone will hurt me for posting about it, I hope. I took a lot of pictures while in Mexico. If anyone wants to see more of them, I put about a third of them up on Facebook.

This was a multi-state cultural immersion program with representatives of 12 US Universities. This was pretty structured with visits to various points of interest at several locations in Central Mexico, ranging from a holistic health clinic to the US Embassy. This day was our last full one in Mexico before returning and while the Teotihuacan visit was part of the cultural experience I think it was also scheduled as something of an “unwind” where we could relax a little (mentally) before coming back to the US.

The first thing I need to say is that my knowledge of this site is no greater than what you can find elsewhere on the web. We had a tour guide but a bunch of us skipped out on that because we only had three hours and wanted to climb pyramids. One of the most interesting items is that even though it is a very significant site and well preserved, little is known of its origin or its founders. The site is much larger than the pyramid area which was a religious center for a city with an estimated population of as much as 200,000.

Diorama of Teotihuacan at the Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City. The Serpent Temple of Quetzalcoatl is front right, the Temple of the Sun further back and to the right and the Temple of the Moon at the far end. What looks like a broad street is known as “The Avenue of the Dead.”

Teotihuacan construction began during the second century BC and continued for the next several centuries, until the 3rd century AD. The city was occupied until the 7th or 8th century when it was mysteriously abandoned. It was the center of a large culture, with influences found throughout Mesoamerica, particularly among the Mayans. The reasons for the abandonment of the site are not completely clear but it appears to fit under the broad category of “massive social unrest/uprising following an extended period of population decline.” Skeletons dating from the 6th century show evidence of malnutrition and by the time the site was abandoned the population level had dropped by as much as 50%.

The residents practiced Human sacrifice. Excavations around the pyramids, particularly near and under the Serpent Temple, have found quite a few remains of folks who were killed by decapitation, had their hearts cut out, etc. They believe those executed were mainly enemies captured during warfare or on raids but when things were tight they likely used members of their own population – it’s unknown if these were volunteers.

The Feathered Serpent Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This appears to have been a major point for ritual sacrifice. After climbing it, I thought the others wouldn’t be too tough which I later found to be untrue.

Facade from the Temple of Quetzalcoatl on display in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I neglected to write down whether this is a reproduction or something transported from the site. My apologies for the image quality. I bought a new camera for this trip and evidently hadn’t figured out the settings for use without the flash. I have pics from the site but this is much better, despite the fuzziness.

The Aztecs took over the site and used it for religious rituals. They also built several temples on top of the original structures. For the most part these did not survive as well as the original structures but often helped to protect the underlying remains.

Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun is the largest structure at Teotihuacan and the third largest ancient pyramid in the world, slightly smaller than the Great Pyramid of Giza and significantly smaller (though taller) than the Mesoamerican Great Pyramid of Cholula, also located in Mexico. It’s 75 meters (246 feet) tall.

Me, standing before the Temple of the Sun. This is the only picture of me I’ll show since in the rest I’m mainly standing with my mouth open and eyes closed waiting for my heart rate and breathing to return to normal.

The function of the Temple hasn’t been pinpointed. An altar was built on top of the pyramid but hasn’t survived and few artifacts have been recovered from within. A royal tomb appears to be the most popular hypothesis but the interior chambers have been looted and not much has been found. It does not appear to have been a place of Human sacrifice however, or if it was, the bodies were interred elsewhere.

As for the climb, it was tough. I took it in sections, pausing at each level to wait for my heart rate and breathing to return to normal before going on to the next. About 3/4 of the way up you may notice a section where the pyramid juts out a bit. That stretch of steps was murder – steep and each step was extremely tall with narrow places to put your feet. Someone told me that was put there because the priests used to run the whole way up and that slowed them down. I have a feeling this is a myth but if it was true those priests were some tough dudes. I had enough trouble just walking.

Temple of the Moon

Temple of the Moon, picture taken from on top of the Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Moon, located at the North end of the site, appears to have been used for a combination of purposes. Rituals to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan were conducted there; she was the Goddess of fertility and earth. Sacrifices were carried out there and tombs have been found within it.

I have to mention two things. First, I wasn’t climbing this. Hauling my old, fat carcass up and down the Temple of the Sun had finished me. I was going to go to the base, snap some pictures, then wait for the vendors roaming around the site to swarm me. Those folks were all over but you could get away from them by climbing a pyramid. When I reached the base of the Temple of the Moon I saw this older gentleman, 75 years old at least, on his way back down, helping a 2-3 year old down. My first thought was, “That toddler climbed that?” Well, I don’t care if he was Super-Toddler – he didn’t climb it. That old man had carried that kid up the steps. After that, I had to climb it. That or turn in my man card.

The second thing I learned is how I will die. At some future point I’ll look at something which I could have done fairly easily 20 years and 50 lbs ago, give it a try and fail in a spectacular, fatal way. I survived this one, but eventually I won’t. That’s OK – there are far, far worse ways to go.

Temple of the Moon. At this point there was no way I was climbing it.

The height of this climb was much less than for the Temple of the Sun, surely less than a hundred feet. But the steps were about a meter high and the foot-rests about 6″(15 cm.) wide. Tough haul. Fortunately (for me anyway) you were only allowed to climb to the first level. But it provided some great views of the site.

Looking South from the Temple of the Moon along the Avenue of the Dead. The Sun Pyramid is on the left.

Picture of the Temple of the Sun, taken from the Temple of the Moon. This may be my favorite picture I took at Teotihuacan.

I enjoyed this visit very much. I wish we’d had more than three hours because there was much more to see. There was access to areas beneath the ruins at several points but I only visited one of them. Some excavation has been done of the surrounding city and I didn’t have time for that either. One day I expect to return to fill in those gaps.

I know this isn’t strictly medieval but in this hemisphere this is about the best I can do. You just don’t get the sense of age in many places which I’ve been told you can find in Europe. Again, for more pictures you can check out the ones I posted on Facebook, about a quarter of the total I took over the week.


Posted by on April 16, 2011 in Not Really Medieval


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2 responses to “Teotihuacan

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    April 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Have you ever been to Cahokia? Not nearly as flashy but old and close

  2. Curt Emanuel

    April 17, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    No, I haven't. I keep thinking I'll pop by sometime when I'm in St. Louis but I haven't. I'm a bit embarrassed by how little I've taken advantage of historical sites within reach. For example, I'm originally from upstate NY. There are dozens of US Revolutionary War and Iroquois Native American sites within an hour's drive but I've visited very few of them, despite returning there at least once a year for the past 20 years.


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