Thirty miles from Mexico city sits the ancient collection of ruins known to us today as Teotihuacan. That was not its original name – that has been lost to the ages. The city was founded in 100BC, and grew to be the largest city that would exist in the Americas until after the American War of Independence. Somewhere between one and two hundred thousand people lived in the city at its height, around five or six hundred AD, but two hundred years later the city was deserted. It was the Aztecs, stumbling across the city hundreds of years later, who gave it the name that we use now. Teotihuacan (pronounced “Tay-oh-tee-wha-KAHN”) – the birthplace of the gods. For surely, they thought, only the gods could have built a city such as this.
Who it was that actually built Teotihuacan remains a mystery to us as much as to those 14th century Aztecs. Originally it was thought to have been built by the Toltecs, the predecessors of the Aztec civlisation, but the dates we known now make that impossible. The civilisation originally labelled as the Toltecs lasted from 800 to 1000 AD, and so did not exist when the city fell, never mind when it was built. In fact, the term “Toltec” as a label for a civiisation may actually be a misnomer – it may simply be the word the Aztecs used in their language (which was called Nahuatl) to refer to any highly advanced (by their standard) civilisation prior to their own. Thus the answer as to who built the city may simply be “the people who built the city”, and like the name they gave the city, the name they gave themselves may be lost.
The question of who built the city is complicated by the fact that residents of most of the civilisations in the Americas at the time lived in Teotihuacan. At least five distinct cultures shared what is modern-day Mexico back then, and all of them had districts in the great city. Of especial note are the Mayans and the Nahua (who would later give rise to the Aztecs), but other smaller groups such as the Zapotec and the Otomi were also present. This unusual ethnic mix may have been the result of a natural disaster – some geological evidence points to a volcanic eruption that may have forced all these people to abandon their original homelands and move to the city. If so, this would also point to an unusual level of tolerance on the part of the original city dwellers.
This tolerance may have come from their unique culture. Investigations of the city have found that multiple gods were worshipped there, and while sacrifices (including human sacrifice) were not unknown, it does not appear to have been practised to anywhere near the same extent as the later cultures more familiar to us. (Ironically, when the Aztecs rediscovered the city they made it one of their holiest sites, and would perform sacrifices there every twenty days.) This is not to say that the city was not religious. In fact, most of the areas discovered seem to have some ritualistic purpose, not to mention the various small household gods found in the homes. Most of these gods are relatively familiar forms of central American deities – the flayed god, the feathered serpent, and so forth. Others are more unique.
The “netted jaguar”, for example, is seen nowhere else but appears frequently throughout the city. The strange interlocking designs covering this creature, and the feathered headdress, are thought to possibly represent priesthood or shaman-hood. Indeed, many of the cultures of the time had legends of holy men who could assume the form of the jaguar. The netted pattern is also often found on drawings of mirrors, and may be meant to suggest that the jaguar was reflective, or suggest an association with the god of mirrors.
The most highly represented god of Teotihuacan, however, is a figure known as the Spider Woman of Teotihuacan. This figure, also known as the Great Goddess, is virtually unique to the city (although a connection has been drawn to the Spider Grandmother of Navajo legend). Professor Esther Pasztory, possibly the world’s leading authority on Teotihuacan, has speculated that this goddess may have provided an object of worship for all of the different cultures in the city, drawing them together. Her actual name, of course, remains unknown. The title of “Spider Woman” comes from her distinctive features – a nose piercing that hangs down on her face like the fangs of a spider, along with the spiders that often accompany her, swarming around her or scurrying at her feet. When girded for war (as she often is in these pictures) her shield bears an image of a spider web. She also wears an elaborate headdress, featuring the two other animals that, like the spider, were associated with the night – the jaguar and the owl. One other unique facet of the goddess is her yellow skin colour, which is not often seen in such paintings.
The most fascinating aspect of Teotihuacan is the simple fact that not only is so little known of it, but things still remain being discovered to this day. For over 350 years archaeologists have been examining the site, such that the earliest “reconstructions” made by amateurs are now historical artifacts in and of themselves. Much of the site has been uncovered. The main thoroughfare is known as the Avenue of the Dead, due to the belief of the Aztecs that it was lined with tombs, though modern archaeology has shown that these were actually the ruins of temples, to the cities many gods. The one in best repair is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, where most of the human sacrifices in the city appear to have taken place. The temple is the third largest structure in the city, after the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun is actually the third largest pyramid in the world, and while the Pyramid of the Moon features several tombs decorated with the Great Goddess’ motif, the Pyramid of the Sun remains more mysterious.
Excavations in 1971 found a tunnel underneath it that opened up at the end into a set of large man-made caves. It is thought that rituals may have taken place here, though the tunnels have never been fully explored. Another tunnel was found under the Temple of the Feathered Serpentin 2003 when heavy rain uncovers its entrance, although this one appeared, for unknown reasons, to have been deliberately filled in and blocked off. In 2013, after years of planning, archaeologists sent a robot named Tlaloc II-TC to explore the tunnel. It found several chambers, including one filled with hundreds of spheres made from iron pyrite, more commonly known as fool’s gold. Offerings such as pottery and wooden masks were also found in the chambers. Perhaps most excitingly of all is that the original walls that blocked access to the tunnel were actually broken open sometime around 200AD, in order to deposit something in the tomb. What that was remains unknown.
Why Teotihuacan was abandoned remains an enduring mystery. There is evidence that the city was damaged by fire, perhaps the result of an invasion or an internal revolt, about a hundred years before people left the city. In the absence of any evidence, however, all we can do is speculate. What is certain, however, is that the city is perhaps more at risk nowadays than any other site of such historical significance. Looting of historical sites is endemic in Mexico, and while Teotihuacan’s high profile gives it some protection it is still certain that much of significance has simply been taken from the site. The high profile, in turn, can be a detriment. Light shows and giant events at the site are often undertaken with little or no care to preservation. There are even stories of the superstructure for these events being screwed directly into the ancient stonework, causing a lot of damage. Tourism, too, can be a serious issue with the site seeing a lot of wear and tear for visitors.
Perhaps most remarkable of all was in 2004 when the local state governor gave permission for a Wal-Mart to be constructed on the edges of the site. Despite the fact that the city is a UNESCO-designated world heritage site, and in with the aid of some brazen corruption, construction went ahead, with stories rife of priceless artifacts being carted off to junkheaps or destroyed, and workers being fired if they gave any details of this to the press. Only in recent years has the scale of the corruption used to enable all of this come to light, and it paints a chilling picture for the future of this amazing “birthplace of the gods”. This city has stood for 1300 years since it was so mysteriously abandoned. It would be a sad thing indeed if it was finally sacrificed on the altar of cut-throat capitalism.