Teotihuacan: Place of the Gods
History of Civilization I
Teotihuacan, the name of the magnificent and dramatic urban center about thirty-three miles north-east of modern day Mexico City, has been variously translated from the Nahua language of the Aztec people as “the dwelling place of the gods” and “the place where men become gods”. (Baldwin) Names of the city and buildings all come from the Aztecs. It is believed that their religion was composed of a female deity, the “Great Goddess”, who dominated cave and mountain ritual, divination, and may have also had solar associations. While a male god, the “Storm God”, presided over water and violent weather. (Miller, M) Around 100 BCE the city started to form from clusters of agricultural villages, and by 200 CE Teotihuacan was growing rapidly into a very large city and civilization. It reached its peak by about 500 CE where the population possibly reached anywhere from 125,000 to more than 200,000. There were more than 500 workshops for objects of wood, ceramic, and obsidian. Obsidian was one of the areas strategic resources. (Miller, R) Due it its size, structure, and all around magnificence Teotihuacan was the first truly urban Mesoamerican civilization.
Teotihuacan was formatted in a type of grid shape. (See picture 1 and 2) It was centered on what was called “Miccaotli”(Miller, M) or “the Avenue of the Dead” which runs from north to south. (See picture 3 and 4) The now dry San Juan River bed transverses the avenue from east to west. This river may have been one of the main water supplies and a good reason for the rise of such a massive civilization. This ceremonial center of the city is about 1.2 miles long and is spanned by the cities three major structures. At the north end is the Pyramid of the Moon. Beyond the summit of the Pyramid of the Moon there stands the dun-colored “Cero Gordo”, the Big Mountain. (See picture 5) Its ancient name is “Tenan”, Mother of the waters. (Baldwin) The Pyramid of the Moon stands about 138 feet high and features a huge open courtyard. The pyramid is dedicated to the “Great Goddess” who is said to have provided the springs of water and other religious purposes as mentioned earlier.
Southeast of the Pyramid of the Moon rises the Pyramid of the Sun. (see picture 6) This pyramid has five sloping tiers with platforms, and stands about 213 feet high. It is one of the largest pre-Columbian structures and even one of the largest in North America for a while. This massive structure was constructed of dirt, rock, and like the other structures, was faced with stone that was stuccoed and brightly painted. It was built over a multi-chambered cave and is thought that this symbolizes perhaps the commemorated human creation and the emergence from caves. (Miller, M)
The last major structure of Teotihuacan is on the right at the start of the “Avenue of the Dead” in the south of the great city. The “Temple of the Plumed (Feathered) Serpent or Quetzalcoatl” was the last temple to be built. (See picture 7) It had seven original tiers that displayed exactly 365 heads. The heads are of the fanged, feather-collared serpent the Teotihuancan worshipped as the god of warfare and blood sacrifice. (Pasztory) Each head is about four tons. The snout is square and open, and the jaw is fanged similar to that of a jaguar. The nose, too, is feline, and the eyes are black circles. (See picture 8) There have been over 100 skeletons, almost all victims of what must have been massive human sacrifice rituals, apparently dedications to the cult of war. (Baldwin)
In the grid pattern of the city each section contained apartments built around enclosed patios and courtyards. Most of the residents probably lived from the cultivation of adjacent lands. Evidence of irrigation channels for those fields suggests competence in hydraulic engineering as well as advanced agronomic technology. (Miller, R) Archaeology has produced evidence of ethnic neighborhoods and barrios of craft specialists, and all were contained within the grid. There are no written records, except for some glyphs, to document the rise and fall of the city, nor are there any oral traditions. All of the information found today comes from the excavation of more than four thousand buildings. Teotihuacan began as a theocracy, controlled and administered by a priestly class. The priests had a sacred obligation to celebrate the creation story sanctifying the ground whereon they lived. It grew into a thriving metropolis with architects, artists, and artisans with workshops; a military class; and farmers who lived on the outskirts of the city and cultivated their fertile lands. Then around 500 CE Teotihuacan’s population began to decline. By 800 CE it was an abandoned city. No one really knows what exactly happen to the civilization. Many ideas have come about, like environmental degradation, invasion, and revolt. Teotihuancan exercised broad influence throughout the emerging Mesoamerican culture in the first centuries CE. The natural flow into Teotihuacan from the Gulf Coast Olmec religions has been demonstrated. The far-flung flow of routes out of the city is evident in other areas where the Plumed Serpent reared his head: as far north as Zuni of New Mexico, the Hopi in Arizona, and the Adena Mound Builders of Ohio; and as far southeast as Costa Rica. (Baldwin)
Teotihuancan is vast, its architecture monumental, and its deities vivid. “It feels like the center of an empire when one walks within.” (Baldwin) There was a city-state and a true civilization here once. Teotihuancan was built upon the remnants of a once small folk society that had grown out of its self-sufficiency. It is an authentic manifestation of city life, a place with a formal layout where technical accomplishment was ubiquitous.
Baldwin, N. Legends of the plumbed serpent. NY: Public Affairs, 1998.
Bierhorst, J. The mythology of Mexico and Central America. NY: William Marrow and
Company Inc, 1990.
Miller, M. The art of Mesoamerica. NY: Thomas and Hudson Inc, 1996
Miller, R. Mexico: A history. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985
Pasztory, E. Toetihuacan: An experiment in living. University of Oklahoma Press, 1997
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