Forty kilometers northwest of Mexico City is Teotihuacan, one of the most important locations in Mesoamerican history. The existence of Teotihuacan was so influential that its rise and fall even has its own name: The Classical Period.
Teotihuacan began in the 1st Century BCE as a small hamlet. As the population within the nearby Valley of Mexico grew, so did that of Teotihuacan. With a growing workforce, the city could take control of the nearby mines and natural resources. This lead to the city being the birthplace of an economy never before achieved in this region of the world. Soon, its influence expanded far beyond the Valley of Mexico and reached the Mayan regions (current Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala) and the Gulf of Mexico. Within a century and a half, Teotihuacan transformed from a small hamlet to a city of over 125,000 people. These people were called the Teotihuacano.
Prior to Teotihuacan's existence, Mesoamerica was like Central Europe before the Roman Empire. It existed, but it existed independently. The Greeks referred to non-Greek Europeans as "barbarians", and the Romans referred to the Britons as "rude, scattered and warlike people". The same can somewhat be said for the people of Mesoamerica before the rise of Teotihuacan. Once Teotihuacan rose to power, their influence transformed language, religion, culture and economics throughout the subcontinent which can still be seen today.
Teotihuacan was also often referred to as The Center of the Universe. Here, the gods created the Fifth Sun, a new era of man, out of the bones and ashes of the four earlier fallen races. It was also here where the gods sacrificed their own bodies to give creation to the Sun and the Moon, and to give them movement across the sky. Because of this, the era of the Fifth Sun is called the Age of Movement. Every 52 years (in which their years were 260 days, so about 37 of our years) a person must be sacrificed to the gods to keep the Sun and Moon moving. This sacrificial tradition is why Teotihuacan is called "Where Men Become Gods", as it is where men joined the gods in the sky. It was believed the end of the Fifth Sun will occur when men forget to worship these gods.
Within a few hundred years of its creation, the Teotihuacano would build the Pyramids for the Sun and Moon. Between them they would then build the Avenue of the Dead. The edges of the Avenue were home to the elites of the city, while the Avenue was used for meetings, gatherings, and shopping.
The Pyramid of the Moon is the smaller of the two pyramids, with the top level being inaccessible due to the decayed state of the stairs. This pyramid is the seventh structure to be built on this location, with the previous six structures still below its foundation. It is believed this pyramid was used for worshipping the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. What's peculiar about this Goddess is that it doesn't exist outside of the city, except for locations where the Teotihuacano lived.
The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest pyramid in Teotihuacan. Unlike the Pyramid of the Moon, this pyramid was not connected to any deity. Because of this, scholars believe the child skeletons found at the corners of the pyramid were sacrificed as good luck prior its construction.
A third pyramid exists in Teotihuacan, but is further down the Avenue than the other two. My guide never mentioned this pyramid to us, but that could be because we had limited time at the ruins. This third pyramid is the most beautiful of all three, and is called the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, or the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Because of its association with the god Quetzalcoatl, the structure is decorated in marble jaguar faces, red stone and jade bird feathers. This pyramid is also where the bulk of human sacrifices took place, with over 200 bodies having been excavated from its site. I took a picture of it from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, not knowing what I was seeing. Thankfully, I saw a reconstructed variation of it while at the National Museum of Anthropology the day earlier.
As with any powerful civilization, Teotihuacan collapsed upon itself. Scholars first believed the city was sacked by another group of people, but today it is widely accepted that the citizens were the ones who did the actual destruction. It is believed because only the houses of the elites were burnt and demolished, it was the working class that destroyed the city. This action not only ended Teotihuacan, but also brought an end to the Classical Period and threw Mesoamerica into chaos.
Centuries later, the Aztecs pilgrimaged to Teotihuacan to perform their own sacrifices and rituals, as they believed they were the direct descendants. It is their names for these locations – The Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead, etc – that we use today. We don't know what these locations were originally called.
Much had changed in Mesoamerica between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of the Aztecs. One of the most notable changes was the attitude of the people. The people of Teotihuacan believed their purpose was for harmony and creation, while the Aztecs believed their purpose was for war and destruction. While they had many differences, they had two core principals in common: they used the same calendar and they worshipped the same gods.
In 1519 CE, the Aztecs were entering the year of One Reed, a year in which the god Quetzalcoatl was prophesied to return. It was thought that the arrival of Quetzalcoatl would bring an end to the Aztecs, much like other civilizations had fallen before it. As they prepared for the arrival, white-skinned beings appeared on the coast of Mesoamerica. With them they brought sticks that summoned the sound of thunder, beasts that could travel at incredible speeds and vessels that could transverse great waters. These advanced technologies proved no match to the people they encountered, and so many believed the prophesy had come true.
Scholars disagree if the Aztecs truly believed the newly arrived Spaniards were Quetzalcoatl, but that is what Hernán Cortés told King Charles V of Spain, and it is under this belief that the Spanish used to conquest and destroy the Aztec culture. The National Museum of Anthropology said the Aztec leader Moctezuma II believed this also, which is why he attempted to befriend the Spanish before getting captured and having his people slaughtered.
When the Spanish arrived at Teotihuacan, they did not understand what they had discovered. The pyramids had long been abandoned, and this once magnificent city had been absorbed by the earth. Had the Spanish known what they had discovered, they would have destroyed it. Instead, they left it untouched.
Although centuries passed, knowledge of Teotihuacan was never lost, and in 1905 excavations brought it back to life. Many believe Teotihuacan's renewal is part of its cycle. For a millennium, it ruled Mesoamerica, and for a millennium it was buried under the earth. The uncovering of Teotihuacan could bring forth a new era for Mexicans that would last a thousand years, a rebirth of their culture or even an end to the current Age of Movement. After all, anything is possible in the land where Men Become Gods.
Note: Teotihuacan is an outdoor museum. Any indoor images featured in this article were taken at The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. While these ruins can be explored interdependently from the museum, I encourage you to visit them both.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.