When you think of an early American metropolis, built to a grid plan with some showpiece buildings, you probably think New York, perhaps Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. But they're just newbies. Down in Mexico are the ruins of a grid-planned city that are much older, pre-dating the Aztecs and the Maya, and with some of the biggest pyramids ever built by man. And we don't even know its name.
We call it Teotihuacan, although that's just the "modern" Aztec name, approximately meaning "The Place Where Gods Were Born". Aztecs settled there hundreds of years after the city had been abandoned and, without any clue as to its origins, gave it mythical status. The first great culture to appear in central Mexico and beyond, Teotihuacan existed for seven centuries and is one of the big boys of ancient civilisation, like the Egyptians, the Romans, or the Maya. Yet a lot of people haven't even heard of it, let alone are able to pronounce it (it's tay-oh ti-hwah-can). But just look at it. It's incredible. A broad central avenue - the Avenue of the Dead - is surrounded by monumental architecture, including the colossal Pyramid of the Sun, and terminates at the Pyramid of the Moon and its preceding temple-ringed plaza. Hell, I think a few pictures gives the general idea.
This is just the city centre, the Broadway and Times Square of Teotihuacan. The overall city take up around 8 square miles, and would once have held up to 200,000 people. The majority of these people lived in specially planned multi-roomed compounds, holding perhaps 60 residents each, placed within the grid system. Large one-storey structures opening into inner courtyards, there were thousands of these radiating from downtown Teotihuacan, just like modern city suburbs. Excavation has revealed that certain areas seemed to cater to different ethnic groups. Although the compounds weren't built to a strictly uniform plan, the overall arrangement is suggestive of state-sponsored housing according to a masterplan. Teohihuacan is perhaps the earliest known example of a large-scale state-planned system with social housing and community cohesion. What's less certain is whether or not this was some early utopian state or an oppressive authoritatian regime. Certain findings hint that, in the way of many grand social experiments, utopian intentions soon became corrupted - before reaching breaking point.
Carbon and pottery dating has first settlement in Teotihuacan at around 30AD. Curiously, the city began with the giant pyramids. The Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun weren't the consequence of a settled city and civilisation - they were the starting point. It's as though the Empire State Building came first, and New York was based around it, or Rome was a consequence of St Peter's. Perhaps the latter example is a better analogy, as religion seems to have been the impetus for Teotihuacan's growth. It all started with a cave. Caves were regarded then as sacred, as entrances to the underworld, and a source of creation. At some point, some forever to be unknown person decided to commemorate a particularly significant cave with monumental construction. An avenue was built by it, with temple complexes on either side of the avenue. The Pyramid of the Moon was built at the other end of the avenue. A few generations later, the avenue was extended, the Pyramid of the Moon enlarged, and over the entrance to the sacred cave was built the first incarnation of the Pyramid of the Sun.
So we have the beginning of the city - a wide avenue, some temples, and some huge pyramids. There was no precedent for this kind of thing - it must have seemed immense to the local population. Which was precisely the idea, as the sacred cave of Teotihuacan and thus the city would have been regarded as the centre of the universe: truly, they were honoured by the gods. A couple of generations later - now somewhere between 150 and 225 AD, the Pyramid of the Sun was enlarged to become the version we see today, and the third largest pyramid on earth today. The equivalent of 20 storeys high at 64 metres, it is 225 metres on each side. A temple once stood at the top, making it even taller. At the same time, the Avenue of the Dead was extended to three miles and spin-off avenues formed, the Pyramid of the Moon was again enlarged (to 43 metres high and up to 156 metres wide), and further monumental compounds built. All would have been covered with smooth plaster, probably painted red or white. It was done to a plan - this was not a case of natural growth. Inspired by the gods and being the centre of the universe, the people behind Teotihuacan had carefully crafted a city that, as the Aztecs perceived it centuries later, was for the gods. And then it all stopped.
From around 250 AD, Teotihuacan underwent what seem like a major social transformation. No more large-scale architecture was built from this point. Instead, the collective housing we see now started to spread out, as the city's population began to double then treble over the next couple of centuries. Artistic styles changed. And as archaeoligists have discovered, possibly all was not rosy with Teotihuacan. The third and smallest pyramid in the city is called the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, named after a deity, and was built towards the end of the large-scale construction, maybe about 150 to 200AD. Inside tombs have been found with what appears to be the bodies of around 200 victims of human sacrifice, possibly done en masse at the temple's opening ceremony. Evidence of other human sacrifice is plentiful elsewhere, including at the Pyramid of the Moon. As we can usually surmise, wide-scale ritual human sacrifice is rarely a sign of a utopian society. The 4th and 5th Centuries seem to have seen Teotihuacan at its peak, even if was somewhat of a priest-controlled police state, but by the 6th Century decline seems to have set in. Skeletons of malnourished children and teenagers have been found, suggesting either state-caused or just general famine. And then, in around the 8th Century, Teotihuacan was sacked and burned. The absence of any artefacts from invaders strongly suggests it was an internal uprising, likely a combination of a poor economy, depletion of natural resources, and dissatisfaction with an oppressive regime. There is evidence of a huge fire at the heart of the city - and then it was deserted. For centuries, Teotihuacan was left to fall down and be consumed by nature, until the Aztecs started creating their own legends around it in the 14th Century.
It's important to understand that none of the names mentioned are the original ones. We simply have no idea what the real names were. The people of Teotihuacan do not appear to have had a written language and so left no record of what they called things. All names were retrospectively applied by the Aztecs, centuries later, who had no idea about the origins of the city or its people. We don't know what language they spoke, what ethic group they were, or what their own name for their city was. We don't even know the name of the people or civilisation, although it seems it was multi-ethnic. They did it alone, without apparent connection to other Old World civilisations. The lack of writing is the real stumbling block for us today. Imagine having to figure out Roman or ancient Egyptian society without any texts? It would involve a lot of hard archaeology, scientific and artistic analysis, and cultural guesswork. We would get a lot wrong, or only hints towards the truth. And so unless there are some major breakthroughs with Teotihuacan, it's likely there will forever remain a lot of mysteries. Of course, to date, only about 5% of the site has yet been excavated.
Teotihuacan looks like it could be something special. If it only consisted of the Pyramid of the Sun, it would still be something notable and probably be on my list. But it's so much more - more pyramids, more temples, more complexes, an entire city, and quite an alien one at that. It's huge, but not so spread out as to be incomprehensible; stand on one of the pyramids and the whole city is right there. Restored since the early 20th Century, Teotihuacan has the key ingredients of what I'm looking for in a World Wonder - grandeur, mystery, and lots and lots of human sacrifice. I don't want to jump the gun on this, but it's probably fair to say that Teotihuacan has got a shot at the top Seven. But I thought that about Angkor Wat too, so I'm going to pull back from over-expectation and simply say tha I'm looking forward to it.
I'll be visiting Teotihuacan some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.