Monday, 8 September 2014

63. Wonder: Teotihuacan

(For the Teotihuacan preview, please click here.)

For the Aztecs, Tlaloc was the god of rain, lightning and thunder, among other things. This meant that he gave life, and also that he could be somewhat terrifying, a god to be respected and feared. Fangs and scary eyes add to this scary vision: you didn't want to mess with him. He wasn't just an Aztec god though, his image pre-dates them by many centuries. Just 30 miles from modern-day Mexico City, the grand ruins of Teotihuacan were long deserted by the time the Aztecs came on the scene in the 14th Century. They looked around the numerous temples, two huge pyramids, and vast grid-planned city and said to themselves, “Who the hell built this thing?” It blew their minds. Quickly, it entered into their folklore: “Teotihuacan” is an Aztec name, approximately meaning “birthplace of the gods”. But Teotihuacan wasn't Aztec, it wasn't Maya, it was just Teotihuacan, whatever that was. We still don't exactly know today, and the Aztecs certainly didn't. They left it alone, except for the occasional ceremony and taking a statue now and again.

Centuries later, the Aztecs have gone, and Teotihuacan is now teeming with archaeologists and tourists. Local vendors line the main street selling all kinds of souvenirs, including representations of the once-fearsome Tlaloc himself: the god of storms, reduced to a trinket. I can't imagine this makes him very happy. On our first visit, Danielle and I wandered around the site. It was a lovely day. We started with the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (also known as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent) and the courtyard-like complex it sits within, called the Citadel.

We then meandered up the two-mile Avenue of the Dead. Again, the name is an Aztec one, they erroneously thought the mounds were tombs; in fact, they were ceremonial platforms and temples, overgrown by time and weeds. Near the end of the long avenue, Teotihuacan's largest structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, sits a little off to the side. We passed it by, continuing along what was likely once a very holy route, sacred platforms and insistent vendors lining our path, until reaching the Plaza of the Moon. It's an open space surrounded by more ceremonial platforms and a central altar, and dominating the plaza is the Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan's second largest structure, it is 46 metres high, with large terrace platforms, and a base of around 168 by 149 metres, and was built in many stages over a few centuries. We clambered up the steep steps to the first platform to get a view of it all.

Our visit finished with a climb up the Pyramid of the Sun. First built around 100 AD, and added to around 50 years later, it would once have been around 75 metres high. Today, as a result of some calamitous early 20th Century archaeology-by-dynamite, it's around 65 metres. At the base, the four sides are around 223 metres. It's solid, with the core mostly filled with debris - rocks and earth - then faced with sculpted stone. Once, the entire thing would have been covered in plaster and probably painted red and white, perhaps with images of jaguars and gods, but it's a stripped-back version we see now. Invisible to the visitor, the pyramid is built over a cave which was perhaps once a natural spring, or so a discovery in 1971 appeared to reveal. Natural springs, as it happens, are one of the places that the Aztecs considered Tlaloc to dwell in, although to date no deity has been conclusively linked with the Pyramid of the Sun.

It's called the Pyramid of the Sun – again, it's an Aztec name – because it exactly faces the setting sun for spring and autumn equinoxes. It's a pretty safe assumption that the people of Teotihuacan built it this way, but in the absence of any hard documentary evidence, it is still an assumption. As we began our ascent, joining and passing a steady trickle of people going either way, the sun was indeed shining, although some darker clouds had certainly gathered. There are five stepped terraces on the platform, although one was added in the disastrous early 20th restoration. We stopped at each, enjoying the increasingly spectacular views.

As we neared the top, the clouds were rapidly rolling in. To one side, bright sunshine, the other, ominous darkness. We climbed the final set of steps to the pyramid's peak. And then – just as I set foot upon the top – thunder erupted. It was St Peter's all over again. In June, we went on the necropolis tour and clambered around the ancient underground of Rome's great basilica, observing one of Christendom's most holy sites where St Peter's body was laid to rest almost 2000 years ago. Upon the tour's conclusion, we ascended from the grotto and first set foot on the nave of St Peter's Basilica. At that precise moment, thunder erupted. Danielle reckoned it to be a sign; if so, the sign was being repeated, except this time Tlaloc was having his say. To make the point clearer, rain began falling; the thunder continued, the sky was flashing. Danielle and I both agreed that if there was any place to hang around during a large thunder-and-lightning storm, right at the top of a pyramid was not that place. Together with a large cluster of similarly-minded people, we made our way down, putting our jackets on as the rain became torrential. Tlaloc maintained his torrential presence for the rest of the day.

Teotihuacan is a mystery. Imagine if the Romans hadn't bothered to write anything down – we'd have to figure everything through pictures, architecture, artefacts, and a whole load of inference. That's how it is with Teotihuacan, an entire civilisation and city we don't even know the name of. At least with the Romans, we'd have the context of surrounding civilisations and their records, but pre-Spanish central America was never big on writing. Well, in fairness, the Maya wrote quite a bit, but the Spanish burned it all because they considered it the work of devils, which wasn't a very helpful response. Most of what we have left are inscriptions on monuments, generally about local leaders and wars. Which doesn't help us remotely with Teotihuacan.

What do we know, with some certainty, is this. Teotihuacan, or whatever they called themselves (I hope it was something catchier), was the first great culture to develop in what is now central Mexico. It wasn't the first developed civilisation, but it was the first one to really go for it in terms of sophisticated mega construction. Carbon dating and pottery styles indicate the people first settled in the area at around 150 BC, but it was all fairly low level. The big statement came a few centuries later. Were did the inspiration came from? Who knows, some leader perhaps, from within or from elsewhere, had a masterplan, and was able to find the very best city planners and engineers of the day. Something like this was in their head.

Monumental construction began on an unprecedented level. The first version of the Avenue of the Dead was built, with temples on either side, and an early Pyramid of the Moon appeared. Soon after, the Pyramid of the Sun was built, a truly enormous task. By some accounts, it is the third biggest pyramid on the planet, after the Great Pyramid of Cholula (also in Mexico) and the Great Pyramid of Giza, although this seems to conveniently overlook some of Egypt's other great pyramids, such as the Red Pyramid and the Great Pyramid's virtual twin brother, the pyramid of Khafre. But let's not get bogged down in technicalities, the point is that the Pyramid of the Sun is big, and for the people that built it, it was something way beyond anything ever previously conceived. Although it was added to a few generations later – we're now around the 150 to 200 AD mark – with a likely temple put on top and some nice finishing touches, the Pyramid of the Sun was essentially built in one go. The Pyramid of the Moon, meanwhile, was built in seven phases, always building upon the previous layer. Finally a new and significant complex at the far end of the Avenue of the Dead was constructed, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and its surrounding complex, today called the Citadel. By the 3rd or 4th Century, the city of Teotihuacan was filled with temples, platforms, complexes, and giant pyramids, all covered in plaster and painted, and lined up carefully along a vast avenue. It looks amazing now, it must have been truly amazing back then.

And then – it stopped. Teotihuacan as a city continued, but the huge feats of construction ended. Why? We have no idea, but perhaps the ceremonial part of the city was complete, by whatever standards the people were judging it. Nothing more to add, it was perfect. From around 250 AD, the focus shifted to housing. For miles around housing complexes sprung up, to a grid plan. The population swelled, with some counts going to 200,000. Ancient Teotihuacan was a carefully organised metropolis, with the spiritual centre being an elaborate series of colossal temples placed along an avenue, and the residential areas a series of carefully-planned social housing complexes. Unlike other ancient cities, Teotihuacan did not grow, it was designed. And it thrived, for centuries. The overall area dominated by the civilisation grew to around 10,000 square miles, around the size of Sicily, with a population perhaps around half a million. Their influence extended up and down the continent, with trade routes and occasional incursions into other territory. The Maya city of Tikal, now in Guatemala, appear to have adopted customs from Teotihuacan. But Teotihuacan wasn't like Rome, it wasn't after an empire. Its influence was through economy, ideas, and culture. And it was a huge success.

But nothing lasts forever. Around 700 AD, Teotihuacan went up in a literal blaze of destruction, almost certainly caused from within rather than by outside forces. The fires were concentrated on the temples. A people's rebellion, perhaps, caused by increasing lack of resources and disillusionment with the gods and the priestly leaders – the entire city and civilisation of Teotihuacan was over. The city was abandoned. Nature took over, leaving it for the Aztecs to stumble upon centuries later.

Because they never quite figured out how to write, there are an awful lot of whys and a lot of theories surrounding Teotihuacan. We know what there is, but why it was built, what it was for, even who exactly built it are all subject to a lot of different opinions. Let's have a crack. The overall city and civilisation... was it a planned utopia, or an oppressive autocracy? The first centuries – when the big stuff was built – saw a lot of human sacrifices, and usually this isn't the sign of a happy place. In the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, over 200 burials have been found, most being groups of bound and sacrificed men. They are dressed as soldiers and, according to analysis of their teeth, appear to be local. Their sacrifice appears to have been done in conjunction with the beginning and end of the temple's construction, so perhaps they were regarded as symbolic protection. But in the Pyramid of the Moon, the human sacrifices were generally from everywhere but Teotihuacan – captured prisoners, perhaps, or offerings from other, lesser cities. Alongside some of the Pyramid of the Moon sacrifices, jaguar bones have been found in cages, suggesting that they were buried alive. Pictures have been found of jaguars eating hearts, and this may have been part of the grisly ritual. It's difficult to get into the mind of a distant people with values very removed from today's, but such widespread human sacrifice would suggest plenty of fear of gods, with the leaders using fear as a form of control.

The leaders, as far as we can tell, were religious leaders, priest-type figures, communicating with gods like Tlaloc, and a kind of mother god that we call the Great Goddess, who was seemingly even more important to Teotihuacan. She was responsible for nature, fertility, and the sun, among plenty of other things. A huge statue of her - 22 tons, the heaviest found at Teotihuacan was found outside the Pyramid of the Moon, and probably once stood on top. It now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

It's for these reasons, and others, that religion is certainly the inspiring force that gave rise to Teotihuacan. Close study of the position of the Avenue of the Dead and its temples also offer many theories. Alignment with the sun and stars is one: everything is aligned 15.5 degrees east of north, the angle the sun would rise on a certain day each year, perhaps used as a marker for time, maybe planting crops, and possibly other unknown rituals. There is also thought to be an association between the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the planet Venus. I'm always very wary of attributing too much meaning to alignments with stars and planets – look hard enough and you'll always find something, very much in the way of the Nazca Lines – but certain Teotihuacan motifs seem to match up with later Maya motifs for Venus, meaning Venus may have been important. Stronger though in my mind is the connection to the mountains. Walk along the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon – look what's right behind it.

Climb onto the Pyramid of the Moon and look at the Pyramid of the Sun. Look what's behind it.

There are just some very layman-level observations, but mountains are sacred in many Mesoamerican cultures, with sites and temples being aligned to them, and this may have been the case with Teotihuacan. Sacrifices and offerings have been found in these mountains, although I believe they date from after Teotihuacan.

Our guide, the following day, had another interesting theory, although one I can't find online or in the literature. He thought the many temples matched the number of vertebrae - 33 - in the human spine, and by this reasoning then the Pyramid of the Moon was the head, and the Pyramid of the Sun was the heart. I guess the Temple of Quetzalcoatl would have to be the feet in that case.

It's quite a fun theory, but doesn't seem as backed up as the others. Nonetheless, without any way of proving the Teotihuacan builders' intentions, all we have are a load of opinions and theories, that further discovers and investigation can help confirm - or extinguish.

One theory that seems to be on its way out is the cave at the centre of the Pyramid of the Sun. For a long time, it was thought this cave kickstarted Teotihuacan, being considered sacred, a kind of entrance to the underworld and the start of a creation myth. Possibly even, it was a natural spring. It was the perfect place to build a giant pyramid over. It's a lovely theory, but sadly undermined by the actual evidence, and it is now thought that the “cave” is actually a man-made space, possibly a tomb, long ago looted.

Archaeology continues to prod away at Teotihuacan, and there is clearly a long way to go. Remarkably, over 90% of the city remains unexcavated. Most of this is residential complexes, but even just off from the Avenue of the Dead are large mounds, loads of them, that are surely more temples and platforms. Who knows what secrets they might contain?

That second one is from the back of the Pyramid of the Moon. Even one of Teotihuacan's main sights is a work in progress, not fully excavated, and with the sides overgrown.

As such, the main temples and pyramids continue to surprise. In 2003, a tunnel to the centre of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl was discovered. Tlaloc had returned - but this time in the form of a remote-controlled robot called Tlaloc II-TC complete with an infrared camera and laser scanner. Archaeologists sent it in; they weren't disappointed. Various chambers and artefacts, all dating to around 100 AD, were discovered, with the chamber walls being covered in minerals to make them shine brightly. Most intriguingly, one chamber contained hundreds of spheres, up to 5 inches in diameter, with a clay core and once covered in shining pyrite, or fool's gold. What do they mean? Nobody is sure. Other sealed chambers have been found, and it's sure that the Temple of Quetzalcoatl will be offering up a lot more to puzzle over in the future.

It's slow work though, as modern archaeology is a cautious science, and funding isn't high. But that's a little better than how it used to be. The beginning of archaeology in Teotihuacan was appalling. In fact, the Teotihuacan we see today, and especially the Pyramid of the Sun, has been rather unfortunately shaped by the inept efforts of a century ago. Much of the blame must lie at the feet of a man called Leopold Bartres. He was a self-taught archaeologist, a description that immediately causes alarm, and began excavating in 1905. He was in a hurry – he wanted it ready for the centenary of Mexican independence in 1910. Hurried archaeology is never a good thing. Standards were of course different then, but his efforts to restore the Pyramid of the Sun can only be considered unnecessarily extreme. He thought it was built in layers – it wasn't – and used dynamite to try and uncover these. He blew up the front portion of the pyramid, and destroyed the top level! Tons of stone was removed. At some point he must have realised his theory about layers was wrong, and gone "Ah. Oh dear." In trying to reconstruct the facade, he created an entirely new terrace – now reached by a short but very steep set of steps. Later efforts at restoration of the city were a little less destructive. In the 1960s there was intensive period of archaeology and restoration as the government pushed for Teotihuacan to be made into a tourist draw, with the consequence that strict accuracy have been lost to what some term is a “theatrical” vision of Teotihuacan. I can't condone it, but what's done is done, and although what we see today may have diverged from the original vision of its makers, I still think it looks great.

Really great. The next morning, I returned to Teotihuacan, at the 7am opening time. Although the crowds hadn't been bad, I wanted to see it without them. I was first to enter, and walked along the Avenue of the Dead alone. The sky was clear and calm, and overhead numerous hot air balloons floated.

On top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I stood alone. The sun was still low in the sky, and this time Tlaloc and his thunderstorms didn't bother me (in fact, both times thunder has disrupted my Wonder visit, Danielle has been with me, making me question who this heavenly sign is being directed towards). I feel that ruins are best enjoyed without crowds of tourists and being pestered by vendors, and Teotihuacan was perfectly silent and empty on this morning. I've been very fortunate on my travels to have enjoyed some of the greatest places built by man, and sometimes I worry that I may become complacent or jaded. No fear today: Teotihuacan felt very special indeed.

I climbed down and moved onto the Pyramid of the Moon, which is many ways is an even better vantage point to appreciate the masterplan of Teotihuacan. The symmetrical plaza sits below it, and the straight line of the Avenue of the Dead stretches on from there, platforms either side. For some reason, I have visions of mystics occupying each platform, surrounded by a ring of fire, performing strange ceremonies as a line of priests and prisoners proceed along the Avenue, culminating in some crazy human sacrifice ritual upon the Pyramid of the Moon, with the victim's heart being thrown to a nearby caged jaguar. But I think I might have borrowed some of that from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Later in the day, Danielle and I took a guide, Aldo, who showed us around the site, and gave us all kinds of theories as to Teotihuacan. A lot of the above was outlined by him. Aldo took us beyond the famous parts, to a couple of the excavated residential areas, which are often better preserved and restored.

He is an archaeologist and local to the area, and was passionate about Teotihuacan. His tour made it clear just how much has yet to be discovered, let alone understood. This is perhaps Teotihuacan's most alluring qualities - the mystery. What we've uncovered we don't understand, and we've barely uncovered a tenth of it so far. Sure, the biggest temples have been given a clean and fixed up a bit, albeit fancifully at times, but there's such a huge amount yet to discover. There are decades of discoveries ahead, decades of adjusting and honing and rubbishing of theories. We know that almost 2000 years ago, an unknown people built some unprecedented temples and pyramids, and reigned supreme for centuries before self-destructing, but we don't know who or how or why. Under the miles of grass-covered mounds, perhaps some answers lie waiting. Or perhaps Teotihuacan will only leave us with questions, an eternal mystery.

Teotihuacan is a remarkable place to visit, especially when going early to avoid the distraction of crowds and vendors. I love that it is so visibly built to a plan, with its grand avenue flanked by platforms, the symmetry of the Plaza of the Moon, and the singularity of style that underlines all the temples. It's very clearly not something that arose piecemeal over time: this is a planned city. Without the two massive pyramids, and the smaller but weirder-looking Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan would still be a significant site. But with them it becomes a lot more special. The Pyramid of the Sun has sheer bulk and size, sure its questionable restoration might have given it a different gloss but I don't care. The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller, though still large, but has the advantage of positioning, at the very end of the Avenue of the Dead, and with a really quite striking view when standing upon it. All this adds up to exactly what I like in a World Wonder: grandeur and otherworldliness. "What the hell is this place?" is a pretty fair response to walking the streets. "Wow" is another. Teotihuacan is a very special place.

Some criteria then.

Size: Numerous platforms and temples, and an even wider (and unexcavated) area of residences that go on for around 8 square miles. But it's the big boys we're interested in, and these are the Pyramid of the Sun, around half the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza but wider at the base, and its smaller lookalike, the Pyramid of the Moon.
Engineering: These colossal and precise structures were built almost 2000 years ago, with basic tools. Somebody had a vision, and had some very talented people at his disposal, not to mention a lot of labourers.
Artistry: I wouldn't call Teotihuacan pretty as such - we're seeing the stripped down ruined version with the colours and pictures long gone - but it is very grand. The streetplan is very striking. 
Age: Almost 2000 years old. This is one of the ancients.
Fame/Iconicity: Surprisingly, shockingly even, low key. In Mexico, the Maya ruins gets all the headlines. Most people visit Teotihuacan as a diverting day-trip while in Mexico City, few seem to go specially to see it. I don't think it's that well known around the world at all.
Context: It's a pretty big site, so the ceremonial centre is mostly surrounded by the large unexcavated residental area. The few modern roads and buildings in the vicinity don't spoil the atmosphere, and the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacan doesn't interfere. The many surrounding mountains are more prominent, and possibly significant as the city's location, and look great.
Back Story: Well, it's mostly a mystery. It was a mystery way back in Aztec times. This is the remains of a lost civilisation.
Originality/Distinctiveness: The temples themselves are of the Mesoamerican style - nothing in this part of the world existed in isolation. But the two huge pyramids and the planned streets are hugely distinctive.
Wow Factor: It starts with a wow and just gets bigger as you walk along the Avenue of the Dead towards the two pyramids, and especially as you climb both pyramids.

Teotihuacan - it's not the catchiest of names, is it? Its components - the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead - have nice and memorable names, but the overall site has a five-syllable confusion of letters. It gets easier the more you say it - Tay-oh-ti-hwa-CAN - but it'll never roll of the tongue. I blame the Aztecs, they never really went in for snappy titling - their capital was called Tenochtitlan, and they also had gems like Teopanzolco and Calixtlahuaca. Perhaps this has some small factor in why the massive, distinct, ancient ruins of this civilisation aren't as well known as they should be. Teotihuacan is major league, it is a truly fantastic place, and I hope it gets a lot more exposure. "Indiana Jones and the Pyramid of the Sun" - you can have that for free, Spielberg. It's an incredible place, fuelled by mystery and grand statements, and is exactly the stuff World Wonders are made of. I'd placed it just behind the truly enigmatic moai of Easter Island, but above the visually otherworldly but historically fully-explainable Mont Saint-Michel. But - with a disclaimer. This is the first ancient site I've seen in Mexico. I have three Maya Wonder candidates to come, plus other sites I expect to see en route, and there is a small chance that Teotihuacan's special qualities might be diminished after seeing other similar (though not as ancient) sites. I hope not though.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Teotihuacan

6. Mont Saint-Michel
7. The Colosseum
Other Wonders
The Eiffel Tower
Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Thiepval Memorial (I'm still troubling over this one)
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom


  1. Wow ! Not a place I have, in my ignorance, heard of but definitely seems to deserve to be up there with the World Wonders.

  2. It sounds great. Although it's better to know the history of places, for obvious reasons, I think that some things remaining a mystery (perhaps forever) does enhance them in other ways. Maybe because everybody likes a good mystery and it enables our imaginations to run free.