By Mildred Boyd.
When it was still night,
When there was no day, When there was no light,
The Gods convened,
There at Teotihuacan.
Legend says that two of those Gods agreed to immolate themselves in the sacred fire to become the sun and the moon, bringing life to the darkened world. Teotihuacan, where time and creation began, became the Holy City of Mesoamerica. Though its streets had been deserted for seven centuries and its far-flung mercantile/military empire was only a memory, rulers like Moctezuma II still made pilgrimages there in troubled times seeking guidance from the old gods.
Even today, the ruins of the great city are awe-inspiring. Laid out on a formal grid and covering some 40 square kilometers, it was home to an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people in its heyday. Two wide avenues, oriented east of north, met at the Cuidadela (Great Compound); a low rectangular platform some 400 meters square which was once topped by temples facing inward on what was probably the principal market. A central altar, a small pyramid and an ancient temple to Quetzalcoatl indicate that it also served as an amphitheater for religious spectacles.
The north/south avenue, called The Street of the Dead, was lined with palaces and temples, including the towering Pyramid of the Sun. Completed around 200 A.D. and one of the largest structures in the New World, it measures 220 meters square at the base and soars 65 meters to the temple platform reached by 248 steps. An estimated three million tons of rubble went into its construction and the whole mass covers a natural underground cavern which must have had great religious significance. The avenue culminates with the smaller, but still impressive Pyramid of the Moon and the magnificent Quetzalpapatlatl (quetzal bird/butterfly) palace.
This, then, was the high rent district where gods, priests, nobles and the military elite lived cheek-to-jowl in sophisticated luxury. But what of the common people? Every city has its slums and Teotihuacan was no exception. One area has buildings of inferior adobe construction which were probably warehouses, workshops and the hovels of the extremely poor. Nevertheless, general living conditions seem to have been far better than those of contemporary European cites and, indeed, those of many peones living in the Valley of Mexico today.
The middle-class fared very well indeed. 2000 of the 2600 surviving structures have been identified as apartment buildings. Though they vary in size from roughly 7,000 to 65,000 square feet, and have from 50 to over 100 rooms, all were built to the same high standards as the temples and palaces. Walls of rubble-filled mortar were heavily coated with plaster and polished to a high gloss. Heavy wooden beams and pillars supported flat roofs and framed doors and windows. Exterior walls were unbroken and a bit forbidding. It has been postulated that each building housed a kin group and the walls were primarily defensive.
The interiors were a different story. Every room received light and air from one or more courtyards. Each apartment had its own cooking area, complete with hearth and numerous vessels for cooking and storing food. A system of under-floor drains prevented flooding and a few of the larger complexes seem to have had cisterns fed by conduits from the roofs. Each building had one or more sanitary facilities, usually small enclosed patios where the hot sun and scavenger birds took care of human wastes.
Here lived the small army of scribes and petty officials required for the smooth running of empire and the merchants who sent forth strings of bearers carrying the wares which made it an empire in the first place. Hardly an archaeological site in Mesoamerica has failed to yield artifacts of Teotihuacan manufacture. Although there are a few agricultural villages nearby, most of the farmers seem to have lived in the city and commuted to their irrigated fields. Then, as now, the dietary mainstays were maize, beans, chilies and squash. Maguey was cultivated, not only for fiber but for the fiery pulque made from its juices.
An estimated 25% of the population was made up of artists, artisans and craftspeople. They produced the fine pottery, jewelry, metalwork and textiles that made the trade routes profitable and filled the coffers of the empire. Although the works of architects, stonemasons, sculptors and muralists were not easily transported, their ideas and designs could, and did, spread over a wide area.
Architectural ornament, a major component of Teotihuacan art, has been the subject of several major studies. In the early stages this was mostly low relief sculpture painted in brilliant flat colors. Soon, however, sculpture was forgotten and the mural became the medium. Those acres of blank white walls cried out for decoration and Teotihuacans artists were more than equal to the challenge. In only 13 locations there are over 350 murals.
Early themes were predominately religious, with Tlaloc, the rain-god, predominant. One magnificent example, which seems to represent Tlalocs promise of afterlife, shows a huge waterspout delivering the fortunate to a life of pleasure and plenty amid lush, irrigated fields. Later murals are more political and militaristic. Owls, arrows and shields accompany the war-god. Rulers are depicted with symbols of power. Still, goggle-eyed butterflies, serpents, quetzal birds and jaguars far outnumber kings and warriors.
What happened? How could this beautiful, dynamically successful city that had grown in power and importance for over a thousand years suddenly collapse? Did Teotihuacan, like Athens, fall victim to rival city-states like Tula and Cholula? Was it finally overwhelmed by barbarian hordes from the north as was Rome? Evidence of the deliberate burning of many public buildings and temples around 750 A.D. implies that internal dissensions played at least some part in its demise.
Whatever the cause, by 800 A.D. the splendor that was Teotihuacan had joined the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, leaving only tumbled stones and legends to speak of its former greatness.
Reproduced with permission from chapala.com.