Going Back in Time
13 February 2016 | Teotihuacán, near Mexico City
Beth / pleasantly warm
We hired Francisco - not Papa Francisco, but a Francisco more suited to our needs - to take us to the pyramids on Saturday.
As we were pondering, one evening, why many of the sculptures lining the main streets were wrapped up, this gentleman with an official guide badge around his neck asked if he could help us. And yes, he could. These particular sculptures were still owned by the artist and were on loan to the city. They would move on to another exhibition, and they were wrapped to prevent any damage from people climbing on them or marking them while watching the processions of Papa Francisco. As we talked with him, we learned that his English is very good and that he takes people on tours of the historic areas. We liked the man, his interest in taking us to the pyramids of Teotihuacán on Saturday, and his price of 300 pesos per person so we shook hands on the deal.
He showed up right on time at the apartment and we set off for our day's explorations. We made a few stops (unexpected but not entirely unwelcome) as part of his tour before we got to the pyramids. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas contains the Aztec pyramids of Tlateloco, the 16th century Spanish Templo de Santiago, and modern towers around them. It was also the scene of a massacre of some 400 students on October 2, 1968 just prior to the opening of the Mexico City Olympic Games. There had been widespread protests against political corruption, and the story is that President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz decided to put a stop to it in order to present an image of stability to the world. So many layers of history in one small plaza!
Another couple of stops offered opportunities to observe silversmithing and obsidian carving, as well as a chance to taste pulque - a drink made from the maguey plant. We didn't know it at the time, but this sacred drink was served to honoured people by the Mesoamerican civilizations, and was said to be nutritious and healing and to enhance virility. I guess we should have paid more attention! Jim and I bought a lovely obsidian carving of the Sun God to keep our Mayan Jaguar King company in our living room at home
And then we were off to Teotihuacán, about 40 km NE of the city.
I'm sorry to say that, although I knew of and had visited Chichén Itzá, I did not even know these pyramids existed, and then I assumed they must have been built by the Aztecs. Wrong. Although the other 3 appeared to have some knowledge of them, none of us were very well informed. We all agreed that the history taught in Canada in the 1960's came up very short on the topic of Latin America. Here is a little of the history that I have pieced together from a number of sources, including the Lonely Planet, the Monclem book about the site, and good old Wikipedia. It is far from a comprehensive or exact accounting, but it will give you a bit of background - as it did for me, and is the reason I want to return!
The city was inhabited from 100B.C. until 700 A.D. and the name means, "place where the gods were created", or in some versions, "city of the gods". That's a guess because ... and this is where it gets interesting ... no one knows what language the original inhabitants spoke, because no one knows for sure who they were! Although there are many theories, one suggestion is that they belonged to a proto-Nahua group. The site had been abandoned by the time the Aztecs came along almost 1000 years later.
Over those first 600 years A.D. Teotihuacaán grew to be Mexico's largest ancient city with a population of 125,000, and was the capital of Mexico's largest pre-Hispanic empire. The inhabitants were artisans, farmers, and merchants, and included a large priestly class who were in control of politics, administration and the economy, and one guidebook says Teotihuacán was geared more to tribute gathering than full scale occupation. They had systems for using underground water and gathering rainwater; there were underground drains; and writing and art, along with stonework and the building of huge pyramids were part of their skills, and religion was of prime importance.
Some time during the 8th century, the city became weakened, and the theories regarding this include famine caused by droughts, a struggle for power that split the ruling class, a popular uprising or invasion by other groups. Whatever the cause, many of the buildings along the Avenue of the Dead appear to have been burned. The Teotihuacán gods were still known, and the place remained a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty who believed that the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving at the beginning of the "fifth world" inhabited by the Aztecs.
Today, it is famous for its two huge pyramids, Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), both of which can be climbed on the original steps, and it remains a pilgrimage site today where mystical energies are said to converge, especially at the time of the vernal equinox. (You will see a picture of me with arms reaching high as I open to those energies! Minutes before that picture was taken, dozens of other people atop the Pirámide del Sol did the same thing!)
We entered through Gate 4 and spent most of our time at the Pirámide del Sol, and then walking along the Avenue of the Dead to the Pirámide de la Luna. The site is much larger, and if we had the chance, we would go back again. (The lucky Austins will go back again with other visitors.) Francisco explained the basics to us outside the gate, but he did not accompany us inside, where we wandered on our own. It was noon by the time we got there because of the time it took to purchase our carving, and we stayed about 3 hours. At the time, it was thrilling to climb the large pyramid of the sun and spend time looking out over the site - just "being" in the place, but I really wish now that we had gotten there earlier so we could have explored much more and visited the on-site museum. Oh well - it is always nice to have a reason to return!
It felt very good to climb those steps up the front of the Pirámide del Sol - placing our feet on the same 248 steps that the original Teotihuacános, the Aztecs, and millions of pilgrims have climbed. Mind you, some of the original people had just come from having their souls purified by the priests near the Pyramid of the Moon, and walked along the Avenue of the Dead to be sacrificed here. We were happy that many things have changed since then!
The Pirámide del Sol is the world's third largest pyramid - after Egypt's Cheops, and the Pyramid of Cholula, also in Mexico (and biggest does not necessarily mean tallest.) The base is 222 metres long on each side, and it is just over 70 metres high. It was built all at once (in contrast to many other pyramids that were built in stages as one generation after another added layers) and the stones were once covered with stucco and painted red. All this was done without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. Francisco told us that during a modern day effort to restore it, ill informed and untrained workers had stripped off the stucco leaving stones sticking out from the surface the same way pegs hold sod in place on slopes today.
In 1971, archeologists uncovered a 100 metre long tunnel that led from the west side to a cave directly under the centre. Here they found religious artifacts and surmised that the sun was worshiped here before the pyramid was ever built.
Although there were lots of people there, it didn't feel crowded and we were able to climb at our own pace, stopping for a bit on each level to look around before reaching the top, and it never did feel like an onerous climb. From high above, the people on the ground looked very tiny indeed! It was such an amazing place to be, that we spent close to an hour up there.
Once on the ground again, we strolled along the Calzada de Los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) that was once upon a time lined with the houses of Teotihuacán's elite. The stone bases of those houses are still there, and there are protected bits of murals along the walls.
The Pirámide de la Luna looks different from that of the sun, because it was built in stages, and so has more obvious levels to it. It is believed to have been completed around 300 A.D. We didn't climb this one, opting to be satisfied with what we had seen, and needing some food in our stomachs.
We met Francisco outside the gate and went off to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch before heading back into the city. One thing we learned over our soup and tortilla chips was that the traditional 7 points on a piñata represent the 7 sins. Smash open the piñata and good things fall out to replace the evil!
As I wrote this, I kept feeling that there was a lot of "I wish" and "we didn't" and "if only" in my account, but it didn't feel that way at the time. We might do it differently next time, but we had a thoroughly wonderful day, returning home tired and happy. Hindsight can be an odd thing! Check the pictures in the gallery to see how awesome it was.