Teotihuacan is a vast Mexican archaeological complex.
It was an ancient Mesoamerican city located 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of modern-day Mexico City, known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas.
It is characterized by the vast size of its monuments – in particular, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, laid out on geometric and symbolic principles.
Apart from the pyramids, Teotihuacan is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family
residential compounds; the Avenue of the Dead; and the small portion of its vibrant murals that have been exceptionally well-preserved.
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 AD. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 AD.
The early history of Teotihuacán is shrouded in mystery. Little is known about its ancient builders, including their name, precise religious beliefs, or language.
At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the 1st millennium AD, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000-200,000, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch.
The city covered 21 square kilometers (8 square miles).
Scholars had thought that invaders attacked the city in the 7th or 8th century, sacking and burning it. More recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that the burning was limited to the structures and dwellings associated primarily with the ruling class. Some think this suggests that the burning was from an internal uprising.
As one of the most powerful cultural centers in Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan extended its cultural and artistic influence throughout the region, and even beyond.
Teotihuacan is actually the Aztec name for the city, meaning “place where gods were born“; unfortunately, the original name is yet to be deciphered from surviving name glyphs at the site.
In addition to some 2,000 single-story apartment compounds, the ruined city contains great plazas, temples, a canalized river, and palaces of nobles and priests. The main buildings are connected by a 40-meter- (130-foot-) wide road, the Avenue of the Dead (“Calle de los Muertos”), that stretches 2.4 km (1.5 miles).
The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in Teotihuacan and one of the largest in Mesoamerica. It dominates the central city from the east side of the Avenue of the Dead. The pyramid rises 66 metres (216 feet) above ground level, and it measures approximately 220 by 230 metres (720 by 760 feet) at its base.
The north end of the Avenue of the Dead is capped by the Pyramid of the Moon and flanked by platforms and lesser pyramids. The second largest structure in the city, the Pyramid of the Moon rises to 43 meters (140 feet) and measures 130 by 156 meters (426 by 511 feet) at its base.
The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the modern-day name for the third largest pyramid at Teotihuacan. This structure is notable partly due to the discovery in the 1980s of more than a hundred possibly-sacrificial victims found buried beneath the structure.
The art of Teotihuacan, as represented in sculpture, pottery, and murals, is highly stylized and minimalist. Stone masks were made using jade, basalt, greenstone, and andesite, often highly polished and with details, especially eyes, rendered using shell or obsidian.
Many of the artifacts from the site have prudently been moved to National Anthropological Museum, in Mexico City.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Nahua peoples. The Totonacs have always maintained that they were the ones who built it. The Aztecs repeated that story, but it has not been corroborated by archaeological findings.
It appears that the primary deity at Teotihuacán was a female, called the “Spider Woman” by scholars. There are also depictions of other female deities, including a Water Goddess. Other important deities at Teotihuacán included: the Rain God (called Tlaloc by the Aztecs); Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent; the Sun God and Moon Goddess; and Xipe Totec (Our Lord the Flayed One, associated with renewed vegetation).
The whole city of Teotihuacán seems to be aligned astronomically. It is consistently oriented 15 to 25 degrees east of true north, and the front wall of the Pyramid of the Sun is exactly perpendicular to the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the equinoxes. The rest of the ceremonial buildings were laid out at right angles to the Pyramid of the Sun. The Avenue of the Dead points at the setting of the Pleiades. Another alignment is to the dog star Sirius, sacred to the ancient Egyptians, which has led some to suggest a link between the great pyramids of Egypt and Mexico.
Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites.
Knowledge of the huge ruins of Teotihuacan was never completely lost. After the fall of the city, various squatters lived on the site. During Aztec times, the city was a place of pilgrimage and identified with the myth of Tollan, the place where the sun was created.
The city was initially excavated in 1884. In the 1960s and ’70s the first systematic survey (the Teotihuacán Mapping Project) was led by the American archaeologist René Millon, and hundreds of workers in 1980–82 excavated under the direction of the Mexican archaeologist Rubén Cabrera Castro. Work in the 1990s focused on the city’s subterranean tunnels and on the apartment compounds, which were found to be decorated with vividly painted murals.
Long-standing threats to the greater area of ruins are posed by human habitation (including five towns), numerous shops, roads and highways, and a military base. Many neighbourhoods excavated in the late 20th century had been earlier cultivated by farmers.