About fifty kilometers north of Mexico City, stretches the first large pre-Columbian city in the Americas and one of the most impressive of all: Teotihuacán - "the place where the gods are created", as the Aztecs later called it. . We still know little about those who built it around the year 200, their culture and their fall during the XNUMXth century.
A two-thousand-year-old city
In the fresh early morning air, the Miccaotli (the Way of the Dead), the wide and long rectilinear avenue serving as the backbone of Teotihuacán, seems frozen. Facing oneself, in a grand and disturbing silence, the largest pyramids in Mexico rise above the semi-desert plateau: that of the moon far north, the one of the Sun halfway and, far south, the Citadel.
50 m wide on average, the roadway stretches for nearly 2 km. To meet the astrological needs of the founders of the city, the course of San Juan river, which crosses the site, was diverted to cut the artery perpendicularly.
Often wrongly attributed to the Aztecs, masters of the Mexican highlands when the conquistadors arrived, Teotihuacán is actually much older. But after more than a century of research, archaeologists are still struggling to trace its history.
No doubt the city began to form around 300 BC. AD, following the sedentarization of nomadic populations in the region. Its real development, probably dating back to the dawn of the Christian era, seems to have been favored by the trade in obsidian - this vitrified black volcanic rock so sought after in the absence of metal - to make sharp objects. 50 km north of the city, the Cerro de las Navajas is home to Mexico's richest obsidian mine.
Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon
Covering more than 36 km2, Teotihuacán probably already had 50 to 000 inhabitants in the 100nd century AD. All eyes were already converging on the sacred ceremonial center that we discover today.
La pyramid of the sun, the highest (63 m), was built first. The other monuments of the city are all oriented according to its position, in an apparent cosmic harmony.
Its main facade is placed in the axis that the sun takes when it rises towards its zenith: a sign of the fundamental importance of a solar cult. From the summit, reached by a series of 248 steps, the panorama is incomparable.
Discovered in 1971, a mysterious underground passage leads beneath the very center of the Pyramid of the Sun to a cave shaped like a four-leaf clover. A theory is advanced: the ancients perhaps located, in this sanctuary cave, the birthplace of their world and the passage to the afterlife.
La pyramid of the moon, lower than that of the Sun (46 m), nevertheless culminates at the same height due to a difference in level Way of the Dead. Built later (around the year 300), it sees opening at its feet a very large plaza framed by small pyramidal structures.
To the west, the Quetzalpapalotl Palace, which no doubt served as a residence for the high priests, the Jaguar Palace and Temple of the Feathered Snails keep beautiful bas-reliefs and remains of wall paintings, which feature funny critters: butterfly quetzals and feathered jaguars!
Bigger than rome
Ideally located at the confluence of trade routes, Teotihuacán experienced an era of great prosperity until around the year 500. Did it then have 150, 000 inhabitants? Some even speak of half a million people! One thing is certain: it then extended its economic, political and ideological power to the distant Mayan country, on the borders of present-day Guatemala.
South of Miccaotli, the Citadel complex - so named by mistake by the conquistadors - actually housed the administrative buildings of this powerful state. There was also a vast forum and the splendid Quetzalcóatl temple, of which several levels of construction have been cleared.
Feathered and conch snakes cover the stone, alongside odd representations with big round eyes - identified by some as Tláloc, the rain god, by others as the fiery serpent. Here and there, some traces remind us that most of the teotihuacános monuments were painted red!
Offerings and mass graves, including the remains of 137 people probably sacrificed during the dedication of the temple, have been unearthed. Other discoveries, in other buildings, bring us back to this dark side of the city: women buried alive in structures, beheaded prisoners ...
An always mysterious city
The excavations confirm the existence of a very structured society, where traders and artisans occupied a special place. They lived in their own quarters, outside the ceremonial center: thus, Tetitla made pulque (agave alcohol) and Atetelco worked obsidian.
The walls of the most beautiful villas were adorned with splendid paintings of animals, warriors and almighty gods. In Tepantitlán, the most beautiful, known as the “paradise of Tláloc” abounds in green and yellow characters on a blood-red background.
Different peoples seem to have occupied these different neighborhoods: Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mayas… From here to concluding that Teotihuacán was at the head of a multi-ethnic state, there was only one step, taken by some archaeologists.
In the XNUMXth century, the Franciscan chronicler Juan de Torquemada reported that the Totonacs claimed to be the fathers of the city. We also talked about the Nahuas, the Otomis. DNA analyzes could not decide. Will we ever really know?
Without writing, the very language of the Teotihuacános remains unknown to us. No one even knows what they called their city! For a reason still unexplained, this one knew a sharp decline around the year 650.
Soon the residential neighborhoods went up in smoke, possibly destroyed by a revolt of the lower classes or the onslaught of a mysterious invader. Confident in their power or that of their gods, the Teotihuacános had never erected walls!
To prepare for your trip, consult our Mexico online guide
Official website of the Mexican Ministry of Tourism
How to get there from Mexico?
Frequent buses (every 20-30 minutes) connect Mexico City to Teotihuacán from approximately 7 am to 18 pm, departing from Terminal Autobuses del Norte (served by the metro); violent gang attacks were reported in 2012, but the police have been fairly present since. The journey takes about 1 hour.
To fully enjoy Teotihuacán, the ideal is to stay the night before in the pleasant Villa Arqueológica, located at the gates of the site.
Unesco page dedicated to the Teotihuacán site (in French)