Around the year 100 BCE, the most active volcano in what is now Mexico violently erupted. As a result, Popocatepetl turned the sky black, which decimated crops and destroyed local settlements. This caused a mass migration of refugees that fled north seeking the safety of shelter. They eventually found refuge in a valley and resettled in what seemed like paradise in contrast to the hell they had just been through. Having gone sixty miles from where they once lived, the refugees could no longer see the volcano or the harm it caused. This offered them a fresh start, out of chaos into a new order. In honor of this, they would go on to build an immense city that would be unparalleled in the Americas.
Teotihuacan was a Mesoamerican cosmopolitan metropolis that was first established as a small settlement around the year 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 150 CE, with the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and finally the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. In the end, the city stretched out twenty-some square miles. Plus, it was, and still is, the site of the most architecturally significant pyramids that were ever built in the Americas. The monuments are located in a sub-valley of the greater Valley of Mexico, 25 miles northeast of modern-day Mexico City.
Of these, the Pyramid of the Sun is the largest of the three main pyramids in the valley. It stands about 200 feet tall at the apex. Untold numbers of people worked countless hours hauling millions of tons of earth and sand, which was gradually piled up layer by layer in honor of the buildup of Creation itself. Then, a few generations after the Pyramid of the Sun had been constructed, the Teotihuacanos built the Pyramid of the Moon. Since all of their grand architecture had offerings built directly into it, a number of sacrifices were given in the construction of the pyramids. This included animals like pumas, coyotes, and birds of prey, which were all placed in wooden cages in the foundation and then buried alive. Along with this, about forty people were murdered in the making of the Pyramid of the Moon.
Then, in 150 CE the Teotihuacanos built the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in honor of their Creator God, who would later go on to become Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs and Kukulcan to the Maya. The new building was much different with far more planning going into its construction than the other ancient pyramids of Mesoamerica. The builders devised a kind of honeycomb design made of rock and mortar, bound by thick walls. They cemented hundreds of giant carved heads to the exterior of the structure, decorating all four facades with the mythological icon. Within the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, inside the central cell of the foundation, were placed the bodies of 20 aristocrats who were arranged into a symbolic pattern and covered with extravagant grave goods. In total, more than 260 human beings were built directly into the foundation itself. The monument served as a kind of mass grave of symmetrically arranged sacrificial victims.
Directly beneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, there is a tunnel in the bedrock that leads deep down and back into a cross-shaped set of chambers. The tunnel went into a man-made pond that symbolized the underworld where people would go to give offerings. They left treasure troves of ancient artifacts at the bottom of the sacred pool. It was seen as a ceremonial gateway to them. The tunnel to the sacred well was even encrusted with fool’s gold so it sparkled in torchlight. The effect resembled starlight in the night sky to the ancients who set out on their pilgrimages to give offerings. The architecture was all seen as being divine, so every street and every wall was square with every other. The Teotihuacanos built a perfectly geometrical city grid with the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent positioned directly in the center. It was sacred geometry writ large.
However, spirituality was soon outweighed by practicality. In the third century, city planners made significant changes to the design of Teotihuacan. The religious complex turned into far more of a metropolis with the advent of a new housing program. The idea was simply to give everyone modern amenities like plumbing. At its peak around 450 CE, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the ancient Americas, with a population of at least 125,000 inhabitants. Teotihuacan was not only one of the biggest cities in the land, but the entire world back then. The beautiful cityscape was vast and complex. As part of this, there were multi-family, multi-floor, residential apartment compounds along the central Avenue of the Dead, and so many other things to behold.
Much of the city was even adorned in exquisite murals. That is to say that the interior and exterior walls of all the major buildings were plastered and painted with state-sanctioned images. Every space was adorned with propaganda paintings. Most of the pictures depicted creation myth stories and showed images of priests and deities. A much less common theme was the depiction of daily life, like playing games. The point is that the stucco for the facades was so important to them that they would go on to cut down every tree in the forest to make it. Of course, there was something even more valuable than plaster, and the Teotihuacanos had tons of it too. The most important fact about them was that they were large scale miners of volcanic glass, specifically green obsidian.
When obsidian is broken into flakes and shards it becomes the sharpest material in the world. This is very important because the Teotihuacanos had exclusive access to obsidian, so they completely controlled the market. They mined and crafted the volcanic glass into incredibly valuable commodities that were in extremely high demand throughout Mesoamerica. Their society never needed to learn to forge metal because glass blades are sharper than steel could ever be. So, the city became a major trading hub that manufactured and distributed razor-sharp tools and weapons across the land. This was all the more important given that the spilling of blood was considered sacred, so they desperately needed the best stone age technology available. On top of that green stone was considered to be a sacred living rock to the natives, so not only did the Teotihuacanos covet their obsidian they also procured a great deal of jade from Guatemala.
The thing was that obsidian blades have very brittle edges that quickly become dull, which makes them more or less disposable, so the demand for a steady supply was always there. Since the market was supercharged, Teotihuacan grew immensely wealthy. Craftsmen were in production all day every day. As a result, more and more people migrated into the city to find work, which was always needed. The Teotihuacan officials even had to order the construction of more and more roads to export the goods further and further as time went on. This led to thousands of miles of trade routes. The expansion also included invasion, like when the Mayan city of Tikal was captured in the year 378.
To keep up with the constant housing demands over 2,000 residential compounds were put in place as part of a state-sponsored relocation project. Social engineering through political indoctrination, backed up by state symbolism, allowed the city to impose its will on the citizens in every possible way. So, lime mortar production went on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for years on end, until all the firewood was finally gone. Two millennia ago the area was covered in pine trees that were inevitably all chopped down at a rate of about 3,000 acres a year, as the city was continuously plastered and painted, day in and day out. Of course, the forests never fully recovered from the depletion, so the soil eroded and the crops failed. As a consequence, man-made environmental degradation brought on the collapse of their civilization through widespread infection and malnutrition.
Not surprisingly, in the year 550 during a vicious worker revolt, the snouts of the Feathered Serpent Creator God were smashed off of the pyramid. It was all the result of a tremendous uprising and great civil war between the rich and the poor. The outraged and starving dissenters destroyed every official building they came across. The arson included around a hundred structures in total, and after the rebellion, the city was never able to rebuild itself. So, the remaining survivors eventually just abandoned Teotihuacan. Then, much later in the 14th century, on the outskirts of the Aztec Empire, a scouting party stumbled upon the remains that had been left behind. Not knowing who built the pyramids they assumed the place must have been the work of deities, and they named the site “Teotihuacan” — the City of the Gods.
Note that this is part of a collection of essays I’m putting together, so if you haven’t read the first installment here it is.