One of the must-see sites in Mexico City is Teotihuacan, or the pyramids, as most people refer to them. This anthropology site is technically outside Mexico City, 40 kilometers northeast. But it’s close enough that you can visit them early in the day and be back to the city for lunch (lunch in Mexico starts around 2 pm). Before you visit Teotihuacan, we list 10 fascinating things you didn’t know about the most visited archeological site in Mexico.
1 – The early history of Teotihuacan is veiled in mystery
Little is known about its ancient builders, including their name, precise religious beliefs, or language. 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.
2 – Teotihuacan means “the place where gods were born” in Nahuatl
When the Mexicas (Aztecs) discovered the city it was already abandoned. The Mexicas were so impressed by the ruins that they gave it that name. Other possible translation is “the city where men become Gods”.
3 – Teotihuacan is immense
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).
4 – Teotihuacan was a multicultural 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.
5 – Teotihuacan was a complex urban development
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 (“Avenida de los Muertos”), that stretches 2.4 km (1.5 miles).
6 – Teotihuacan had some of the largest buildings in Mesoamerica
At a height of more than 200 feet (63 meters) and a base more than 730 feet (225 meters) long on each side, the pyramid of the Sun is one of the largest structures created in the pre-Columbian New World. It would have been completed around 200 AD.
Recent research suggests that the pyramid of the Moon was built in stages between around 1 AD and 350 AD. It started off as a small platform and eventually became a 150-foot-high (46 meters) pyramid with a base 550 feet (168 meters) by 490 feet (149 meters). Its elevated platforms were likely used for rituals that could be witnessed by people on the ground.
The temple of the Feathered Serpent is believed to have been completed sometime in the 3rd century AD. Cut in low relief on the structure are alternating heads showing Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god, and a being that appears to be Tlaloc, an ancient storm god. Found near the pyramid are the burials of about 200 people. Many of them were young men and the grave offerings suggest that they were warriors, possibly Teotihuacan’s own. The fact that many of them were found with their wrists crossed behind their backs suggests that they had been tied up and, for some reason, sacrificed. Young women and a few older men were also found, with offerings.
7 – The destruction of Teotihuacan came from inside.
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.
8 – It appears that the primary deity at Teotihuacan was female
Called the “Spider Woman” by scholars, this goddess is depicted in paintings all around the city. 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).
9 – 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.
10 – Knowledge of the 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. In modern times 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.
If you’re traveling to Mexico City we recommend taking a tour to Teotihuacan with Quest Mexico Tours. We will take you to the most relevant sites and give you a complete explanation of the latest archeological discoveries. On the way back we stop at one of the best restaurants in Mexico City for lunch. This will be one of the greatest experiences during your Mexico City stay.