The Pyramids of Teotihuacan

In the days of its glory, Teotihuacan was one of the great cities, not only of the Americas, but of the world. With lucrative trade routes and a population that may have reached 200,000, it was the most influential city in Central America, and even after the city was burned and abandoned, its memory was kept alive for centuries by the Toltecs and Aztecs, who looked with wonder on the massive architecture of its temple district.  Today, it is this same temple district that remains for the visitor.

Teotihuacan is part of the Valley of Mexico, lying to the northeast of Mexico City.  Its rise and fall coincide closely with the beginning and end of the Classic Period, and the great Postclassic powers of the Mexican Valley, the Toltecs and Aztecs, both looked to Teotihuacan for inspiration and legitimacy.  At the height of its power, its influence was felt among the Maya city-states; and like them, it fell from power at the end of the Classic Period.  The city was burned, destroying much of the evidence of its culture.  While the city had extended for miles, it was mainly the collection of pyramids, temples and palaces along the Avenue of the Dead that remained largely intact.

Until recently, many thought that Teotihuacan was a preliterate society.  A few glyphs have been found, establishing that this culture did have the ability to write, but too few have been found even to recover its language, let alone its history.  The names given to the structures surviving along the Avenue of the Dead are, at best, the names reported to the Spanish by the Aztecs, who reconstructed much of their impressions of Teotihuacan through the medium of myth.  The identification of the two older pyramids as “Pyramid of the Moon” and “Pyramid of the Sun” may be fanciful, but there is good reason for associating the third large pyramid with Quetzalcoatl, even if the name of the god worshipped there was different.

Just east of the Avenue of the Dead (itself an Aztec name based on supposition) is the Pyramid of the Sun, the oldest structure in Teotihuacan. This wide, shallow-sloped pyramid was built at the beginning of the city’s greatness, before the invention of the more familiar Mesoamerican pyramid style known as talud-tablero (a style that alternates sloping layers with layers built at right angles perpendicular to the ground).  At 207 feet in height, it is the tallest building at Teotihuacan; in all of Central America, only the pyramid at Cholula is taller.

This pyramid is built of brick, not of dressed stone, supplemented by rubble; originally, the outer surface was covered with stucco.  It is believed to have been painted red.  It was built atop a large cave; the spiritual importance of caves in the Mesoamerican world as entrances to the land of the dead may be an important reason for the choice of location for this pyramid. The specific purpose of this pyramid remains conjectural; some have argued that it was dedicated to the rain-god known in Nahuatl as Tlaloc, citing the presence of the cave as evidence.  Others suggest that the name “Pyramid of the Sun” is apt, observing that the axis of the temple is aligned with the rising and setting of the sun, and more narrowly, with the equinoctial appearance of the Pleiades.

At the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Pyramid of the Moon.  Built shortly after the Pyramid of the Sun in the same style and with the same materials, this pyramid is a little shorter, but sited on higher ground.  Like its counterpart, its precise purpose is not known, but a statue of a water goddess, comparable to the Aztec Chalchihuitlicue, was discovered in the Plaza of the Moon before the pyramid.  If the apparent association is correct, this pyramid would be the temple of a water goddess.  Archaeological investigation of the pyramid has found the remains of human sacrifices as well as jaguar remains.

At the southern end of the Avenue, on the eastern side, is a newer complex known as the Castillo.  The Castillo is dominated by the newer, talud-tablero pyramid of Quetzalcoatl.  The language spoken at Teotihuacan may not have been part of the Nahuatl family, and so the name may be incorrect, but the affinity of the feathered serpent represented here with the Toltec and Aztec Quetzalcoatl is clear.  If the Mayans could identify Kukulkan with Quetzalcoatl, it is unlikely that the Aztecs were wrong in making the same association here.

The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was built around 200 AD, somewhat later than the other major pyramids, and its location near the political center of Teotihuacan suggest a connection between the cult and the leadership of the city.  The outer surface of this temple was sumptuously decorated with images of feathered serpents; another image, alternating with sculptures of the feathered serpent’s head, has traditionally been compared to the face of the rain-god Tlaloc, but more recent interpretations have suggested it might represent another mythic figure like Cipactli, which resembles an alligator.  Other images, such as seashells, suggest a thematic association with water.

There may also be a connection between the imagery of the temple and the sacral calendar.  The latter calendar consisted of 260 days, and the first day was known as cipactli.  Inside the temple, the remains of human sacrifices have been found, 260 in number.  The metaphysical importance of this number makes it unlikely to be mere coincidence.

The vicinity of the Avenue of the Dead is covered with numerous lesser pyramids, palace structures, even a marketplaces.  Archaeologically, these are also important, not least because they include the precious few examples of writing preserved in Teotihuacan.  It seems, however, that in the lifetime of the Teotihuacan culture, these three pyramids were the most important temples, and they were the structures that most impressed those who came afterward.


• Domenici, Davide.  White Star Guides Archaeology: Mexico.  White Star, 2002.

• Ferguson, William M. and Richard E.W. Adams.  Mesoamerica’s Ancient Cities.  University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

• Longhena, Maria.  Ancient Mexico.  Barnes & Noble, 1998.


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