Is there anything more awe inspiring than a visit to ancient ruins? I felt this way when I visited the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and felt the same way three years later when I toured the archaeological site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. It is home to some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Colombian Americas and the translation of its name into English-“where man met the gods”-is perfectly fitting.
Teotihuacan is located approximately 25 miles northeast of the capital Mexico City and covers a total surface area of 32 square miles. The biggest difference between Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan is the starkness of the landscape. Chichen Itza is located in the midst of immense jungle (as are many of the Mayan ruins) and is why it remained “undiscovered” by non-indigenous populations for centuries. Teotihuacan, however, is situated in the Valley of Mexico, a highlands plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. There is no verdant green at Teotihuacan, rather only vast stretches of yellow and brown hues in a terrain that could best be described as arid.
The Valley of Mexico has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years with numerous civilizations developing there including Teotihuacan, the Toltecs and the Aztec Empire. It’s estimated that in the first millennium, the population at Teotihuacan was more than 100,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world at this time. Although when I was there the ruins were certainly crowded (there was a queue to climb to the top of the famed Pyramid of the Sun), a couple of hundred people is nothing when compared with 100,000 people living there. When I gazed down at the Avenue of the Dead from atop the piramide del sol and only spotted pockets of individuals on the ground beneath me, it was amazing to think of this stretch completely congested-filled with people on the way to the market, to the temple, or even just returning home after a night of hunting. While today a population of 100,000 is quite small when compared with a city like Mexico City, whose metropolitan area is home to approximately 21 million, centuries ago this was astoundingly large. Archaeological work discovered that Teotihuacan was also home to what were probably some of the first multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate the large population. (Modern day cities like New York and Tokyo are not so different after all.)
I’ve visited some incredible structures during my travels-the aforementioned Mesoamerican ruins, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome-and with each visit to these sites, I’m rendered speechless by how such edifices could have been built without the use of modern tools and technologies. Society considers modern day to be the epoch of advancement and progress and yet can’t the same be said about 250 A.D., the year when construction on Teotihuacan finished? An entire city, most of which survives to this day thanks to careful excavation efforts, was built with what individuals in the 21st century would consider “primitive tools,” yet the job got done and clearly with good workmanship.
Civilizations have come and gone since the beginning of time (the Greek, the Carthaginian, the Mayan, the Aztec) and with each end of a civilization one wonders how its fall came to be. Although historians have always come up with hypotheses as to what exactly happened, unless one was there how would modern populations ever truly know what happened? It’s believed that Teotihuacan’s decline was related to lengthy droughts and climate changes that occurred in the mid-6th century, along with increased warfare and internal unrest. How did a city of 100,000 just fade away?
The pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China are two archaeological wonders I hope to see one day, but even more I would like to visit other famous Mesoamerican ruins. While not exactly in my backyard, countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Belize are a lot closer (and a lot cheaper) to visit and get to than places like Egypt and China. The world is indeed my oyster but my traveling loyalties will always chiefly reside with the Spanish speaking world.