An impressive city of 125,000 inhabitants, Teotihuacan was the first large metropolis in the Americas. Teotihuacan, as the city and its people are now called, is a Náhuatl name that means “Birthplace of the Gods” and given by the Aztec centuries after it was abandoned. Very little is known of the people who built Teotihuacan, and as a result much of our knowledge of the site is derived from the Aztec, who attributed names and significance to its buildings but had no contact with this earlier culture. Largely created before 250 C.E., Teotihuacan is a testament to the ambition of its people, who not only built the first American city, but who also introduced urban planning.
In keeping with the stratified nature of other Mesoamerican societies, Teotihuacan also benefitted from rulers who commissioned architectural landmarks such as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Due to the lack of royal palaces and graves, the minimal presence of figurative sculpture, and as-of-yet undeciphered hieroglyphs, the governing system of Teotihuacan remains largely elusive to scholars. Nevertheless, the dramatic monumental architecture and dense urban fabric, reveal a complex environment carefully planned to support a large population but also structured by the surrounding natural environment and by the heavens.
The city of Teotihuacan is aligned like the Olmec city, La Venta, on a north-south axis. This alignment is made explicit by the central artery, known as the Avenue of the Dead, which extends 1.5 miles across the city. Entering the city from the south, the Avenue of the Dead leads visitors to the city’s three main architectural monuments, the Pyramid of the Moon (top of page) located at the northernmost point, the Pyramid of the Sun further down the avenue (below), and the Ciudadela, a sunken plaza at the southernmost tip that contained temples, including the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (above). In the distance and behind the Pyramid of the Moon, visitors can also catch a glimpse of the impressive Cerro Gordo, an extinct volcano. Running perpendicular to the Avenue of the Dead another street follows the San Juan River. These axes help to define the grid of intersecting horizontal and vertical corridors that structure and organize the city plan. The urban grid was a common feature of ancient Roman garrisons and towns and helped to establish order for religious, domestic, and commercial complexes and a structural coherence that supported the management of the city and its population.
The Pyramid of the Sun, which reaches a height of 200 feet, was the tallest structure in the Americas at the time. Built over a cave, it is unclear who, or what, the pyramid was built to commemorate although art historians have suggested that creation mythology may be at issue, since they often refer to caves. Located on the eastern side of the Avenue of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun is framed by the surrounding mountains, demonstrating the harmonious relationship between architecture and natural topography. The pyramid was meant to be viewed and approached from the East. Visitors can still climb the pyramid’s steep staircase which originates near the Avenue of the Dead and rises over five levels to what is now a bare flattened top.