Where Time and Water Flow


The gods had their beginning … there in Teotihuacan.


Teotihuacan was the birthplace of the gods and of time itself, according to legends recorded long after the great city’s decline. In its heyday, roughly AD 100–500, Teotihuacan was revered by cultures as distant as the Maya, over 1,600 km (1,000 miles) to the east. The city itself was a cosmopolis in the literal and modern senses: an axis mundi where heavens and underworld converged, and a sophisticated multi-ethnic capital with enclaves of people from Monte Albán in Oaxaca, 350 km (220 miles) southeast, and from the Gulf lowlands 200 km (125 miles) to the east. The city’s merchants carried goods to communities all over ancient Mexico and Central America, and its symbols became enduring emblems of power for rulers elsewhere.

Teotihuacan’s size matched its influence. Extending over 20 sq. km (8 sq. miles) and with a population of perhaps 100,000 by AD 400, it was the largest city in the Americas until AD 1519 and the Aztec empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan. The orientation of Teotihuacan’s major avenues and monuments and their precise dimensions and proportions reveal close attention to the site’s placement in its natural environment and spiritual cosmos. In plan, the modernity of the gridded complex of pyramids and apartment compounds at Teotihuacan is strikingly unlike the convoluted streets characteristic of many other ancient cities of the Old and New Worlds. The grid is diagonal to the natural slope of the hill on which it lies, effectively channelling downslope rainfall runoff through the city to the spring line, where water from the heavens and that from the earth merged in a canal system sanctified by state-controlled water temples. Teotihuacan’s urban development was enmeshed with the evolution of the city’s religion, as civil engineering on a vast scale changed the city’s physical and spiritual relationship to the essential resource in least abundance: water.

The Pyramid of the Sun, as seen from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon: the largest structure at Teotihuacan, and one of the largest in the Americas, it was built in several stages, reaching its final size in AD 225. Seeing its form against the distant mountain range, we can recognize its architects’ intent to represent an effigy mountain.

Angelo Cavalli/SuperStock.

The mature city’s rulers and architects may have planned and built an urban construct fit for deities, but the origins of settlement in this area, the Teotihuacan Valley, were late and modest, due to a challenging climate. A cold, dry region, about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of modern Mexico City and at an altitude of 2,240 m (7,306 ft), it has a long frost season and its low annual rainfall is delivered in torrential storms that gouge gullies out of the valley’s slopes. Thus effective cultivation of maize, the staple food crop, required well-planned intensification. The Teotihuacan Valley was eventually settled by overflow population from more productive regions, such as the warmer and wetter southwestern sector now home to Mexico City. The largest centre there, Cuicuilco, was located in the shadow of great volcanoes. About 2,000 years ago it was buried so deeply by lava that its 20-m (66-ft) high pyramid could only be excavated, in modern times, with jackhammers.

After this, Teotihuacan’s population exploded, and most scholars believe that Cuicuilco’s refugees became Teotihuacan’s workforce, and that the great pyramids rising at this time were built by these labourers, directed by the Teotihuacanos according to a plan aligned to landscape features and the heavens, and able to manage the flow of rainfall runoff. The great north–south axis of the ‘Street of the Dead’ (as a later culture called it) was orientated slightly east of north, perpendicular to a sightline to a western horizon marker from a cave under the Pyramid of the Sun. This may commemorate a celestial arrangement on 11 August 3113 BC, the beginning of the present universe as calculated by Teotihuacanos, Maya and other Mesoamericans.

The oldest of the city’s monuments is the Pyramid of the Moon, dominating the Street of the Dead’s northern portion. The Pyramid of the Sun dominated the centre. The final great monuments formed a southern complex straddling the street. The matched pair of huge enclosures covered about 0.5 km sq. (123 acres): on the east, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent was encompassed by the ‘Ciudadela’ (Citadel), and faced the Great Compound on the west. Through them, and perpendicular to the Street of the Dead, ran the axis of a straight avenue extending for miles to east and west.

Teotihuacan from the air shows the impressive monumental city grid and the three pyramids (from the north): Moon, Sun and Feathered Serpent (bottom centre). The line of trees zig-zagging across the southern half of the Street of the Dead is the river that was canalized before developing the southern complex.


Construction of the three great pyramid-temples took place over several centuries, with much of the population living in shacks. While the sheer volume of the pyramids and their surroundings is an obvious statement of high construction investment, this represents only a fraction of the effort required. Before development of the southern complex, the valley’s largest river (now the Rio de San Juan) flowed across the building site. The river was re-routed for over 0.5 km (⅓ mile), with half of this distance conforming to the city’s grid as the canalized river crosscut the Street of the Dead, hugging the northern edge of the southern complex before turning south and then west for half a kilometre. This east–west stretch gave travellers entering the city from the west a glittering sightline pointing directly towards the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent’s front façade, with a temple atop seven sculpted and painted levels of swimming feathered serpents, their bas-relief streams echoing the canalized river.

Teotihuacan’s pyramids were funerary monuments, and this final pyramid in the city’s history was particularly costly: hundreds of human sacrifices underlie the structure. But within decades the façade was damaged and masked by a severely simple addition, as if to erase the memory of its iconographic programme and its expenditure of human lives. The Feathered Serpent remained important to the city, but broad changes involved new perspectives on spiritual and economic power.

The city’s energies turned towards practical matters including housing the populace and organizing the civic and agricultural drainage systems. About 2,000 walled apartment compounds were built, aligned according to the city’s grid system. Overall, the compounds were square, averaging 60 m (about 200 ft) on a side, their windowless outer walls protecting an interior divided up into groups of single-storey rooms around open-air patios. Compounds varied considerably in quality of construction and affluence of material goods. The largest – the Street of the Dead Complex, probably the city’s administrative palace – was over 300 m (985 ft) on a side. At the other end of the social spectrum were shabby aggregates of conjoined rooms around patios, such as Tlajinga, at the city’s southern edge. Between them in size and quality were well-made mansions such as Zacuala, Tepantitla and Tetitla. Some compounds, such as Quetzalpapalotl and the Ciudadela compounds, may have housed priests.

Drainage systems ran around and through the compounds, evidence of sophisticated city planning. These not only contributed to the health of the citizenry, but also fed the irrigation system spreading out from the city’s springs. Productivity there was consequently several times greater than that of upslope fields dependent on rainfall. These activities occurred at a critical juncture for the city’s population, boosting its food supply.

Teotihuacan’s art shifted its ideological emphasis away from the Feathered Serpent, associated with rain, towards jaguars, evoking water from springs as well as the power of rulers. These changes are evident in the murals painted in the apartment compounds, which depict many kinds of supernatural beings, as well as elaborately garbed officials of the state and cults. An example from the Tetitla compound depicts a jaguar dressed in accoutrements of power, and facing a water temple built over a spring. Both the jaguar’s costume and the temple decorations artfully combine rare and costly materials that have iconographic significance across Mesoamerica. Jaguar skins covered rulers’ thrones, and discs of jadeite were the most precious of all materials in ancient Mexico. Temple and jaguar are topped by panaches of the long green feathers of the rare tropical quetzal bird.

The Feathered Serpent deity had worshippers all over Mesoamerica, and its temple-pyramid at Teotihuacan is the city’s third largest. Sculpted heads of the deity emerging from a frame of feathers were a repeated motif covering the tiers of the structure.

© Rafał Cichawa/Dreamstime.com.

While the stylistic conventions of Teotihuacan mural art challenge the modern eye, this mural’s message is clear about water worship. The temple (left) is covered with symbols of wealth and power – jaguar skin, jades and feathers – and from its entrance gushes spring water. The jaguar, symbolizing rulership, kneels in reverence.

Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, D. C.

Jadeite, jaguar skins and quetzal feathers were brought to Teotihuacan by long-distance traders in exchange for Teotihuacan products such as green obsidian, prized all over Mesoamerica. They also exported pottery vessels in Teotihuacan style; some were stuccoed and painted, abbreviated, small-scale versions of the murals. And the traders carried ideas about cycles of time, legitimacy of rulership and the ascendancy of important deities. Several major centres in the Maya lowlands – Tikal and Copán in particular – show direct influence by Teotihuacan before AD 400, possibly involving the installation of a Teotihuacan-related ruler. These dynastic interruptions were short-lived, but the Maya used symbols of power borrowed from Teotihuacan for hundreds of years after Teotihuacan’s decline.

This decline occurred after a conflagration early in the 6th century AD, ravaging monuments along the Street of the Dead. Whether caused by internal rebellion or external invasion, the event devastated the vital ceremonial core of the city. The population dropped precipitously and clustered into a few peripheral neighbourhoods. These settlements persisted for centuries, and are now the modern towns that surround the great World Heritage site of Teotihuacan.

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