There’s a reason everybody loves Indiana Jones. Crumbling ruins, ancient mysteries, and historical intrigue make for a compelling story. Of course, most archaeologists and historians will gawk at the suggestion that there is anything to learn from these films, and might perhaps even cite Indy himself — never does “X” mark the spot.
But that’s not a problem at Teotihuacan, named “the birthplace of gods” by the Aztecs, where over two thousand years of history remains on full display today. Located just northeast of Mexico City, the ancient site is significant for its stunning, well-preserved architecture and historical treasures, and serves as an overwhelmingly popular tourist destination. Whether you’re looking to stroll through the Avenue of the Dead or are caught choosing between climbing the Pyramid of the Sun or the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan has plenty to offer those looking for an adventure.
At one point among the largest urban spaces on earth, with a population that approached nearly 200,000 in 550 CE, Teotihuacan is today a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Mexico’s most visited historical places. From its towering pyramids to its intricate sculptures, much of the city remains surprisingly intact, having weathered hundreds of years of man-inflicted and natural erosion.
But these structures belie a past shrouded in mystery. The abundance of artifacts and archaeological evidence give us plenty of clues — as does the city’s urban design — but like any other ancient society, there are more questions than answers. We’re not sure who founded the city, why it collapsed, and what allowed it to thrive seemingly unchallenged for so long. Teotihuacan’s history and culture are the subject of fierce debate, and remain alluring to academics and laypeople alike.
For this reason, IVY is partnering with San Francisco’s incredible de Young Museum to offer our members an exclusive, docent-led tour through its special exhibit, called Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire. Created to help its viewers “explore how artworks from the ancient city shape our understanding of Teotihuacan as an urban environment,” this comprehensive exhibit combines loaned artifacts from other museums, detailed models and paintings, and never-before-seen archaeological discoveries to offer a detailed look into the city and the people who lived there.
To give you a better sense of what this tour has to offer, and the environment it explores, we’ve included a brief timeline of the Teotihuacan’s history, outlining some of its architectural achievements and cultural practices. While this will give you some idea, if you’re interested in learning more, you should join us on the tour, or even visit the city for yourself. Nothing beats the real thing (but we hear the lines up the pyramids are brutal!).
200 – 100 BCE: The Founding
Teotihuacan was the largest city to have existed in the Western Hemisphere until the 1400s, but that’s not a lot of help when it comes to determining who its founders were and when they settled there. We don’t know much about the city’s origins, though archaeologists have determined that its oldest buildings were constructed around the second century BCE, indicating the first settlements in what would eventually become the sixth largest city on earth. Some scholars believe that Teotihuacan was founded by refugees from the nearby Cuicuilco settlement, but this too remains unclear.
100 BCE – 100 CE: Teotihuacan Rising
From its mysterious origins, Teotihuacan grew quickly, most likely the result of rich mineral deposits used to bolster the city’s economy and a complex irrigation system to support its agriculture. Like contemporary and later societies on the Yucatan Peninsula, Teotihuacan benefitted from an abundance of wild game that included turkeys, deer, rabbits, and many other species, and regularly traded in valuable crops like cocoa, avocados, squash, and tomatoes. Its inhabitants appear to have had a complex writing system in the form of glyphs, which, though not as well understood as say, Egyptian Hieroglyphics or Ancient Greek, probably influenced later cultures and is still the subject of debate today.
100 CE – 300 CE: Built to Last
What is overwhelmingly clear, however, is that the Teotihuacanos were above all else master craftsmen, whose structures still stand today. By 200 CE, the city’s pyramids had been completed, with the tallest, the Pyramid of the Sun, stretching toward the sky at a whopping 75m — not bad work for a time when the Roman Empire still reigned supreme. Thought its founders uncertain, by this time the city probably supported a “patchwork of cultures,” and was well on its way to becoming the dominant player in Western world.
300 CE – 500 CE: Zenith
By the mid-sixth century, modern-day Europe was headed for the “dark ages,” but Teotihuacan was in full swing. With a massive population and a robust economy, the city had become a bustling metropolis, complete with amenities that most of its contemporaries could only dream of. Of course, hard work requires sacrifice, and for the Teotihuacanos, that was a steep price to pay. Modern archaeologists have uncovered massive grave sites that reveal extensive ritualistic animal — and human — sacrifice, that instilled a sense of religious unity, and perhaps more importantly, fear among the city’s inhabitants. After all, what better way to bind a diverse population than with a shared sentiment of “I’d rather not be ritualistically slaughtered!”
550 CE – Present: The Rest is History
It’s been said that all good things must come to an end, and the same is true for the great ancient city of Teotihuacan. Much like its founding, its demise remains a mystery, with some scholars arguing that the city was invaded, others citing internal strife and a class-based rebellion, and others still blaming a volcanic eruption or natural disaster. Whatever the case, years after its demise, the Aztecs came to appreciate the ruinous city, and so bestowed upon it the name we use today. Since then, the city remains a constant source of wonder and intrigue, and a reminder of the profound abilities of our ancient forbears.
To learn more about Teotihuacan and its secrets, please consider joining IVY on our tour to the de Young Museum’s City of Water, City of Fire exhibit on October 21. We hope to see you there!