Travel Story 

Teothuacan and Tenochtitlan

Beneath the sprawling megalopolis of Mexico City lie the temples and ghosts of ancient civilizations

When we checked in at Cancun airport and picked up our boarding passes for Mexico City. I fully expected to say goodby to sunshine and fresh air and steeled myself for a week of lung-searing smog. But when we arrived two and a half hours later Mexico's notoriously polluted capital city was bathed in bright sunshine. A dusting of fresh snow covered the surrounding hills and Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl the two towering volcanoes, east of the city, were etched against a clear blue sky. A freak storm had cleared out the smog and for the next three days the air was cool, fresh, and clear – the way it must have been thousands of years ago when the Valle de Mexico, the place where Mexico City now stands, was covered by the shallow waters of Lago de Texcoco.

Human settlers were drawn to the lake as early as 10,000 years ago and by 200 B.C. the surrounding highland valley had become a thriving agricultural area with dozens of small independent villages. By the 5th century A.D. the planned city of Teothuacan had been built 25 km northeast of the lake. With an estimated population of 125,000 people it was the biggest of Mexico's pre-Hispanic cities but, in the 7th century A.D., before the Aztecs or the Spanish arrived, Teothuacan was plundered, burned, and abandoned.

The magnificent grid-plan city of Teothuacan once covered an area of 20 square km and although only a portion of this has been restored the size and complexity of the site are truly awesome. Standing in the Plaza de la Luna at the foot of the Pyramid of the Moon we are surrounded by 12 massive temple platforms, each with a steep, stone stairway facing the square. From the Plaza the broad Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) runs, straight as an arrow for two kilometers, past the Pyramid of the Sun to the Templo de Quetzalcoatl with its stone carvings of sharp-fanged feathered serpents.

The massive 70 metre high Pyramid del Sol is the world's third largest pyramid. We climbed its 248 steps for a spectacular overview of the entire ancient city. Below us the great buildings along the Avenue of the Dead are laid out in perfect geometric order. The broad street owes its morbid name to the Aztecs who mistook the buildings for massive tombs built by giants for departed rulers. Today Teothuacan is an intensely studied archeological site and researchers believe the buildings were, in fact, apartment complexes where the priests in charge of Sun worship lived.

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