Cultures & Traditions

Teotihuacan (Teotihuacán)

Teotihuacan has been called the first true city of the New World. This planned urban complex flourished in a pocket of the Valley of Mexico, some 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, during the period 150 BCE-750 CE. At its peak, around 600 CE, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of perhaps 200,000 people. The city occupied almost nine square miles and had 5,000 structures, of which 2,000 were residences. We do not know who the people of Teotihuacan were, what language they spoke, or what name they gave their city. The Aztecs, who associated the center with the creation of the world, called it Teotihuacan, "place of the gods."

Teotihuacan was the first metropolis in Mesoamerica to be built on a grid plan, a design that the Aztecs would imitate centuries later. The Ritual Way (the Avenue of the Dead), a grand sequence of stairways, platforms, and sunken courts, marks the main north-south axis: one proceeds northward from the Citadel (Ciudadela) and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at the southern end to the monumental Pyramid of the Sun, and then, to the Pyramid of the Moon on axis with Cerro Gordo, the sacred mountain. This concourse was more than a mile long, exceeding any comparable urban space in Europe until the creation of the Champs Élysées in Paris during the 19th century.

During the 3rd century CE, construction of religious architecture on a grand scale ceased, and the emphasis shifted to residential buildings. Spacious apartments of stone and adobe, with mural-painted rooms surrounding open courtyards, housed extended families and people of similar occupations or rank. Recent excavations have provided evidence of a sewer system and of canals that brought drinking water to the compounds.

The city was a major market center that seems to have had merchant bases or "colonies" at Matacapan in Veracruz and Kaminaljuyú in Guatemala. Merchant and warrior ambassadors from Teotihuacan established a strategic presence in the Maya city of Tikal between 200 and 400 CE, and the Tikal ruler used Teotihuacan war divinities and military regalia in imperial conquest. Although Teotihuacan was probably a stratified society with powerful rulers, it does not seem to have had a dynastic kingship.

Nature, fertility, sacrifice, and war were the primary themes of Teotihuacan art, themes expressed most eloquently in the fresco painting of murals and ceramic vessels. Although the individual elements of Teotihuacan art can seem static and impersonal, the characteristic repetition of these standardized forms creates an overall impression of harmony.

Excerpt from

Gallery text [Teotihuacan], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

Related Multimedia

Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology: Unearthing Mysteries: Famous Lost Cities; Carlson is Professor, University Honors Program, University of Maryland

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