Overview of the Ancient City

By Research Professor Saburo Sugiyama

The ceremonial center of Teotihuacan was characterized by its exceptionally precise urban planning, a consistent orientation and its outstanding monumentality, represented by three pyramids: the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.

The monuments and housing compounds that spread over more than 20 square kilometers apparently operated as a ritual and pilgrimage center originally, and then became a truly metropolitan city where intra- and interstate socio-economic activities took place well beyond the Mexican Central highland areas.

However, Teotihuacan was mostly destroyed sometime during the 6th century, with still unspecified reasons. The city was thereafter target for looting or mortuary activities, gradually becoming a legendary spot in the following centuries.

Around the 15th century, the Aztecs found the city in ruins, with only large mounds, and called it “Teotihuacan,” meaning “the place of the gods,” in their Nahuatl language. They believed this to be the sacred place, according to the post-Classic myth of creation, where the gods sacrificed themselves to create the present world, the Sun, the Moon and lives of the natural world. This mythological concept of sacred space remained for centuries, and after so long, it was still applied to interpret findings of this ancient city in early 20th-century archaeological projects.

Recent excavations at the monuments are changing views on Teotihuacan’s mythological origin and providing new historical perspectives.

We now know that the pyramids did not sustain a single, permanent form for centuries, as Teotihuacan leaders modified, enlarged or partially destroyed the pyramids throughout the city’s history. Rulers used to perform sacrificial rituals of people and powerful animals at the monuments to proclaim their power with militarism, which had a great impact on urban life, as well as on other aspects of the Mexican Highlands.

Additionally, burial discoveries indicate that the three pyramids were closely related.

In summary, new data indicate that the people of Teotihuacan were obsessed with capturing their cosmological ideas at a large scale through human sacrificial rituals and sacred warfare.

Teotihuacan was one of the most influential pilgrimage centers of the North American continent, attracting numerous people from different ethnic groups under strong centralized government leadership.

General view of the northern section of the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan. Aerial photo from balloon by Saburo Sugiyama.