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Dave and Jan's travels, day 186:

21st November
In point of fact, this will be the story of our visit to not just Teotihuacán, but also to Cacaxtla.

In any case, Teotihuacán is the main attraction. The word means "City of gods". The name was probably assigned by the Mexica (Aztecs) because by the time of their ascendancy in the fourteenth century, Teotihuacán was already a mysterious ruin. To this day very little is known about the people who built the place: you can tell this by, for example, the verbose explanatory signs dotting the site that don't actually tell you anything apart from what you can see. Stuff like: "...just in front of you is a low wall, and beyond that a small courtyard with a short staircase whose use isn't clear. Around the whole is an ornately carved wall and some pillars. The high quality of the work makes it likely that this building was occupied by some one of importance....". Actually this isn't a fair example: the Spanish is like that, but the English version was clearly created by someone whose Spanish was rather superior to their English.

Enough carping. It's a magical place. Returning along the avenue late afternoon, I had a real sense of permanence and majesty. This was a civilisation that lasted several hundred years and produced great art, a pretty stable and content population, and some lasting memorials. It doesn't seem obvious that we will make much more of a mark. And we're only seeing the faint shadow of former glory: to have seen it a thousand or more years ago, with all the buildings in perfect condition and brightly painted, must have been incredible. Mind you, at least we don't sacrifice small children by the hundred to Tlaloc the Rain God.

The city actually covered 20 square kilometers, and the archaeologists guess that the city had 200,000 inhabitants at its height. The only part that's been excavated would have been the religious, civic and ceremonial heart. It's remarkable for its symmetry and proportions: this is not just a group of big buildings, but a designed layout spanning a few mile. I didn't expect urban planning on this grand scale to ave taken place 2,000 years ago, and it certainly puts Milton Keynes in context.

The layout is pretty simple. The "Avenue of the Dead" runs for several kilometers north to south. At the southern end of the excavated area is a crossroads that would have been the centre of the town, and near there is the "Quadrangle", a large walled area containing a pyramid dedicated to the god Quetzacoatl, which is decorated with expertly carved and rather hideous sculptures in his honour.

As you walk up the Avenue of the Dead you pass all manner of smallish pyramids and other dwellings, but the main impression is of a lordly road that is clearly going somewhere pretty significant. After a kilometer, you reach the Pyramid of the Sun, apparently the third largest pyramid in the world (Cheops in Egypt is number two, and Cholula elsewhere in Mexico, is number one). In any case, it is very big indeed and pretty hard work to climb in the bleeding sun I can tell you. The views are lovely though.

Descend from there, and carry on up the avenue, and you come to the Pyramid of the Moon. Not quite as large as the Pyramid of the Sun, this one is however my favourite, as it has a much nicer set of proportions, and is set at the end of the avenue with a elegant set of adjoining buildings, including a beautifully carved priests' HQ and a couple of altars.

The next day we pootled off to Cacaxtla. This is even older and fairly recently discovered. It's another huge pyramid, but the attraction of this place is some incredibly well-preserved 1,200 year old murals. The battlescene at the right shows some sort of punch-up between the jaguar and bird warrior groups. It has survived this well because it was walled up shortly after being painted, along with the apparently mandatory small human sacrifice.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Pyramid of the Moon

Quetzacoatl Temple

Priestly carving

Battle mural, Cacaxtla