There are some things that are so beyond the range of your normal tourist sightseeing that it’s hard to do them justice in a blog post. Of course, experiences like swimming under a two-thousand-year-old Roman aqueduct spanning the river Gard near Nîmes in southern France, or emerging from the labyrinthine arches of Córdoba’s Mezquita into the Catholic Cathedral, which it hosts, are extraordinary experiences, but the prehispanic city of Teotihuacán, which we visited this week, was not like anything I’d ever been to. El Pirámide del Sol, the bigger of the city’s two pyramids, is the third-biggest pyramid in the world, so unless you’ve been to Giza, in Egypt, which I haven’t, you’re experiencing human-made things on a different scale in Teotihuacán.
The city lies an hour and a half drive north-east of our base here in CDMX; for us, an Uber ride of, sadly, grinding drabness away. Lake Texcoco, the lake upon which Mexico City (then Tenochtitlán) was built, wasn’t too far away two millennia ago when the city was first laid out. Nowadays the only vestiges of the lake are to the south of CDMX, at Xochimilco. We hadn’t left the house as early as we might have, not setting foot on the site until 8:45, by which time the site had been open nearly two hours. As soon as we went through the ticket booth, however, we were amazed and exhilarated to find ourselves virtually the only people on the main north-south axis: the Avenida de los Muertos. Looking towards the Pirámide de la Luna a few kilometres away, we could barely see a soul.
We walked north, along the main thoroughfare of a city that was occupied from 100 BCE to 750 CE (although the last hundred or so years were ones of gradual decline leading to the eventual abandonment of the city). There were canals and water reservoirs, markets, temples (some of which were on top of the pyramids), separate foreigners’ areas; in all some two-thousand residential complexes. But as to who the 200,000 people were who lived here, or what language they spoke – no-one can be sure. Just like today’s great cities, Teotihuacán was most likely a potpourri of ethnicities and languages, presumably on account of the large number of migrants who found their way there.
Considering the Avenida de los Muertos is two kilometres long, you do a lot of walking getting from pyramid to temple. And then there’s the ascent of the monumentally large Pirámide del Sol itself. Steep of staircase it may be, but the alternating talud-tablero style means that the ascent is punctuated by several flat, levelled-off spots. Being on top of the ancient Mexican world turned out to be an enjoyably communal experience, with plenty of people now arriving, taking photos, sitting down to catch their breath, and appropriately enough, raising their hands in homage to the sun.
The influence of the city spread via trade routes, as far as Tikal, the city towering high above the jungle in northern Guatemala. We had a South American couple stay with us back in Brisbane during the year (he Argentinian, she Chilean) who almost persuaded us to visit Tikal so highly did they rate it. But in the end we decided there’d be more than enough to see when we got to Mexico, especially in the Yucatán area, without resorting to taking a boneshaker through the Petén with two kids when there would be plenty left unseen in Mexico.
I admit it – by the time we got to the Pirámide de la Luna we were beginning to flag in the heat and the dust. I, alone of our group, ascended the steep stairs to the first platform (you can’t go any further for the time being). Sitting there high up in front of La Luna, looking down at Tina and the boys sitting on the low altar in the Plaza of the Moon (you can just about see them in the featured image at top, sitting on the right-hand side on the steps facing me), and out along the Avenida towards the Citadel and the mountains beyond, I rejoiced at finally getting out of the museums, where we’d seen so much stuff about ancient Mexico, and actually into the element itself.