Teotihuacan: City of the Gods
By: Gus Perea
In Search of The Great Mexican Pyramids is a film produced in 1997 by the History Channel. The 50 minute film was an installment in a series called In Search of History. The film depicts the mystery that the Teotihuacan temple represents and its importance. The great Teotihuacan society built the largest and first known metropolis in Mesoamerica. It has become one of the wonders of the world, and its air of mystery still intrigues archeologists today. Little is known about the temple because the Teotihuacan had no form of writing system, so its history disappeared along with its inhabitants. What little we do know helps us put together their past. The film describes the theory that the reason for the start of the Teotihuacan society was a great volcano that hit an earlier civilization which had created the same monuments. Mesoamerican cultures were very devoted to their gods, and it is said that before the volcano hit they were under the belief that the gods loved them and were on their side. After the volcano, their perspective changed and they believed that the reason for the volcano was because the gods were displeased with them. After the catastrophe the people of this ancient civilization dispersed, and a large group of them arrived at what we now call Teotihuacan. They built large pyramids to show their devotion to the gods. The center pyramid was their largest, built in honor of the Sun god; this structure was called the Pyramid of the Sun. At the bottom of this pyramid, a large underground cave was found. In Mesoamerica there was a strong belief that life started underground. The discovery of this cave may have shown that the Teotihuacan people believed that this was the center of the world, or that the world started from this point.
The City was approximately eight miles long, arranged and aligned relative to the stars. The Pyramid of the Moon was built with the backdrop of a great mountain; it is believed that from this pyramid priests would observe and study the stars. At about the eighth century the great civilization disappeared. The structures remained, but the people that had once made this city flourish were now gone. When Montezuma II came into power, he developed a fascination with the ruins and the mystery that they held. He would make the two-day trip to visit the city every two weeks. The film then diverges into a different time period. The Aztecs were very superstitious (as were all the other Mesoamerican cultures) but their priests predicted that in 1409 the great god of the sun would return. In their description of the god, they said he would have a white beard, be covered in jewels, and would hold the power of fire. In a weird coincidence at this very date, Hernando Cortez or Cortez the Conqueror, as he came to be known, arrived at the shores of Mexico. Cortez was on an expedition in search of El Dorado, or as we know it, The City of Gold (La Cuidad de Oro.) When Cortez arrived, Montezuma initially received him as a god because he fit the description, complete with white beard. Montezuma's amazement faded as he noticed that Cortez’s fascination with gold was overwhelming. In the movie, it is said that Cortez was asked why he wanted to find gold so much and he responded, "We Spaniards have a disease that only gold can cure." What later followed was the great battle between the Spaniards and the Aztecs in which Cortez ends up taking Montezuma hostage. Montezuma is later killed. In this film the expert gives two accounts of what might have happened. One suggests that Montezum's own people turned against him and stoned him to death, while the other suggests that Cortez killed him himself. This account is what the movie depicts, but the movie title was somewhat misleading because it suggests that we will be talking about the pyramids: in fact the film focuses more on the Teotihuacan people and the Aztecs. This film had no other reviews that I believed would be useful in reviewing the film.
Cortez was discussed at length in this film. He was born in 1485 in a small town in Spain called Medellin. Cortez came from a noble family that had money. When he grew up he pursued a career in law. He ended up not enjoying school, and decided he would spend his life seeking adventure. He was married three times and had two sons and four daughters. In 1511, he received the opportunity to travel to Cuba with his former employer Diego Valazquez. While in Cuba, Cortez got a respectable job and proved his abilities as a leader. Later an opportunity arose for him to show off his military leadership skills after Valazquez's lieutenant discovered Mexico. The lieutenant had tried to place a settlement on this new land but failed and had displeased the governor of Cuba. The job was not for Cortez to complete; in 1518 he set out to sea with ten ships. They arrived on the shore of Mexico in 1519; it was unknown to him that this was the very time the Aztec calendar had predicted that the return of their sun god would occur. When he landed on the shore, he wanted to let his solders know that they had to succeed or perish, so he had his ships burned. After conquering Mexico, Spain took control of it and expanded this new empire called New Spain. Cortez grew greedy with power and was murdering emperors of other tribes to show his dominance over them. The court of Madrid felt that Cortez's actions were becoming too cruel and so they sent commissioners to oversee him. For some reason his possessions were being seized and his friends imprisoned; Cortez was angered at how they were treating him after he had done all this for his land. He returned to Spain to appeal the court. The court received him well and all was better; he later returned to Mexico but with a less powerful position. Cortez later spent the rest of his life in solitude and died on December 2, 1547.
The film discusses and tries to explain the reason why the Teotihuacan people practiced human sacrifice. Down the center of the city, there is a street people have come to call the Avenue of The Dead. Directly across from the Pyramid of the Sun lay the temple of the feather serpent. What archeologists found in this pyramid changed their complete outlook on the Teotihuacan people. The inhabitants of this great city were said to be peaceful people who were treated equally. There seems to be no reference to any rulers, and their large apartment-like complexes surrounding the pyramids showed that the city cared for its people and provided a place for the citizens to live. However, in this temple, over two hundred skeletons were found positioned in an organized manner, hands and feet bound. This discovery was the first clue that these people practiced human sacrifice. The way that the bodies were found gave clear indication that the sacrifice victims did not go willingly. Theories have speculated that the Teotihuacan people went out into the neighboring villages and tribes and kidnapped people for their rituals. Teotihuacans believed that the city built in their honor was no longer enough and they needed to find a new way to appease the gods. Recently archeologists have been excavating the complex tunnels of the Pyramid of the Sun and in their search they discovered a pile of treasures that are thought to be offerings to the gods. In these offerings they found pottery, animal bones, obsidian, and two human skeletons. The discovery of the human skeletons is more proof that the Teotihuacan people practiced human sacrifices and the practice was so intriguing to Aztecs that centuries later when they found the deserted city of Teotihuacan, their emperor became obsessed with the discovery.
Montezuma was emperor of the Aztec people at around 1502 CE. Montezuma developed an obsession with the ancient city and wanted to do everything that he could to recreate it. As a result of this, the Aztecs also practiced the ritual of human sacrifices. These Mesoamerican people were not the first to practice this ritual: in Europe there has been proof that the Celts and Germans did so as well. The Romans practiced their own version of human sacrifices, using what they called gladiators. Many times mass sacrifices like the one discovered in the Tomb of the Serpent can be seen being practiced by the Africans, Egyptians and even the Chinese. In Africa the kingdom of Kerma had mass sacrifices leading to a total of five hundred bodies in honor of the fallen kings. The Egyptians did the same; when a Pharaoh died his loyal servants would follow him to the after life. In South America not only the Aztecs and Teotihuacan people practice human sacrifices, the Incan empire did it as well. The Incans would sacrifice children and teenagers in order to please the sun god. Human sacrifice has been with us for ages and some even believe that it is still practiced today. These rituals were not only done to please the gods; today suicide bombers could be considered or even, as the article this information comes from points out, America practices it when someone is sentenced to death row. Are we not cleansing our nation of evil? Even in Christianity human sacrifices are at the core of the religion; Jesus Christ died on a cross in order to save humanity; therefore he was a sacrifice.
There is no doubt that the Teotihuacan people were a great society; the evidence is clear in the ruins of their once great metropolis. These people show us today that we as humans have always been smart and could accomplish amazing structures and cultural development without the use of technology. They also represent a culture and religion that is now dead but was very much alive back in their time. Could that be a sign that this too can happen to us? Could we too disappear with only our structures and writing left? People of the future would have to reconstruct our lives. If they were to learn about our religions and practices in the future, would they think we were crazy? To the Romans, rumors spread that Christians ate babies and drank blood after hearing about the practice of communion, eating bread as body of Christ and drinking wine as his blood. Future archeologists will uncover our practices and it will be up to them how they interpret what we did. The ancient city of Teotihuacan is of great interest to me personally; my dad grew up near it and has stories of his visits to the site. I am a history major and Mesoamerican culture is my passion; I hope to one day to work or even specialize in Mesoamerican culture and study its people. I feel that I have a connection.
Recommended Readings and Movies:
Fehrenbach, T. R. Fire and Blood.
Marks, Richard Lee. Cortes, The Great Adventurer and the Fall of Aztec America, 1993.
Richmond, Hiram Hoyt. Montezuma: An Epic on the Origin and Fate of the Aztec Nation. 2010
The History Channel's. Mexico: God, Gold and Glory, Aztec Empire and Cortes, Conqueror of Mexico