Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America

Introduction At a time when Rome was starting to consolidate its empire around the Mediterranean, the Great Wall was being built in China and the Egyptians were in decline, in Central America a new city emerged close to modern Mexico City known now as Teotihuacàn. The region had undergone development through successive civilisations such as the Olmecs, and would later be followed by the Toltecs, Mayans and Aztecs. The city of Teotihuacan sprang up very quickly, and with its population thought to be in the region of one hundred thousand people (some sources suggest over 125,000), it would have been one of the largest cities in the world at the time. The Olmecs had left behind a legacy of religious ceremonial buildings, sculpture, artwork and even writing. But Te o t i h u a c a n was to take these concepts several stages further, and for the first time within the confines of a vast city. Archaeologists and historians have been trying to determine why such a city sprang up suddenly and was so advanced, and then equally became uninhabited just as rapidly almost a millennium later. This article explores the significance of this city in the cultural development of the region, and in particular the religious beliefs and rights practised here. 25Review of Religions – July 2002 TEOTIHUACÀN – Religious Capital of Central America By Fazal Ahmad – UK In the second century BCE, one of the largest cities in the world suddenly sprang up in Central America. The entire city was planned with a grid pattern of parallel roads, and the city centre was focussed around two huge religious pyramids. The community was very advanced for its time and extremely powerful. Then suddenly, around 700 CE, the city and its inhabitants disappeared. What actually happened at Teotihuacan and what was the religious significance of this city and its fate? The City and its Culture Teotihuacan is an Aztec name meaning ‘place of the gods’ so it clearly held a religious significance to the people of Mexico over a thousand years ago. The Aztecs encountered this place many centuries after it was abandoned, and regarded it as the origin of civilisation where religion and cosmic order was formed. The dedication of the pyramids to the Sun and Moon is also retrospective by the Aztecs, although we have a few clues as to the original meaning of the pyramids. Our earliest recorded information about the city is from around 1521 when the Spaniards led by Hernan Cortes had conquered Mexico and enquired about this mysterious and vast city from their Aztec subjects. In particular, they were intrigued by the Pyramids which were as large as the structures encountered in Egypt. The Aztecs viewed this as a holy city once host to pilgrims from across the region, and this is preserved in the history recorded by the Spanish invaders. The city structure resembles a modern planned city with streets running in straight lines across each other in a grid pattern seen in modern cities such as Washington DC. Even the San Juan River was routed into canals as its passes through the city in 26 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan (Photo courtesy of Tony Turner) order to conform to the grid system of the planners. In its heyday, the city covered an area of eight square miles. This shows a degree of advancement in the culture which developed this city 2000 years ago. A lot of archaeological effort has centred on this site, and as a result, it is possible to build a picture of life in the city. The economy was focussed on agriculture, and it is thought that most of the people would go out every day to tend the fields around the city. The same pattern was also seen in other cities such as Tenochtitlan later. It is interesting to note that whereas in Europe, when cities emerged, the economy was different to that of the rural population, in Central America cities sprung up around agriculture, and this remained the focus of the economy. Teotihuacan is laid out with a long central main road known as the Cala de los Muertes (Street of the Dead), and at the north end is the imposing Pyramid of the Moon standing 150 feet high. Just to the south and on the right is the Pyramid of the Sun standing 240 feet high. In the heart of the city was a public square with the Citadel and the Great Compound. There was the elegantly carved Temple to QuetzalCoatl on the Citadel which appears to have been a relgious courtyard. The Compound probably served as an administrative hub for the city with various offices dotted around it, but virtually no temples. There were around 2000 structures in the city, many with advanced drainage systems. Some scientists believe that the orientation of the city 15.5 degrees east of North is significant and that features of the city align to the star cluster known as Pleiades, although this is conjecture. The possible significance of Pleiades would have been to herald the two days of the year when the Sun was directly overhead at Teotihuacan, and they would perhaps have believed that their deities were at their closest on these days. Similar alignments have been claimed for Stonehenge in the UK, and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The city also had links with other communities in the region for trade purposes. Local craftsmen were reknowned across central America for their crafts using 27 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 28 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 Rough Plan of the Teotihuacan City Centre Obsidian (volcanic glass), seashells and basalt. But in order to get some of the raw materials of their various trades, they probably would have had contact with the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Coast for seashells, with Veracruz for Rubber, with Oaxaca for cotton, and with the Yucatan peninsula for exotic feathers. There is also some evidence to suggest that people from the city conquered the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu (near modern Guatemala City) and built a new city to mimic Teotihuacan, but at the same time adopting elements of Mayan culture, so clearly they had contact with other peoples in the region. At the dawn of Teotihuacan, there were other religious centres nearby such as Cuicuilco to the southwest of the Valley of Mexico, and Cholula to the east of the Puebla Valley which may have had an influence on the initial development of the city. 29 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 Map of the Teotihuacan Region Religious Practice Modern research suggests that the people worshipped Quetzalcoatl (we shall cover this in more detail later). They also worshipped Tlaloc the rain god, and revered the Jaguar, a wild cat found in the region. Along the Street of the Dead, there were over 100 religious shrines and temples lining the route as well as the two Pyramids and the temple of Quetzalcoatl, so this would have been a very significant religious area. It is even suggested that pilgrims from as far as Guatemala may have visited the city. Teotihuacan was to have a great influence on the religious archi- tecture and beliefs in Guatemala including their great city Kaminaljuyu. Teotihuacanos believed in a cyclical universe in which the universe would be born and then at its end, be destroyed and then reborn again as a new world. Similar concepts were understood elsewhere in the world such as by the Hindus of India. Teotihuacanos believed that this was the 5th Universe and that Teotihuacan was the birthplace of this new Universe. Interestingly they also believed that their deities had sacrificed themselves such that the new world could be formed (similar to the Christian concept of the son of God sacrificing himself for the sake of the human race in an act of atonement). Also very interesting is the idea that the 4th world was destroyed by a global flood. While many of these concepts may have been stretched over time, the concept of the rebirth of the universe is interesting. Modern Cosmology and the Holy Qur’an (Ch.21: Vs.105) also refer to the cyclical nature of the universe. Also the idea that a civilisation was destroyed by a global flood is well-known in the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Probably the most well-known feature about cultures in this part of the world is the ritual human sacrifices that took place. In the case of Teotihuacan, there is not so much discussion on this subject, rather this was a trait of the later Aztecs. Sacrifice was seen as essential to safeguard the lifestyle of the Aztec people, and as such, if they were ever in battle, they would prefer to take prisoners rather than slay their victims such that they could use them for sacrificial purposes. Perhaps we can start to under- 30 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 stand the sacrifices in a new way when we consider their views on how the 5th universe had been created and the sacrifices made by their deities on their behalf. Certainly later Aztec pyramids were used to perform these horrific rites, but Te o t i h u a c a n seems to have been less prone to this futile practice. The two pyramids also have a religious significance just as they did in Egypt. On top of the pyramids were temples, and the pyramids themselves consisted of five layers which could be climbed by worshippers with a resting platform between the climbs. Both the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon would have had great religious significance for their people, and could be seen from long distances. In fact the Pyramid of the Sun was built on top of an earlier shrine, and later archaeology also revealed a series of tunnels and caves under the Pyramid. It is difficult to know whether the pyramids were positioned for astronomical reasons, or just to provide an inspirational platform for worship (more likely to have been the latter). Either way they held a central position in the religion of the people. Quetzalcoatl The people of the time had a complex religion with deities such as Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent) and Tlaloc (the rain god). Images on their major structures of Qutzalcoatl are prominent in the architecture of the city. Quetzalcoatl would later be known as Kukulcan by the Mayans and Huemac by the Toltecs. In later mythology, Quetzalcoatl is described as the sun-god, creator of man and the bringer of rain. Other traditions have recorded Quetzalcoatl as an ancient fair- skinned king who taught agriculture, weaving, arts and also religion to the people. He taught the importance of the reckoning of time (of greater importance to the Mayans) and abhorred war and animal sac- rifice. The Toltecs held a tradition that Quetzalcoatl demanded peaceful sacrifices whereas his enemy Tezcatlipoca demanded more bloodthirsty rituals and evicted him from the land (this may be in line with the evidence of human sacrifice at other temples in the region). Quetzalcoatl went to the Gulf of Mexico, fasted for four days and then set sail, promising to return 31 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 in the latter days according to the Toltecs.In such myths, Quetzalcoatl appears more as a king than a god, and was inspirational in establishing the new city and the new order. As Quetzalcoatl has disappeared into mythology and legend, it is difficult to disemenate the truth from fiction, but it is possible that he was originally a prophet of God and hence had such a huge impact on the people and signalled the building of Teotihuacan. After all, even Prophet Jesus ( a s ) was soon venerated as the Sun-god, son of God and as the Trinity, so with the passage of time, for Quetzalcoatl to have been deified in this way would not be uncommon. There is even a tradition that the white-robed Quetzalcoatl was forced to leave because of the trickster and warrior-god Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) who forced him out and deceived him. Quetzalcoatl wept as he buried his treasure, left his city heading for the coast, and finally sailed east, promising to return. Again, this is similar to the Jewish tale of the Teacher of Righteousness and the Wi c k e d Priest as recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The difficulty with this story is that there are no written documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls left behind in Teotihuacan to authenticate it. Tlaloc is also a complex character. In later times, Tlaloc was associated with rain, but in earlier cultures Tlaloc was actually considered the King of the gods, the creator and source of all things. 32 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 Quetzalcoatl Images Mayans At the same period that Teotihuacan had been coming to prominence, the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula began to develop their own culture. The Mayans were prominent in the period 300 – 900 CE, while Teotihuacan was in existence from 200 BCE – 700 CE. The Mayans too had religious cities such as Palenque and Tikal, but these were only populated by priests who performed religious duties for the scattered rural population, and their role was to serve the outlying villages (the geography of living in rainforests was also less conducive to major cities than in the Valley of Mexico). Their religion was strongly associated to the natural cycles of the Universe, and the exploitation of man’s position through knowledge of the Universe. Therefore they devel- oped very elaborate calendars based on the Moon, Sun and even the planet Venus. Their priests often made personal sacrifices of blood to keep their deities ‘fed’. This was also tied to their concept of afterlife with heaven and hell. In their concept, only those killed in sacrifice or children who died were entitled to go to heaven, so sacrifice had an elevated position, something which would have been exploited to extremes by the Aztecs. Demise of the city There is evidence to suggest that the climate would have been worsening in the 6th century CE, and this would have had a significant impact on the harvests upon which the city relied. Some scientists suggest that the region began to suffer droughts from536 CE based upon their analysis of mineral deposits and tree-rings. If the rains had been failing as well, then there may have been a knock-on undermining of the deities such as Tlaloc which were supposed to safeguard the rain and the harvest. Evidence suggests that at around 700 CE, Teotihuacan suddenly came into decline and people abandoned the city. There are theories that the city was raided by violent foreign invaders and was burned down. Certainly there is evidence of a fire in over 150 of the temples and palaces of the city centre. What is more striking is that although some 60 per cent of the temples and palaces were torched across the city, only around 10 per cent of residential 33 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 buildings were affected (see Ref. 8). This may suggest that the fires were deliberate rather than the victims of a natural disaster or a more general fire in the city, as natural fires tend not to be so selective in their destructive urges. Recent theories have begun to link the climatic change to social unrest, and claim that this would have been sufficient to cause rioting against the religious elite of the city. Whatever the actual cause, all the evidence suggests that around 750 CE, the city was looted and burned, and the temples were ransacked, possibly even from within. The fall of this great city had ramifications for the rest of the region as first Monte Alban, then Mayan centres further south all suffered a similar fate. C u l t u ral Development after Teotihuacan After the demise of Teotihuacan, other cultures sprang up in the region, many of which preserved the arts and culture of this great civilisation. The Toltecs emerged around 950 CE in Tula, Northern Mexico. They were a warring race with a warrior aristocracy, and they expanded in the region rapidly. They retained the crafts, religion and architecture of the Teotihuacanos. It was actually the Toltecs who created the legend of the return of Quetzalcoatl back to Tula. The Toltecs conquered many Mayan regions and created the great centre at Chichen Itza. Much later, the Aztecs also continued the Te o t i h u a c a n culture, although their main deity was now Huitzilpochtli. 34 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 PROPHETS OF GOD THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE BEEN THE CATALYSTS TO GREAT SOCIAL CHANGE, AND HAVE OFTEN IGNITED ONCE-DORMANT CULTURES SUCH AS THE ARABS INTO GREAT EMPIRE BUILDING, FANTASTIC ARCHITECTURE AND SCIENTIFIC A D VA N C E M E N T. C O U L D T H I S H AV E B E E N T H E C A S E I N TEOTIHUACAN, AND COULD QUETZALCOATL HAVE BEEN THAT RELIGIOUS CATALYST? They built a new capital Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Legend has it that when the Spaniards led by Cortes arrived to conquer Mexico and loot its gold, they faced little initial resistance as their demeanour and timing co-incided with the Aztec anticipation of the return of Quetzalcoatl. History records how Cortes and his troops were able to conquer Latin America r a p i d l y, and perhaps there is some truth to this story. This again shows the depth of religious sentiment that people would rather die than defy what they believed to be a returning deity. C o n c l u s i o n s The Qur’an tells us that all races and regions received some form of revelation and Divine Guidance: And We did raise among every people a Messenger preaching: ‘Worship Allah and shun the Evil One’. Then among them were some whom Allah guided and among them were some who became deserving of ruin. So travel through the Earth, and see what was the end of those who treated the prophets as liars! (Holy Qur’an, Ch.16: v. 3 7 ) And again we read: And We sent some Messengers whom We have already mentioned to thee and some Messengers whom We have not mentioned to t h e e . (Holy Qur’an, Ch.4: v. 1 6 4 ) . As such, the elaborate societies of central America would have been no exception in their ability to have contact with the C r e a t o r. According to the verses quoted here, all races and lands including the peoples of Central America would have been the recipients of prophets and divine guidance, although trying to trace these events with our scant clues and no written documentation is a major task t o d a y. Sudden cultural changes such as the dramatic emergence of Teotihuacan may have been triggered by Divine Guidance, although over a period of centuries, the original messages that inspired them may be lost to us. Given the prominence of Quetzalcoatl, it is possible that this was a real character who was divinely guided. Certainly 35 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 traditions held by the later Toltecs show him teaching a milder way of life, and even fasting – traits we could reasonably associate to spiritual teachers elsewhere in the world. A feature which we saw too often after Teotihuacan in this region is human sacrifice. A c t u a l l y, all monotheistic reli- gions hold personal sacrifice very h i g h l y, but not the taking of life. Sacrifice in monotheistic religions is more to do with controlling the ego-self and helping family, friends, the needy and society in general. Putting others before oneself and making sacrifices in such a cause has always been seen as noble. But sacrificing others to appease a deity is a gross perversion of those noble concepts. Research seems to indicate a different style of worship at Teotihuacan, whereas later Aztec temples were clearly used to appease the deities through human sacrifice and b l o o d – l e t t i n g . It is quite possible that Teotihuacan was the scene of religious inspiration at its outset, hence so much activity was created in such little time. Prophets of God throughout history have been the catalysts to great social change, and have often ignited once-dormant cultures such as the Arabs into great empire building, fantastic architecture and scientific advancement. Could this have been the case in Te o t i h u a c a n , and could Quetzalcoatl have been that religious catalyst? A s with human traits, original messages may have been lost over time and turned into something totally different. We have seen evidence for great cultures elsewhere in the world which were destroyed when they shunned or distorted religion. Perhaps Teotihuacan also suffered a similar fate as the original messages which had inspired its construction were e r o d e d . C e r t a i n l y, it is without doubt that dramatic change occurred around this city, and several developments in society in this region were inspired to some degree by religion as understood by the people of the time. 36 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002 References 1. ‘The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico – a magnificent re- creation of their art and life’, Nigel Davies, Penguin Books, London 1990. 2. ‘Te o t i h u a c a n’, Ren Millon, Scientific American, June 1967. 3. ‘The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends’, Stuart Gordon, Headline Books 1993. 4. ‘The Times Atlas of World History’, Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, 4th Edition, BCA 1994. 5. ‘Secrets of Ancient and Sacred Places – the world’s mysterious heritage’, Pa u l Devereux, Brockhampton Press, London 1993. 6. ‘Wonders of the World – a guide to the man-made treasures of civilisation’ , Rosemary Burton and Richard Cavendish, AA P u b l i s h i n g , Hampshire 1991. 7. ‘The Hero with a Thousand F a c e s’, Jospeh Campbell, Fontana Press 1993. (First published 1949). 8. ‘Catastrophe – an inves- tigation into the origins of the modern world’, David Ke y s , Arrow Books 2000. 37 Teotihuacàn – Religious Capital of Central America Review of Religions – July 2002