Architecture of Teotihuacan: Pyramid of the Sun & Avenue of the Dead

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Teotihuacán is one of the most mysterious ruins in all of Mesoamerica. In this lesson, we'll look at the architecture of this site and see what this can tell us about an ancient and mysterious people.


Imagine that you could visit the tombs of the gods. That would be a pretty crazy feeling, right? For the ancient Mexica (the people known to their enemies as the Aztecs) this was actually a possibility, or so they thought. Just outside of the valley where the Mexica lived were the ruins of the great city of Teotihuacán.

Teotihuacán was one of the first urban centers in central Mexico, constructed between the first and seventh centuries CE. These people built the first monumental architecture of the region, organized the first complex cities, and then disappeared. We know very little about who these people were. Even the name, Teotihuacán, wasn't their own. When the Mexica arrived centuries later, they found the ruins of a great metropolis. To the Mexica, no ordinary people could have created such a magnificent city. So, they gave it the Nahuatl name Teotihuacán: the city of the gods.

Pyramids of the Sun and Moon

Today, Teotihuacán is one of the most important archeology sites in Mexico. We've only excavated about 10% of the massive urban center, but what we've found is incredible. Perhaps most impressive are two ancient pyramids.

First was the Pyramid of the Sun, created around 200 CE. Again, that name came from the Mexica. The structure is a step pyramid, built with concentric platforms rather than a flat, sloped exterior. This is one of the oldest pyramids in central Mexico, and also one of the largest. At roughly 206 feet tall and roughly 705 square feet, it's a mountain of a structure.

The Pyramid of the Sun

Hyperbole aside, this pyramid may have represented a literal mountain to the people who lived here. Mountains were sacred, as were the caves within them. One theory states that tunnels under the pyramid represented the caves from which humans were believed to have emerged, giving this structure an important symbolic role in religious rituals. The location of the pyramid also supports this theory. Directly behind the pyramid is a massive mountain. The outline of the Pyramid of the Sun matches the outline of the mountain perfectly.

Pigment analysis of the stones; however, indicate that the entire pyramid was originally painted bright red. Why? The Pyramid of the Sun was used for human sacrifices. The theory is that the pyramid was painted red so that it appeared to be constantly soaked in blood, thereby appeasing the gods whenever they looked down from the heavens.

The Pyramid of the Moon

Directly to the north of the Pyramid of the Sun is another structure, the Pyramid of the Moon. It's a little smaller, constructed probably 50 years later, and it directly mirrors the outline of a nearby mountain. It was also used for human sacrifices and was painted bright red.

The Pyramid of the Moon

What's significant about this pyramid is that archeologists were able to excavate some of the interior, which was not really possible with the Pyramid of the Sun. Inside they found a grave-good filled tomb of an important male. It's one of the best-preserved tombs ever discovered in Teotihuacán, and suggests more tombs inside both pyramids.

The Avenue of the Dead

Connecting the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon is a perfectly straight street. We call this the Avenue of the Dead. But where did the name come from? The Avenue of the Dead is lined with smaller pyramids, all roughly the same height. When the Mexica first arrived, these pyramids had all been covered by dirt and natural plant growth. They looked like little hills or, to the Mexica, buried tombs. Assuming these to be the tombs of gods and great kings, the Mexica named this the Avenue of the Dead.

The Avenue of the Dead as seen from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun in the background

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