Marvelous Masonry: Cholula Pyramid

Words: Indi Blake

Words and Photos: Indi Blake

Sometime around the year 300 BCE, a small group of villagers began stacking rock and mud into a small temple that would eventually become the largest monument of all time. The descendants of these mysterious people would continue building and stacking for the next 1,000 years, until a gargantuan pyramid — twice the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza — would stand in place of the humble mound created generations before. The colossal structure would be dedicated to a cryptic deity whose worship would sweep ancient Mexico, inspiring millions of followers and shaping its culture forever. 

This Exhibit Shows Some of the Pyramid's Inner Structure

Mesoamerica contains hundreds of pyramids with dozens more discovered each year, dwarfing the count in Egypt and outnumbered only by the vast array of smaller pyramids in Sudan. Many of these structures are hidden deep in the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala, and have only recently been revealed by aerial reconnaissance using novel LiDAR (light detection and ranging) systems. The largest of these is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, or Tlachihualtepetl.  With a footprint totaling  984 feet by 1,033 feet — about 17 football fields — and at roughly 80 feet high, it is so immense that in its current state, overgrown and largely unexcavated, many mistake it for a mountain. 

Tlachihualtepetl is also unique in its composition and complicated history. It is built mostly out of adobe, setting it apart from the uniformly sandstone block pyramids found throughout the surrounding area. Like a Russian nesting doll, the pyramid is made up of numerous versions that each encase the next, entombing the previous iteration. At least six distinct, major construction events have been identified in its layers, representing hundreds of years of colorful history, numerous ethnic groups and countless transfers of power.

The central highlands, where the city of Cholula and its massive pyramid were built, saw more diversity than nearly any other part of ancient Mesoamerica. Situated atop fertile ground perfect for farming and at the confluence of territories held by numerous different ethnic groups, the area was one of the most densely populated in the region. Its location and exposure to competing groups put Cholula at the center of a constant and evolving struggle as kingdoms arose and then fell from power. As such, the history of the area is a complex tale that begins shrouded in mystery and ends in political maneuvering, a great betrayal and brutal slaughter.

For centuries before Cholula’s inception, the area surrounding it had been inhabited by a group of people deriving influence from early groups like the Mixtec, Zapotec and Maya. Artifacts and the architectural style found in the pyramid’s innermost chasms dating to around 300 BCE reflect this early influence. Though the identity of its original creators is largely unknown, the pyramid’s early construction coincides with some of the earliest confirmed depictions of the deity Quetzalcoatl, the hero god of wind and human creation. The religion, whose origins may be tied to those of the pyramid, would grow to influence nearly every corner of Mexico. Adherents of what was often called the “cult of the feathered serpent,” Quetzalcuatl’s followers eventually would promote his worship as far away as the Yucatan, where carvings of the deity started appearing in Mayan architecture hundreds of years later, around 800 CE.  

By 500 CE the pyramid and the city surrounding it had grown substantially. Cholulan society had become intertwined with that of Teotihuacan, just 60 miles to the north. The twin cities rose to prominence around the same time and became two of the biggest and most influential cities in all of the Americas. As adoption of Quetzalcoatl’s worship and the wealth of Cholula’s political rulers grew, so too did the size of Tlachihualtepetl. 

Between 500 and 700 CE, both Teotihuacan and Cholula faced a dramatic decline. Cholula was invaded by a group from the gulf coast called the Olmec-Xicallanca (distinct from the much older Olmecas), who made the city their capital and ruled for at least 400 years. By the time another group, the Toltecs, invaded around the year 1200, Cholula had grown considerably. The pyramid had been expanded yet again and was inhabited by a pair of priest kings, one bearing the symbol of a jaguar and one the symbol of an eagle representing the earth and sky respectively. A Toltec document, the Tolteca-Chichimeca, chronicles much of what is known about the history of Cholula but leaves unknown much of its story prior to 700 CE. It is from these Toltec newcomers that Cholula and its pyramid take their name. The Tolteca-Chichimeca refers to the city as “Cholollan Tlachiualtépetl” — "the place of those who fled and the mountain made by hand," the former describing the exodus of the Toltecs from their former homeland the latter referencing the towering pyramid by which time was an imposing landmark known far and wide.

The Toltecs expanded the pyramid further during their reign, but eventually neglected its maintenance as they focused on building up other parts of the city. This led to an era of disrepair, and it was quickly overtaken by Nature. Nevertheless, the pyramid continued to hold deep religious and ceremonial significance for its ruling groups even after it was largely abandoned. Around its base and inside its walls, over 400 skeletons have been found, providing direct evidence of continued reverence by the city's inhabitants. Disturbingly, many were the remains of children who were sacrificed to carry a message for rain to the rain god Tlaloc during times of drought. As a group, the Toltecs would become a significant force in the region and are thought to be the group behind Quetzalcoatl’s introduction to the Mayan world far to the south.

An Alter Thought to be Used in Child Sacrifices

In an attempt to consolidate power in the early years of the 16th century, the Totecs at Cholula made a decision that would lead to one of the most violent episodes in Mesoamerican history. At the time they were partners in an alliance with nearby Tlaxcala, but a relatively new group that had settled north of Cholula was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. That society had constructed a great city called Tenochtitlan, made up of Nahuatl-speaking people called the Mexica who had immigrated from further north. These people called themselves the Mexica quickly became the dominant force in Mexico (from which the country's name derives), eclipsing both the Toltec and Tlaxcalan societies in scale and power and emerging as one of the most famous ancient empires of all time: the Aztec. 

Hoping to gain favor with this new superpower, the Toltecs in Cholula seceded from their alliance with Tlaxcala in 1517 and established a new one with the Aztecs. The timing of this shift was inopportune: Just two years later, the Mesoamerican world would be changed forever by the arrival of Hernan Cortez and the Spanish. 

By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1519, many of the area’s indigenous groups shared the Nahuatl language and a common set of gods, including Quetzalcoatl. But feuds between historic rivals prevented cooperation at a scale necessary to extinguish the Spanish. Cortez and his small army were interested in conquering the region in preparation for colonization and extraction of resources, like gold, to bring back to the Spanish king, and were attempting passage to Tenochtitlan after quashing all opposition along the way. After some back and forth between Cortez and the Aztec king, Moctezuma, an all-out war broke out. Needing allies, Cortez turned to the Tlaxcalans, whose long-standing rivalry with the Mexica/Aztecs led them to join his campaign. 

Under the guidance of the Tlaxcalans, Cortez and his men traveled to Cholula. Though initially greeted with hospitality, the Spanish at some point grew uncertain of the city’s true loyalties. Some historians speculate that skepticism was encouraged by the Tlaxcalans in retribution for Cholula’s abandonment of their previous alliance. Whatever the impetus, the Spaniards’ brutal response marked one of the bloodiest chapters in the conquest of the Americas.

On what was to have been the last day of his stay, Cortez requested the attendance of all leaders of the great city. Once they assembled, he accused them of treachery and a sudden frenzy of musket fire roared out. Accounts of that day tell of thousands of Cholulan civilians scrambling over each other in an attempt to flee the violence. The Tlaxcalans, hearing the skirmish, marched in and aided the Spanish in the destruction of the city. Thousands were killed and many more were taken captive to be used as slaves or human sacrifices. The superiority of Spanish steel and firepower against a largely unprepared populace sent a direct message to Moctezuma and would foreshadow years of bloodshed that resulted in the death of the Aztec king.

The people of Mexico vastly outnumbered the European invaders and, with their legions of skilled warriors and intimate knowledge of the land, were at a significant advantage. But with the Spanish came diseases against which the indigenous population had no immunity. In the years that followed, millions of native people died from such novel viruses as smallpox and influenza. By 1574, Spain had cemented its grip on the country and began to erect a church atop the great pyramid. Whether they recognized the pyramid for what it truly was or simply wrote it off as a mountain, the Spaniards did understand its ceremonial significance. In a stark assertion of cultural supremacy, construction on the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies Church) was finished the following year.

 Today the pyramid looks much as it did when the Spanish arrived. Trees rise from its crumbling adobe walls, which serve as beds for plants that cocoon its surface. Recognized as the longest perpetually inhabited town in the Americas, Cholula has grown around the pyramid, which endures as the monumental focal point at the very center of town. Buildings and roads have been built on its edges. The bright yellow church, which attracts many visitors each day, still stands at its peak. Over the thousand years since the earliest construction at the site, worship has continued there — shifting from Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc at the end of the 14th century to Christ and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios today. The pyramid and the ancient city complex nearby are now protected historic sites.

Despite its stature as the world’s largest pyramid, the site at Cholula is far less well known than its counterparts in Mexico and has been studied less extensively, lending it a mythical quality. Among ancient peoples, the pyramid was a source of awe and inspired many legends about its creation, including some suggesting it was built by giants. Even today, the pyramid inspires many outlandish theories. The fact that pyramids exist all over the world has seemed supernatural to some, who argue that their ubiquity may be evidence of cooperative planning or even extraterrestrial intervention. Because of its age and mind-bending enormity, Tlachihualtepetl is often held up as evidence of a grand conspiracy. 

Experts take a different view, pointing out that its tapered walls and solid interior make the pyramid a uniquely stable and easy shape to build. Less stable architectural designs crumble over time, biasing the types of structures remaining for archeologists to study, and societies whose goal was to create lasting monuments surely would settle on similar designs precisely because of their shared stable characteristics — much in the same way that two cultures on opposite sides of the globe might independently innovate a bowl shape to contain things, simply because it is the most effective shape for that purpose. 

As more information is revealed about the structure, experts hope to gain a clearer picture of the Cholula pyramid’s construction and the ingenious architects behind it. In recent years, interest has grown and more surveys and studies focusing on its history are likely. Until now, much of the fragmentary history of the site had been pieced together from data collected in ambitious tunneling expeditions conducted in the 1930s, when around eight kilometers of tunnels were bored deep into the pyramid, allowing archeologists access to countless relics and bones. It is unclear what technology available today will allow scientists to uncover hidden within the walls of the pyramid or whether its secrets will be forever lost. What is clear is the impact this hallowed place has had on the generations of people fortunate enough to behold such a magnificent achievement.

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