Tangled History

Mexico Is Hiding The World’s Largest Pyramid

In the city of Cholula in central Mexico there stands a hill with a giant church on top which hides a manmade pyramid filled with secrets.

Editor's note: On September 19, 2017, a massive earthquake devastated central Mexico, causing the twin cupolas on the front of this majestic church to collapse.

MEXICO CITY—In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors arrived in Cholula, one of the largest cities in central Mexico. Roughly 50 miles southeast from modern day Mexico City, its tens of thousands of residents sat in the shadows of the 17,000 foot Popocatépetl volcano. It had a temple featuring more stairs, claimed one Spaniard, than the main pyramid in Tenochtitlan. The Spanish tore it down, and rebuilt Cholula in the same fashion they did across Mexico—replacing “demon-worshipping” sites with Catholic ones.

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That also meant a hermit’s shrine on top of a large hill called Tlachihualtepetl had to go. But the hill itself was in fact, no hill. Its name translates to “man-made mountain” and inside it was the largest pyramid remaining in the Americas, and by some estimates the largest monument ever constructed by man. But its secrets as one of the most important religious sites in Mesoamerica would remain hidden for 400 years—and is still being uncovered today.

“It’s the most difficult archaeological site in all of Mexico. Bar none.” That’s Patricia Plunket Nagoda, the American-born archaeologist and anthropologist who has spent the past few decades working with Mexican anthropologist Gabriela Uruñuela at the Great Pyramid to unlock its less than forthcoming secrets.

The pyramid—wider than four football fields at its completion—was constructed over the first six centuries of the Common Era by an unknown people in the Mexican highlands. Like its more famous neighbor Teotihuacan, an unknown something happened around 600 AD that caused a lot of the site to be destroyed. Unlike at Teotihuacan, the city and pyramid were not completely abandoned. By 800 AD, a culture known as the Olmeca-Xicalanca were occupying the city and the pyramid, which they tried to restore. But in the 11th century AD, another culture known as the Tolteca-Chichimeca arrived, brutally slaughtering the ruling class of Olmeca-Xicalanca. The conquerors abandoned the Great Pyramid to Mother Nature and ruled the city right up until the Spanish conquest. By the time the Spanish arrived, the pyramid was covered in dirt and vegetation, much as it is today.

Today, the city of Cholula is commonly known as the city with a church for every day of the year. While it does not have 365 churches for its population of roughly 200,000 it does have a more than one hundred, including two of the most famous in Mexico—San Francisco Acatepec, with its kaleidoscopic exterior of talavera tile, and Santa María Tonantzintla, with its impossibly detailed interior in the churrigueresco style (which in Mexico manifested itself in a staggeringly detailed blend of Spanish Baroque and indigenous craft). But as one enters the city, one single massive church stands out above the rest—Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The burnt-orange church with its glistening yellow and green talavera tile dome is one of the country’s most sacred sites. Every September, some 350,000 people visit the city to celebrate the day of the Virgin of the Remedies; of those, tens of thousands make the trek up the Tlachihualtepetl hill to pay their respects in the pink, white, and gold church, a gesture believed to bring much-needed rain to the region every year. On September 19, 2017, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck central Mexico, reportedly causing the twin cupolas at the front facade of the church to collapse.

But what those kneeling visitors may not know is that as they kneel in that church and pray for rain, they are participating in a 2,000-year-old tradition of continuous prayer from the people of this region to a higher power. Underneath this church is a temple that is believed to have been the most important religious site in pre-Hispanic central Mexico.

“The 16th-century sources refer to it as being like Rome to the Christians and Mecca to the Moors,” Plunket tells The Daily Beast. “This is a religious seat of Mesoamerica. If it’s the only seat, who knows, but it’s the only one that survives. It’s the only one that has the past to draw on.”

At its largest, the pyramid was 1,312 feet wide and 203 feet high and would have been painted like Greek statuary. Its volume made it the largest pyramid in the Americas, and one of the biggest religious structures ever built by man. Unlike the pyramids in nearby Teotihuacan, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is not a neat Russian nesting doll of a pyramid. At Teotihuacan, the pyramids are front-facing and symmetrical, and each stage was built right on top of the other. At Cholula, the multiple iterations of the temple complex (10 over a period of 700 years) are asymmetrical, have multiple approaches, vary dramatically in shape, and have many minor temples and structures attached. Those minor temples and structures (often homes for priests) also stood on multiple past iterations of minor temples and homes.

“The problem is, everybody comes here and they have Teotihuacan in their mind. They think that somehow we should find that here,” laments Plunket. “Whereas I think the reality is that here the concept is more like Angkor Wat, where you have a bunch of temples that are part of the complex. Obviously the ones around are going to be minor temples or places to store items or housing for the priests.” At Teotihuacan, she explains, the minor temples and housing were more spread out.

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Looking at a partial model in the museum at the entrance to the archaeologic site, wrapping one’s head around the evolution of this site is mind-numbing.

The first nonresidential structure in Cholula was built between 500 and 100 BC. Dubbed La Conejera, it stood 6 feet high and 30 feet wide and sits in the northeast corner of the pyramid. Between 100 BC and around 100 AD, Cholula’s population exploded, owing in large part to the magnificent volcano looming in the distance. Around 50 AD, Popocatépetl erupted in a cataclysmic event that is estimated to have measured a magnitude-6 on the volcanic explosivity index, putting it on par with Krakatoa. The eruption triggered a lightning storm that filled the sky, and a column of ash shot up 15 miles into the sky from the crater and blanketed surrounding towns.

Plunket and Uruñuela believe this eruption turned Cholula into the major center it became, as people from surrounding villages and towns fled to the city which—just outside the destruction zone—had emerged unscathed.

With this increased population (read: labor supply), the Cholutecas erected the first monumental stage of the Great Pyramid—the Edificio de los Chapulines—between 90 and 100 AD. Made up of seven different levels, the pyramid had a 351-by-429-foot base and rose to 56 feet in height. Plunket and Uruñuela cite what they call its unsystematic construction techniques to argue that it was built by a variety of people with varying skills. The pyramid, they contend, was built to integrate the refugees into the social and religious structure that governed Cholula. The pyramid had two major faces. One, for obvious reasons (placation), faced the volcano. But the more important face looked west and featured the tableros (panels) that give the temple its name. Before a red background, black insects are depicted crawling along the panels. The archaeologists who first discovered them thought they were grasshoppers (thus chapulines), but Plunket and Uruñuela argue convincingly that the heads on the bodies are actually human skulls.

The grasshopper bodies, Plunket says, refer to the dark, moist places like the underworld where the dead reside. The skulls look north, which is a direction later cultures would link with the underworld.

“The image is as you go up, you’re going between the faces of anonymous ancestors who were going to be validating whatever you were doing,” explains Plunket. “That’s how we look at it, at least.”

With this temple, the Great Pyramid’s “history as a sacred city had begun,” declares Plunket.

After the completion of this iteration, the people residing in Cholula built an entirely new main temple complex every 50 years or so, as well as more structures around the base. With one exception, they did this by covering the existing temple in adobe before cladding the newer and bigger pyramid in stone. One iteration—the fourth, built between 250 and 300 AD—was the most expensive: Even the fill was made of limestone, which would have been brought from 10 miles away.

This continued until roughly 600 AD, when some sort of iconoclastic event took place, one in which many of the monuments around the complex were destroyed. The site was then largely left to the cruel devices of nature and time until 800 or 900 AD, when the people tried to restore the pyramid and add palaces on top of one of its levels. When those were excavated, one had a mausoleum and burials were found inside.

Which brings us to the biggest question concerning the site: Who were the people behind one of ancient man’s greatest feats?

The short answer: We don’t know.

During the peak period of the pyramid’s construction (the first six centuries AD), the city’s population swelled to approximately 25,000, Plunket and Uruñuela believe. And given its status as a refugee destination, it became a sort of cultural melting pot, explains David Carballo, an archaeologist at Boston University. “We of course don’t know exactly what the ethnicity was of the builders of the Great Pyramid,” he says, “but it was probably a multiethnic city and it drew from previous groups that were in the area.” A large part of the evidence for this, all three tell me, is the architecture found in Cholula. The structures around the pyramid and the pyramid itself reflect more influences from Oaxaca than from neighboring Teotihuacan.

In addition, when the Edificio de los Chapulines stage of the pyramid was built at the end of the first century AD, it functioned very differently from those found at Teotihuacan. Those pyramids had a central main staircase leading to the top, which signified religious practices that separated the elites from the general population. At Cholula, the pyramid went in the opposite direction with multiple approaches, and in later iterations, with numerous plazas and platforms attached. Using crowd-mapping techniques, archaeologists at the site contend that the spaces at the Great Pyramid were explicitly designed to hold the entire city’s adult population.

“The other interesting thing with major architectural projects is that you can use them to incorporate the people so you can create a new common identity in those who are participating,” points out Uruñuela. “Each stage of the pyramid maintained the same message to the people: You can be part of those who were on top of the pyramid, not just the small group which is taking care of the ceremony.”

In 800 AD, an attempt was made to refurbish the pyramid, and experts believe the people running the city thenwere the Olmeca-Xicalanca. A few centuries later, in the 11th century AD, Plunket tells me, the Tolteca-Chichimeca arrived after abandoning their empire’s capital, Tula, to conquer and rebuild Cholula as their new center. They erected a new temple (the one said to have had more stairs than the one in Tenochtitlan) on the spot where the Convento Franciscano de San Gabriel Arcángel stands today.

Some of the sagas surviving the Spanish conquest that were written about the Mixtecs (the people in parts of Oaxaca and Puebla during the time of the Aztecs) are about Cholula and its new rulers. In one, for instance, there is a lord known by his hieroglyphic name Four Jaguar, who was from Cholula, and likely a Nahuatl speaker, Plunket says. Four Jaguar “goes with the hero of that [saga], the Mixtec lord Eight Deer” on some sort of epic quest. Four Jaguar likely spoke Nahuatl, “the lingua franca of the Aztec empire,” which is still spoken today by some 3 million people, explains Carballo.

Now if all of this isn’t confusing enough, while the culture ruling Cholula for the last few centuries before the Spanish arrived are called Tolteca-Chichimeca, another ruling class at the time also called themselves that—the Mexica-Aztec (whose capital Tenochtitlán was destroyed by the Spanish and rebuilt as Mexico City). The reason for this, Carballo says, is because the Mexica-Chichimeca “claimed they were descended from the civilized Toltecs (the high civilizations who came before them, like Teotihuacan) and the nomadic hunter gatherers of the north, the desert area called the Chichimeca.”

It gave them a nice combination of a link to a past glorious empire, but also a link to a kind of people who were tough like the Chichimeca. To put it in terms a modern audience might understand, Carballo suggests, “Think about the U.S. narrative with the Pilgrims and the Western pioneers (manifest destiny), who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, plus the democratic ideals of Greece and the imperial ambitions of Rome reflected in the architecture of the Mall in Washington. That is our version of the Tolteca-Chichimeca narrative.”

As previously mentioned, the Cholutecan Lord Four Jaguar joins the Mixtec Lord Eight Deer on a journey in the saga. The Mixtec were from kingdoms in modern-day Guerrero, Puebla, and Oaxaca, where, in the 11th century, Eight Deer forged a small coastal empire for himself. According to Carballo, another saga repeats the story of the journey of the two rulers but adds a telling detail: Eight Deer went to Cholula in AD 1097 and handed Lord Four Jaguar a captive for sacrifice. “In return,” Carballo says, “He gets a turquoise nose adornment [that one would wear through a perforated septum] which was the civilized ‘Toltec’ emblem of leadership.”

Under Toltec rule, Cholula became a major commercial hub and a pilgrimage site for those trying to inherit the religious mantle of Teotihuacan (much as later European rulers would try to dub themselves inheritors of Rome). The modern-day fame accorded Puebla and Cholula for their tile has its roots in pre-Hispanic times, as the pottery made in Cholula was desired across Mexico.

“In the times of the Aztec period, the Nahuatl period of Cholula, they made the finest pottery in central Mexico, and it’s said that the emperor Moctezuma would only eat off of Cholula polychromes,” Carballo says. “And before that [Cholula] made this fine orangewear that was the finest pottery in the Teotihuacan system.”

What do we know about their religious practices?

“Bloody,” says Plunket, without missing a beat. “There’s one document that shows what the Tolteca-Chichimeca did with the Olmeca-Xicalanca lords when they took over.” At the base of the pyramid they built a scaffold and tied the lord to it. “Then,” she continues in a clinical tone that belies the gore of her tale, “you have your archers shoot arrows at him until he bleeds to death. The goal is to bleed him to death. The other is that there’s a large round stone, and you tie the guy to the round stone so he can’t get away, and then you give him a sword of feathers and he’s got to fend off soldiers with obsidian blades.”

What about human sacrifice?

“Human sacrifice was always for the gods. It was sanctioned murder,” she says. “A huge reason for warfare was to get sacrificial victims to sacrifice to the gods for agricultural reasons.” The rulers were responsible for making it rain, and in the culture of the Mexican highlands, “blood was the equivalent of rain, because water is the earth’s blood. You have to get your mind in a whole different place in terms of the value of a human life.”

Were there certain types of human sacrifices that were more appealing to the gods?

“Two things. First, captives, and the higher status the captive the better,” says Plunket. “And the other are little children between 6 and 8 who have cowlicks. Why cowlicks? Who knows. One cowlick is OK, but two is better.”

Upon exiting the pyramid tunnels, visitors find themselves at the entrance to a large archaeological site dubbed the Patio of the Altars. In a clearing within the dig, a 10-foot-tall stela (an upright slab of stone with inscriptions) faces a (by my estimate) 10-by-10 stone altar. These hulking blocks of stone are in fact the key to Plunket and Uruñuela’s theory about Cholula and the Great Pyramid’s role at its peak.

The reason Cholula may have been like ancient Rome to Christians and Mecca to Muslims is that it is thought to have been the place where kings went to be crowned. The first stela is decorated with carvings of scrolls, and in the native language’s use of double metaphors, Plunket explains, “the scrolls refer to clouds and mist, which refer to ancient glory to somebody in the other world.” Adjacent to the first big stela is another one, and directly across from it is a giant altar. In that moment of iconoclastic fury that destroyed the city in 600 AD (and Teotihuacan shortly before), that adjacent stela was pulled down by a rope and shattered. Archaeologists believe it used to stand above the altar, creating two thrones facing each other. The altar opposite the first stela is decorated with magnificent feathered serpents intertwining. A coronation, the theory goes, would place the dead king on the first stela (thus all the scrolls referring to past glory) and the new king is crowned on the second one—because the feathered serpent is a symbol of authority.

Around the corner from the Patio of the Altars, on the side of the pyramid facing Popocatépetl, part of the pyramid has been uncovered and the stone facing partially restored. While the hill is enormous, it is actually smaller than the pyramid at its peak due to erosion and chunks taken over the years for construction elsewhere. But aside from that exposed section, it’s very hard to imagine stumbling across this hill and guessing that there is a pyramid underneath.

So did the Spanish ever figure it out?

“It is the most beautiful city outside of Spain,” Cortés supposedly said, when he arrived in Cholula in 1519.

Since the pyramid had been abandoned several centuries before the Spanish came, it was covered much like it is today.

“That’s what the Spaniards saw, what they saw was a hill,” declares Uruñuela. “They don’t even really mention it. Cortés describes coming into the city in second letter and he doesn’t even mention it.”

What did attract their attention was a little temple on top of the hill—essentially a shrine for hermits. When the Franciscans arrived in the city, they set about getting rid of all the shrines to “demons.” So they tore down a shrine and by the end of the century, they managed to put an entire church up on top.

At that point, Uruñuela says, the Franciscans knew something was up with the hill. Tlachihualtepetl was what the local population called the hill, which translates roughly into “man-made mountain.” Over the centuries, small sections poked through, but nobody knew what exactly was under the dirt, trees, and grass.

When Porfirio Diaz (a dictator who ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911) was in power, an insane asylum was built at the base of the pyramid, and remained operational until two years ago. Plunket remembers how just a couple of decades ago the friars would drive around the city in a little blue Volkswagen yelling over a speaker for people to stay inside and lock their doors because an inmate had escaped. That complex is now being turned into a museum for the pyramid. Another corner of the pyramid was also destroyed when a train station was built on top of it.

Inside, there’s a maze of tunnels, some of them still navigable. Crackpot theorist Eric Von Daniken, best known for Chariots of the Gods?, posited that the tunnels were the work of aliens, says Plunket.

Unfortunately for alien conspiracy theorists, the answer is more prosaic. The tunnels were the work of archaeologists toiling for four decades beginning in 1931 in an attempt to map the different layers of the pyramid. The goal was to tunnel in looking for the next facade, hit it, and then create another tunnel running alongside it to see where it ends.

“There, see that white line? That’s the fifth stage built between 250 and 300 AD,” Uruñuela points out. The tunnels are spooky, claustrophobic, dank spaces, and to the untrained eye look like endless halls of brown and gray. But if one looks closely, and with a knowledgeable guide, these slight variations in the wall can be found—often some slabs of stone at a diagonal cutting across the tunnel wall.

Uruñuela then points to markings in both directions away from the line marking the exterior of the fifth stage at a distance roughly equal to 6 feet. Those markings, she says, represent the fourth and sixth stage. Each marking is the exterior of a pyramid stage, followed by brown space (adobe fill), followed by another marking. In some places, the distance between the stages (made up of adobe, or in one stage, limestone) is only an arm’s length wide, while on another side, that same gap could be 100 feet wide. Part of this is due to the lack of symmetry in the pyramid. But another cause is centuries of tons and tons of weight pressing on its central parts. Gazing down one of the tunnels that run alongside the facade of the fifth stage, you can see where the stone facade twists and turns and bends like warped metal, leaving it unrecognizable as an actual facade (part of a wall that should be on my side has ended up overhead because of the weight of later pyramids).

Walking through the tunnels and wandering around the massive site, it’s hard not to wonder—could you restore it?

“Restore what? After the fifth stage, it’s not entirely clear what the final form of the pyramid was,” scoffs Plunket. Part of that is because of the train station, the asylum, the church, and erosion, but it’s also because through the centuries large amounts of the facing has been taken off for foundations of buildings in town.

“The last two or three stages are highly deteriorated. You don’t have a surface to restore. What you could do is peel it down to the step structure, which is number five,” she suggests.

But, she cautions, “You can’t excavate the top of the building because it’s directly under the church. Because then the church would collapse.” And that’s a non-starter given the church’s status as one of the holiest sites in Mexico.

“In other words, that will never happen,” she declares.

Then there is the running debate among conservators about how to best preserve the pyramid from deteriorating further. With a mirthless laugh, Plunket confides that “some conservators think you have to water the pyramid because otherwise it will dry out and crack, while others say there’s too much water, so you should dehumidify.”

“Sometimes it’s best to leave things alone,” she says. “The second you do something to it, you alter it.”

But the Great Pyramid won’t be left alone. While it isn’t wide open to the public as it was in the ’70s (a period which left many of the tunnels marred by graffiti), it still gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a year on top and thousands inside.

“Your biggest danger are the tourists,” warns Plunket. “Tourists are the most damaging thing there is to an archaeological site. And tourists don’t realize that.” If they had their way, the archaeologists and conservators wouldn’t want the tourists entering at all. “It’s a very contentious situation. What you try and do is protect what you can but have no illusions that you will have more than that,” she says.

In the meantime, Plunket and Uruñuela are working on a virtual reconstruction of the pyramid. Both seem frustrated by outside expectations that it shouldn’t take so long—and any mention of Teotihuacan seems to hit a sore spot.

“Teotihuacan has 150 years of research in an area protected by the government. Here, money can get you a lot and so people have built where they’re not supposed to be built,” she laments. “This building is a living entity, Teotihuacan is a dead entity.”

And while it’s a nice romantic notion to think of how democratic the Great Pyramid was compared to Teotihuacan, there is a modern-day price to that. Standing outside the pyramid, Plunket points to some of the excavated ruins.

“You see all these buildings? These are all the buildings built up against the pyramid. You have this wall, which is diagonal, which covers a building which goes the other way, which covers a staircase over there, which is built on top of that facade behind it all.”

In short, mapping this complex is a nightmare.

Painstaking, mind-numbing work piecing together fragments of fragments of clues will be what brings the ancient pyramid to life.

But in many ways, the pyramid is already alive.

“The 16th-century Spanish sources say that this building when the Spanish arrived was used to sacrifice children to make it rain,” Plunket says, as she points first to the pyramid, and then to the church on top. “For cultural continuity, the Virgin up there, that’s now her duty. that’s her responsibility, to make it rain.”

For 2,000 years, the religions have changed. The theologies and rituals have changed. But the meaning and importance of this colossal man-made structure have miraculously remained the same.