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Music of the Spheres at Teotihuacan

 

“This is the Avenue of the Dead, the guide, Miguel, announces. We are in the center of Teotihuacán, a pre-Columbian conurbation in Mexico. On both margins of the vacant thoroughfare stark pyramids crest against the unblinking sky. Bleached by erosion, surrounded by asphalt and scorched grass, the cobbled structures seem part of the Mexico landscape rather than the labor of man. I attempt to picture this deserted rubble as Miguel describes its heyday: blocks of multi-family apartments stacked against each other, piebald murals of stars, snakes, and cryptic beasts garishly decorating the talud-tablero, throngs of traders, artisans, and farmers hurrying down the sacred boulevard.

 

A thrumming like the pitter-patter of drizzle sweeps out ahead of us. I gaze up but the glaring sun and cottony clouds hold no precipitation. “Did you hear that?” Miguel asks, with his sphinx smile. “Come with me and I will show you something clever.” We hustle after him to face the courtyard in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. Standing at the bottom Miguel claps his hands; seconds later the tattoo of rainfall reverberates. Our company eye each other in disbelief. “These platforms were natural amplifiers allowing large number of spectators to attend ceremonies. Dependent on the noise and its location, different echoes will be produced. Some sound like the iconic quetzal, others resemble thunderstorms. Notes essential to the pageantry of the priests.”

“How did they design this arena for those specific strains?” a long limbed blond inquires.

“They had an intense knowledge of mathematics and astronomy,” Miguel replies. A stocky chap in a baseball cap leans into me.

“More likely it was aliens,” he whispers. I glance at him, startled, then smile — unsure whether this is a joke. What I am witness to is the sophistication of the sixth grandest metropolis of its age. Yet, I also cannot reconcile such acuity with the rack of crushed skulls or the misshapen skeletal scraps — preserved remnants of a civilization steeped in sacrifice.

In an effort to persuade us of the quadrangles’ sonic efficacy, Miguel advises us to experiment with commotion. “Try your own songs,” he urges. Several of our group disperses to various points where they snap fingers, whistle, and shout. The plaza fills with a fiendish din, forcing me to wander off. I climb the terraces of the Pyramid of the Sun to escape the racket.

As I mount I begin to notice the calculation behind its profligate construction. How many were commanded to quarry this vast quantity of boulders? How many trees were burned for the upkeep of these scarped risers? Above all, who were the leaders capable of such authority? Assured of their divine incarnation, they effectively commanded projects of a colossal scale. I wheeze my way up each flight, marveling at the scope of what once existed. Apparently sheltering diverse ethnicities, Teotihuacán must have presented immense wealth and opportunity to motivate so many from miles away to settle, to offer themselves in oblation. It is a testament to the place and its inhabitants that seven hundred years later when the Aztecs stumbled upon its ruins, they credited gods with forging this site.

Progress has a peculiar way of skewing perspective. As monumental shifts occur in the ways we live and work, future generations tend to view bygone societies with hindsight’s scorn. It becomes impossible to conceive that our ancestors indulged in intellectual discourses, held nuanced religious ideologies, or operated under civil complexity. Staring out at the detritus of a culture I cannot grasp from the summit of the pyramid, I too question their prowess. “How is it possible?” I wonder, briefly entertaining my travel associate’s extraterrestrial theory. I want to delude myself that our technological, medical, and aesthetic advancements are solutions to inequity, pollution, and corruption. I want to presume that somehow we are managing better than our forebears, that we finally possess the key to unlocking humanity’s improvement.

My explorations of Teotihuacán antiquity has revealed that its citizens reckoned vertically, they believed creation happened in layers. They understood some truths I have lost knowledge of in the modern world: the indivisible quality of good and evil, the transcendent state of death, the universe’s cyclical character. Artists of that period designed emotive obsidian masks, painted flamboyant facades of gold and jade rivaling today’s masterpieces. Nevertheless, they were no more successful than us at forecasting the consequences of their actions. They too were convinced in the correctness of their interpretations, fell prey to their avarice, failed to balance economics with bureaucracy.

Descending from the apex of the Sun Pyramid, I perceive an eerie growl emanate from below. It is a jaguar call pulsating up through the residuum. As I alight the last tread and turn the corner the snarl repeats from one of the souvenir sellers. He holds in his mouth a replica of an atavistic whistle discovered with Aztec burials. The eldritch trinket is a powerful ghostly reminder that so much of the past can never be fully envisaged. What was the aroma pervading through these streets? How did the music of their language declaim? Which flavors dominated their gastronomy? Without such insights these first millennium occupants abide as paper ghosts.

Observing Teotihuacán through my twenty-first century outlook, how do I process its mixture of refinement and savagery? What wisdom, if any, can I glean from it? Is it advisable for me to consider this city-state anything other than a bizarre epoch best left to the dust? The danger of me placing my biases upon incomplete evidence is that it renders this community as a caricature, obsoleting any enlightenment. If I am to appreciate Teotihuacán in its entirety, I can neither idolize its cosmopolitanism nor be an apologist for its sadism. The more I travel the deeper I comprehend that history is a conversation. There is rarely a standard set of rules or facts to which it adheres. Instead yesteryear continues to get rewritten as we unearth the other half of every circumstance, as we adjust our interrogations, as we engage with the mortal contradictions altering political strategy.


TRAVEL NOTE:

In 550 CE much of Teotihuacán’s important buildings were sacked. Though it is unclear as to the reason, some archeologists believe that internal revolt was responsible for the city’s demise. Lime, an alkaline adherent, was used extensively to maintain and expand pyramids and its manufacture depended on wood fuel from neighboring jungles. Deforestation led to droughts, civic unrest, and the collapse of Teotihuacán.


Is it possible to learn from history or are we doomed to repeat it? How do we construe past cultures without imposing our frame of reference onto them? If you have been to Teotihuacán or any other Mesoamerican locations, share your thoughts about them in the comments below.

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79 replies »

  1. I really like that idea that history is a conversation. Your story about the amplification of sound is fascinating and your question about whether we, with all of our technological advancements, are managing better than our forebears is a good one. I’m not sure we are, but as you said, it’s a conversation. We can learn from the past and be enlightened. I love your photos too. I visited Teotihuacán in 2007, before I became what I now consider a world traveler. I didn’t do research before going, and it was a flat experience because of it.

    • I hope at some point you get the opportunity to return to Teotihuacán to have a more enjoyable experience of it. Ruins of ancient civilizations intrigue me, but I had not considered until you mentioned it how much knowing something about their history prior to visiting influences my enjoyment.

      • I agree. We just went to Prague and Budapest in the fall, and we read a lot about how those countries suffered in WWII and in the Communist era, so we felt that we were able to really appreciate those cities because of their sad histories.

  2. The raise, and fall of civilizations pervade the World over, a lesson of Humbleness for us, who knows if in two, three, or four thousand years from now, or more, people may roam through our cities, wondering about us! 🙂

  3. Beautifully crafted. I know I should expound on that but I’ve not had my coffee. I know I should focus on the content, the culture, but the ‘vessel’ (blog post) that delivers the content is all that, as well crafted as those pyramids. Thank you!

  4. Incredible photos, which become even more magical as you take me along this adventure with your words ~ a part of a world I sure would like to explore some day. I’ve not heard much about Teotihuacán, and after this experience I wonder why I haven’t heard much more ~ so much to learn from the past.

    • Thank you so very much! I’m thrilled to my fingertips to be able to transport you to this magical place! I hope you make it to Mexico at some point. The colors, the surrealism, and the layers of history would captivate your senses just as they have mine. It is interesting you mention that Teotihuacán isn’t as well known. Although the area does draw crowds, most visitors tend to go see Chichen Itza. Perhaps this is because there is so little known about the Teotihuacán civilization, as opposed to the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas?

      • I’ve visited Mexico a few times during and out of high school, and figured I would be spending a lot of time here… and then life got in the way 🙂 I look forward to the day I find myself exploring Teotihuacán. Cheers!

  5. Mexico has a rich history and full of mystery. The pyramids continue to fascinate to learn more about the past and to understand it. I believe there is a connection between all the pyramids here on our planet and the aliens, but that’s exactly the mystery behind it. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  6. Fascinating post, I’d be interested to hear the acoustics singing there. I read a tweet about alien theories and the pyramids in Mayan, Egyptian and Indonesian pyramid landing sites on the same line around the Earth. I’d love visit and explore. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Charlotte. As the guide was reviewing the acoustic properties, I was wondering what it would sound like to attend an opera at the site today. I have heard some amazing performances in ancient Roman amphitheaters in Italy and I bet it could sound just as marvelous at places like this.

  7. Wonderful evocation of a sense of place, of poetry and history and of unfathomable barbarity and awe-inspiring architectural skill and vision.
    Wonderful post that takes the reader on your journey … thank you

    • Yes. It’s hard to see things without the filter of our own culture (or upbringing). It’s unavoidable. Perhaps whether it is a good or bad thing depends on what those ideas and principles are? But, this is certainly the center of conflict when divergent ideas about right and wrong clash together in our multicultural world.

  8. A truly wonderfully written post! 🙂 I’ve always been fascinated by structures that have been left behind by lost civilisations. There’s something haunting about them. And for those with a vivid imagination — an opportunity to surmise. I believe, ancient civilisations could have found the answers to the questions we’re still searching answers for. Sadly, many might have not been able to survive change (climatic or otherwise) or simply adapt. It’s interesting how we keep looking towards the sky for answers. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that we’re made of star dust. There’s probably something that might make us want to look outside, instead of finding the answers within. Interestingly, if we ever figure how to sustain human life to cover astronomical distances, we’d turn out to be ‘aliens’ for another system. 🙂

    • Being “earth-centric” we never think of ourselves that way do we? But, by definition we have already sent “alien” spacecraft out into the cosmos. 🙂 I certainly think that past civilizations struggled with similar societal issues we do today. Human nature has not changed so we continue to face the dilemmas over and over again in cycles. As to your comment about our obsession with the stars, you raise an intriguing point: perhaps it is because we originate from them that they so fascinate us?

  9. Fascinating post and very informative. Lots of mysterious history to digest. I happen to think the ET theory is pretty interesting actually not just in this case or pyramids but in many other parts of the world where it is highly unlikely humans could have achieved what was achieved. Crop circles? Maccu Pichu? To name a few that come to mind. There are many reports about contact with ET but most are covered up for fear of public panic. At any rate, fascinating topic and lived the photos and descriptions of this site.

    Peta

    • Thanks. I often wonder if thousands of years from now (if we survive) future societies will believe that extra terrestrials assisted us with the development of smart phones or virtual reality devices? When one stops to think about the incredible advancement of industry and technology even in the past century, it is truly mind-boggling to comprehend what humanity (with or without help) has achieved in those arenas.

  10. An architectural marvel and foreboding story. Man’s cycle of enlightenment and self-destruction baffles me and makes me wonder whether we will we ever learn.

    As I write this I am exploring the temples in Siem Reap which are amazing but somehow, I find the Teotihuacán more interesting. Your photographs of the place are remarkable. It has been years since I visited Teotihuacán, but it was my first such place and has become the standard by which I measure other such marvels..although I have yet to see Machu Picchu.

    • Our first experience of archaeological sites leaves such an impression doesn’t it? Having visited both Siem Reap and Teotihuacán, I think they are amazing in different ways. The landscape of today plays such a part in how these two places appear to us: The starkness of the scrub in which the Teotihuacán pyramids now stand adds to its awe, whereas the Cambodian ruins seem almost a part of the jungles that have taken them over. However, I once saw a video of a helicopter ride over Angor Wat. It suddenly clarified for me what an enormous acreage that empire once covered and how powerfully it had controlled its natural environment.

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