Some 50km north of Mexico City, on the edge of the Valley of Mexico, is the old Toltec capital – Tula. The Toltecs flourished around 950-1150 AD, inheriting their gods from the culture who built the vast temple complex at Teotihuacan, and eventually passing them on to the Mexica-Aztecs who founded the city of Tenochtitlan – the precursor of today’s Mexico City.
Last month I visited Tula. The drive out into rural Mexico Valley left the urban sprawl far behind giving way to corn fields, cactus scrublands, distant hills and clear blue skies. I saw an eagle gliding down to perch atop a tree, and as we neared Tula a vast thermoelectric power plant, the tall chimneys of which were belching a mixture of black smoke and white steam into the sky. A small secluded road leads up to the visitor centre of the archaeological site at Tula. Here a small museum displays some of the artefacts from the site, after which a path meanders up - amidst a myriad of different cactus types of all shapes and sizes - through what was once the Toltec settlement around the ceremonial centre. By this route one approaches the ceremonial plaza from behind the main temple building, catching a glimpse on high of the backs of the famous Atlantes – 5 metre tall carved basalt columns which once would have supported a roof. The rear of the main temple, or to give it its proper name, Templo de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (try saying that after a few tequilas, it might actually help!), is surrounded by a metal scaffold with a corrugated iron roof which shelters the last remaining reliefs depicting skulls, jaguars and plumed gods or warriors; the scaffold also offers the visitor some welcome shade in such an exposed spot.
Just behind the temple there is the smaller of two ball courts found at Tula. I took a look round this ball court first and found an equally fascinating highway of large red ants toiling back and forth, carrying in convoy huge slices of green leaves. The smaller ball court is better preserved than the larger one, still retaining a few of its original sculpture decorations. The second ball court, however, bears some intriguing parallels to the ball court at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza far away in the Yucatan peninsula, suggesting contacts between the two cultures which have yet to be fully understood by archaeologists. The second ball court is exactly aligned and built to exactly the same dimensions as the ball court found at Chichen Itza.
The main temple building, which was once dedicated to the god, Quetzalcoatl – the Plumed Serpent, is surrounded by the partially restored stumps of a vast colonnade, overlooking the ceremonial plaza which itself gives way to a view down to the modern settlement of Tula de Allende, with its impressive 16th century Franciscan monastery and church. Ascending the steep steps of the temple one is confronted by a row of four Atlantes, the outermost figures being replicas. Each is styled to look like a warrior wearing a butterfly breastplate and bearing arms; a spear thrower or atlatl in his right hand, and arrows or javelins in his left. The top of the temple gives the visitor superb views of the site and the surrounding landscape. It’s here, atop the temple, that you first see the true extent of the modern town in the valley below and the archaeological site suddenly seems pulled out of its seclusion, back into the modern world. On the day I visited I was lucky because there were relatively few other visitors and so I was able to wander around the ball courts and the other temples, platforms and buildings in relative isolation. At the foot of the temple building stand the remains of two Chacmools – reclining stone figures (both missing their heads) on which the still warm hearts of sacrificed prisoners of war would have been placed, attesting to the bloodthirsty warlike culture of the Toltecs; these religious traditions of human sacrifice were carried on by the Aztecs, and later witnessed by the Conquistadors who routed Tenochtitlan and who eventually brought the country under equally brutal Spanish colonial control in the 16th century. Tula was already ancient in Aztec times, and was a revered and holy site to them. They too explored amidst its ruins, and they took its antiquities back to their own temples. The Museo Nacional de Antropologia, where I was working, has Toltec objects and sculptures on display.
Mexico is a country I have long wanted to visit. When I was younger I was fascinated by the cultures and civilisations of Mesoamerica. In particular the Maya fascinated me most. The National Geographic Magazine always seemed to have articles describing some new archaeological find somewhere deep in the Yucatan. I remember reading with wide eyed wonder of the discovery in 1952 of the tomb of Pacal deep inside the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, and it was with equal if not more wide eyed wonder that I stumbled upon his jade mosaic face mask on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia on my first visit there last year. One day I hope to return to Mexico and explore the Yucatan. In the meantime though, I’m content to flip once again through the long familiar pages of those same books I read so avidly when younger and see there again pictures of places which are now familiar in a different way, having finally managed to visit them – the Atlantes of Tula, and the Avenue of the Dead, with the Temples of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan.