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.
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.
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.
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.
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.