Tula (Tollán)

Near the present-day town of Tula de Allende (about 50 miles north of Mexico City) lie the remains of Tollán, the capital city of the Toltec empire that thrived from 900 CE to 1170. Tollán is generally believed to have been the next large city to arise in central Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacán.

The Toltec were known for their militarism, their practice of human sacrifice and their advanced artistic culture. Tollán and the Toltec empire, however, would prove to be short-lived. By the late 12th century, nomadic Chichimecs (from whom the Toltec were descended) invaded from the north to escape severe droughts. Tollán was invaded, sacked and burned and the Toltec dispersed to other parts of Mexico.

The major structure that remains today from the ruins of Tollán is the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the House of the Morning Star) – referred to today at the site with more mundane (and more pronounceable) name of "Pyramid B." At the top of this pyramid stand four colossal statues, more than 15 feet tall, dressed as warriors. They may represent the Toltec ruler Ce Acatl Quetzalcóatl (who was named after the fair-skinned god worshiped by many Mesoamerica cultures). These four figures wear stylized butterfly breastplates, sun-shaped shields on their backs, feathered headdresses and carry spear throwers and a supply of spears. They once served as pillars to support the roof of a temple that stood atop the pyramid.

Along the base of the pyramid (on the side opposite the stairs) many Toltec carvings of jaguars, eagles and human skulls are still visible. At the foot of the stairs is an L-shaped colonnade that once supported a roof that may have provided a shaded passageway for the priests and nobility from the main pyramid toward the smaller Pyramid of the Sun (or "Pyramid C") to the east. Little remains today of Pyramid C. To the west of the main pyramid is the Quemado Palace (also known as the "Burnt Palace"), which today is little more than a foundation that once supported three large rooms and a forest of truncated pillars that once supported a roof.

Aside from pyramids and palaces, one architectural feature found at many Mesoamerican sites is a large ball court, where contestants used their hips, legs or arms to move a heavy, solid rubber ball toward their opponents' goal. Tollán had two such courts, one that appears more elaborate and perhaps was used for more ceremonial versions of the game (which may have resulted in death for the losers).

The ruins at Tula share many architectural, artistic and religious influences with the Maya city of Chichén Itzá, some 700 miles away (by land) on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. For years, scholars believed that the warlike Toltec had invaded distant Chichén Itzá and imposed their own culture. Today, however, most archaeologists believe that Toltec Tollán was one of many cities with whom the advanced Chichén Itzá traded and the common influences flowed from Chichén Itzá to Tollán. Whichever the direction of the cultural flow, visitors to both sites today will see many common features, including Chichén Itzá's Temple of the Warriors (which is similar to Tollán's Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli), ceremonial ball courts and representations of Chac-Mool, the intermediary between humans and the gods, who is depicted at both sites in a reclining posture with a dish balanced on his stomach that is believed to have once received the still-beating hearts of sacrificial victims.

The archaeological site at Tula pales in comparison to the one at Teotihuacán. If you only have time to visit one ancient site near Mexico City, Teotihuacán is the clear choice. If you have extra time, however, Tula is well worth the visit. There is also a small museum at the site that displays a variety of smaller artifacts found among the remains of Tollán.

Related Pages: Pre-Hispanic Mexico: History & Highlights, Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacán, Tzintzuntzan.