Thursday, January 6, 2011

Toltecs Part 1: The Enigmatic Empire

Atlantean figures stand guard atop the Toltecs' Temple of the Warriors. These stone warriors are the remains of numerous columns supporting the roof of the temple which used to surmount Pyramid B, also known as the Temple of the Warriors. I visited Tollan, capital of the Toltec Empire, in May of 2010 with Christopher English, a good friend who is also a talented photographer and artist. We were on the way to Zacatlán for an indigenous fiesta when we noticed that our route would pass close to modern-day Tula, site of the ancient Toltec capital. We liked what we found so much that we stopped again on our return trip. My two-part series on the Toltecs will not only focus on these ancient people, but provide a look at Tula, a small city in Hidigo State worth a visit even without the enticement of the ruins. For a map of Tula, click here.

Tollan stands on a flat-topped plateau overlooking the modern city of Tula. The map above shows the main ceremonial area. The overall city of Tollan was much larger, in the range of 15 square kilometers (9.3 miles sq.) and contained a population of as much as 60,000 (modern Tula has 93,000). The Temple of the Warriors (Pyramid B) is the green pyramid, just left of center. To its left is the Palacio Quemado (Burned Palace) with its scores of columns. To the right of Pyramid B is a blue structure called Pyramid C, an important religious site in Tollan. Directly opposite Pyramid C, across the plaza, is a narrow yellow rectangle called the Tzompantli, where the remains of human sacrifices were stored. Just behind the Tzompantli is a much larger blue rectangle called Ball Court 2. Behind the Temple of the Warriors, in the upper left of the site map, is Ball Court 1. There are other structures shown on the map above, but most were not in particularly good of repair, so I will focus only on the ones listed above where we spent time.

Pyramid C was once an important religious structure. The style of this pyramid shows a continuity with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan, the great empire which ended shortly before the rise of the Toltecs. At one time there was a temple on top of Pyramid C, but it was dismantled and removed by the Aztecs who passed through this area on the way to the Valley of Mexico to the south, where they built their own city of Tenochtitlan. In fact, for centuries after it was abandoned by the Toltecs, the Aztecs continued to loot Tollan. The Toltecs were much admired by the Aztecs, who emulated them and attempted to attach their own somewhat disreputable early history to the vanished glory of Tollan. Hence, they not only copied Toltec architectural styles, art, and religious mythology, but also the less appetizing parts of Toltec culture such as militarism and large-scale human sacrifice. Much of what the early archeologists believed about the Toltecs came from Aztec sources. The veracity of this information has since been disputed due to new archaeological developments.

Temple of the Warriors, seen from atop Pyramid C. This stepped pyramid is built on six levels of decreasing size, with the Atlantean figures on top supporting (along with many other now-vanished columns) a roof structure. While Pyramid C may have been a very important religious structure, the Temple of the Warriors (Pyramid B) is clearly the most impressive structure at Tollan. Archaeologists dispute whether this is due to the dominance of militarism and the warrior culture over everything else in Toltec society, or possibly because the Aztecs looted much of the original religious material.

Temple of the Warriors, as it may have looked a thousand years ago.  There is another very remarkable aspect of Tollan, one which can be seen throughout the ruined city but especially at the Temple of the Warriors. Anyone who visits both Tollan and the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itzá cannot help but note the remarkable similarities in architecture, art, and religious mythology. The Aztecs arose much later than Chichen Itzá's heyday, so the influence couldn't have come from their appropriation of Toltec culture. Tollan is situated in Central Mexico on the high plains north of Mexico City. Chichen Itzá is located more than a thousand miles away on the jungle-covered limestone flats of the Yucatan Peninsula. The cultures from which they arose were very different, and yet they seem so much alike. The Toltecs and their capital Tollan are in many ways an archaeological enigma. During my Toltec series, I will explore some of the competing theories about this enigma.

Grand staircase leading up to the top of the Temple of Warriors. The staircase is steep, and the individual steps fairly narrow, so visitors must tread carefully. Unlike many other sites around Mexico, the top of this pyramid is still accessible to tourists. The original theories about the Toltecs and their relationship with Chichen Itzå come from Aztec records and word-of-mouth tales collected by the early colonial Spanish. The site had been long abandoned when the Aztecs arrived, so--in addition to loot--they collected whatever local information they could and embroidered it to suit their own purposes. According to these stories, the Toltecs arose after the fall of the even more ancient Teotihuacan Empire. The name Tollan, or Tula, comes from the Nahuatl language shared by the Toltecs and Aztecs. It means "people of the reeds" or "people thick as reeds" referring to the large size, for its time, of the city's population. Toltec, in Nahuatl, means "artificer" or "person who makes things," and the Toltecs were remembered as skilled craftspeople. They carried on an extensive trade in carved obsidian and other valuable products with locations as far away as the Pacific Coast of Sinaloa, the Gulf of Mexico, and possibly even Guatemala and the Anasazi culture of the Southwest US.

Atlantean statue of a soldier-noble. In one hand the figure carries an atlatl (spear-thrower) and the other holds a container for copal incense. The butterfly emblem on his chest indicates he is member of the Toltec warrior-elite. The statue, in four sections of stone, stands an imposing 4.6 meters high (15 ft.). His rigid, erect posture, with eyes staring off into the distance, mark him not only as a soldier but as a Toltec. In fact, I have come to almost immediately recognize Toltec figures by this stance. Other ancient cultures such as the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Zapotecs show humans in a variety of postures, often relaxed, sitting or even dancing. The Toltecs, at least from their usual representation in statues, appear to have been the Spartans of their time, a thoroughly militarized society. According the the Aztec legends, the Toltecs engaged in a climactic struggle, a civil war really, between Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, a man of peace and culture, and militarists who followed the fierce war god Tezcatlipoca. In the story, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was forced to flee Tollan with his followers. Reported to be tall, fair-skinned, and bearded, Topiltzin led his people to the Gulf Coast and departed over the sea, prophesying that he would return some day. Hundreds of years later, the Aztec king Moctezuma thought this prophesy was on the verge of fulfillment when fair-skinned, bearded Hernán Cortéz landed with his Conquistadores. This mistaken identification contributed to the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Sections of a column on top of the Temple of Warriors. These sections show how the Toltecs fitted the stones together to assemble the columns supporting the roof structure. The nobs on top fit into corresponding holes in the bottom of other sections. Some of the columns are cylindrical and others are square. Most are covered with relief carvings of plant-life and animals. These two sections are each about 1.2 meters high (4 ft.) and .6 meters thick (2 ft.). They were probably painted in bright colors. Early archaeologists, who had already noted the Tollan-Chichen Itzá similarities, were intrigued by a legend from Chichen Itzá that, about the same time Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl sailed off into the rising sun, a warrior people came from the sea and landed on the coast of Yucatan. They were led by a man called Kukulkan, which in Maya means "Feathered Serpent." The Feathered Serpent or (Quetzalcoatl in the Nahuatl language) was the god from whom Topiltzin got his name. The newcomers conquered the city which became known as Chichen Itzá. Soon the Puuc style of Maya architecture was superseded by a style which closely resembles that found in the city of Tollan. The Feathered Serpent became a pervasive feature at Chichen Itzá. These stories fitted so neatly that archaeologists accepted them as the explanation for many years. However, discrepancies began to appear over time, and questions began to arise.

Young love in the ruins. I noticed this beautiful Mexican girl and her handsome boyfriend cuddling on the edge of the Temple of Warriors platform. They happily agreed when I asked for a photo. Mexicans of all ages are justly proud of their thousands of years of history and enjoy visiting their ancient ruins. When Europe was in the Dark Ages and hordes of fur-clad barbarians were ravaging everything in sight, distant ancestors of the pair above were engaging in sophisticated astronomy and mathematics, and creating great cities and beautiful art and literature.

Palacio Quemado, the Burned Palace. This structure, which is immediately to the left of the Temple of Warriors, contains scores of plastered columns which once supported a roof. As the name indicates, the structure was burned, possibly in the cataclismic final days of Tollan. Like Tollan's Temple of the Warriors, the Palacio Quemado has a close similarity to a structure at Chichen Itzá called the Court of a Thousand Columns. The Chichen Itzá columned structure also lies in close proximity to a pyramid called Temple of the Warriors which shares great similarities with the one at Tollan.

Palacio Quemado is divided into three great columned halls. It is very likely that these halls functioned as gathering places for large conclaves of Toltec nobles, priests, and royalty. One of the problems with the Aztec story of the departure of Topiltzin and the Chichen Itzá story of the arrival of Kukulkan, is that the chronologies just don't match up. Recent analysis of Chichen Itzá pottery indicates that the city fell at least 100 years before it was previously thought. Another difficulty is that the last rulers of Chichen Itzá were the Itzá people, not Toltecs (the city's name means "Well of the Itzá" referring to the famous cenote). They were ethnic Mayans who had apparently originated on the Gulf Coast of Campeche State near the present-day Cuidad del Carmen. They wandered into the highlands of Chiapas and settled for a while at Lake Peten in Guatemala before moving north through present-day Belize and finally going inland to conquer the Maya city that they renamed Chichen Itzá. They were what archaeologists call "Mexicanized" Maya who had adopted many cultural attributes of Central Mexico, including military technology which allowed them to easily conquer the Yucatan Maya. Some of this Mexicanized culture may have included Toltec elements. The Itzá, by the way, were eventually driven out of Chichen Itzá by members of their ethnic group who had split off and conquered other Maya cities. They retreated to their previous stopping point at Lake Peten and created the city of Tayasal which lasted as an independent kingdom until 1697 when it was finally conquered by the Spanish, almost 200 years after their conquest of the Aztecs.

Stone benches with carved reliefs line the walls of Palacio Quemado. The carvings show lines of nobles marching along, preceded by royal figures. The rumps of royalty may have graced this very spot at some important gathering to discuss the politics or foreign policy of the Toltec Empire. Other theories about the Toltec-Chichen Itzá connection suggest that perhaps the two cities were settled by people, possibly from the coast, who split and migrated in different directions. Still other theories propose that Chichen Itzá came first, and then set up Tollan as an outpost of the Empire. Is Tollan simply a smaller and somewhat humbler version of Chichen Itzá, created by colonists trying to copy the grandeur of the home city? Or was Chichen Itzá a more grandiose version of the original home, made possible by the skilled artisans found among the newly conquered Maya? There is even a school of thought that the Toltecs are completely over-rated, there never was an empire, and that Tollan was not a particularly important city in its own time. The more I dug to find the truth, the more versions of the story I encountered. It appears that if you put three archeologists in a room, five opinions will emerge. The enigma remains.

El Coatepantli, the "Wall of Snakes," runs along the rear of the Temple of Warriors. You can get a sense of the size of the Temple from my friend Christopher who is walking in front of El Coatepantli, and also from the tourists on top near the Atlanteans. El Coatepantli is a long wall whose purpose was to set the boundaries of sacred space. It is presently protected from the elements by the corregated roof you can see above.

El Coatepantli up close. The battlements on top, shaped roughly like a cut conch shells, relate to Quetzalcoatl and Venus. That celestial body is sacred to the Toltecs and many other Meso-Americans because of its reappearance every morning, symbolizing death and rebirth. This is also a key part of the Quetzalcoatl myth. At the bottom center, you can make out a relief carving of a human skull disappearing into the mouth of an immense snake.

Close-up of a recurring theme on El Coatepantli. Above, a skeleton figure is devoured by a giant snake. The image is repeated all along one panel of the wall from one end to the other. It represents human sacrifice. The Feathered Serpent mythology originated with the Teotihuacan Empire, Toltecs' predecessor. It became one of the most important Toltec images.

The jaguar was another image repeated along the wall. Snakes, jaguars, and eagles were animals with great symbolic meaning all over Meso-America. The jaguar, the most powerful predator in the jungle,  represented power and nobility and was revered all the way back to the Olmecs. What appears to be hanging from his mouth is a human heart.

An eagle feasts on a human heart, in another carving on El Coatepantli. At a Chichen Itzá structure called the Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars, I photographed a virtually identical image.

Site map of Ball Court 2 and the Tzompantli. The playing field of the ball court is shaped like a capital "I", with two short cross pieces at the top and bottom. The spectators sat on the raised areas along the sides and at the back. The area along the left side of the I seems to be raised above the others and is probably where the elite watched the games. The Tzompantli is the long, low, rectangular platform at the upper left with a small protrusion extending from one side. The close relationship between the Ball Court and the Tzompantli is another similarity to Chichen Itzá.

A view of the Tzompantli, with the Ball Court in the background. These structures form one side of the main plaza of Tollan's ceremonial area. Tollan, and modern day Tula, sit at the base of the mountains that form so much of Hidalgo State. While smaller than the Ball Court, the Tzompantli is quite large, measuring 59.8 meters (196 ft.) by 11.48 meters (37.5 ft.). Its function related to human sacrifice.

The function of the Tzompantli. The purpose was to display the products of the regular human sacrifices practiced by the Toltecs. The rack seen above would have been only one of many displayed the entire length of the Tzompantli. At Chichen Itzá, there is a long stone Tzompantli in close proximity to its Ball Court with identical racks of skulls carved along the sides. It is very likely that, as in Chichen Itzá, ball players at Tollan were sacrificed after the game. Whether it was the winners or losers is another matter of dispute. The sign accompanying this drawing said, with considerable understatement "it is likely that the display of skulls was intended to exercise a coercive function in society..."  You think?!

The Ball Court 2 playing field. The low platforms on either side were part of the Ball Court's playing area. It is thought that stone rings were mounted on the walls on either side. It would have been part of the game to knock the hard rubber ball through the small opening in the rings. This would have been a considerable feat, considering that the use of hands was apparently not allowed. These games had deep symbolic and religious meaning in all the societies where they were played. The contending sides tended to represent the contest between the forces of darkness and light, death and rebirth.

On one end of the Ball Court 2 playing field. From this point, you can see the columns of El Palacio Quemado, and the Altlantea figures on top of the Temple of Warriors. All of these structures had a relationship with each other in the Toltec society.

Stairway to the stadium. Spectators mounted these stairs, and others like them at both ends of Ball Court 1, in order to gain access to the spectator seating areas of the Ball Court. I found it disconcerting to look at the ball courts, which seem so familiar in design to modern football or soccer fields, and then think of how different their functions and meaning were to the Toltecs and other Meso-Americans cultures.

Broken portrait of a ball player. I found this small relief sculpture at the base of a wall in the playing field of Ball Court 1. The top of the sculpture has been broken off, possibly by natural causes, or by intentional destruction when Tollan fell into civil chaos, or even possibly by Aztec looters trying to pry it loose to bring it back to Tenochtitlan. What remains shows only the legs and feet of the ball player, who may have been a real person, sacrificed after the game.

Keeping a sharp eye for modern-day looters. I encountered this guard on top of the Temple of Warriors. I was glad to see that Mexico values a site like this enough to discourage looters and vandals. National pride and an eye to the tourist dollar, euro, yen, etc. helps keep these sites reasonably intact. It was a while before I became used to seeing Mexican security guards routinely carrying such heavy armament. This fellow was pleased that I wanted his picture but, even so, he never cracked a smile. I guess he thought it might ruin his image.

This concludes Part 1 of my Toltec series. In Part 2, I'll show some examples of Toltec sculpture and art, as well as some scenes from the modern city of Tula. I hope you enjoyed this visit to the world of the ancient Toltecs. If you have a comment, please leave it in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can reply.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Dear Jim,

    Since I love your travelogues, I decided to DRIVE to Hierve el Agua in our huge old LINCOLN. After the hour and a half of sheer terror we were amazed at the beauty on top of that mountain. Now we understand why no one told us about it. That night our neighbor who lives on our property showed us the film he made when he took his five year old up there in the out-going governor's helicopter. I think that's the only way to go! Absolutely stunning although we will not be showing it off to any of our visitors. I noticed that no one mentioned the drive in any of the web sites about it.

    I still like you, though, and look forward to more.

    Liz Groat

  2. Jim, Love your information. I ran across it as I was trying to find information about a "Indian" tribe that has a celebration at Las Labradas Petroglyphs North of Mazatlan. All I have been able to find is that the Petroglyphs were done by the Toltecs. Last year around Semana Santa I read in the Noreste (after the fact) that the yearly celebration at Las Labradas had taken place. Might you have any information on this? Thank you very much for your time. Cindi Hoover

  3. Hi, thanks for posting such great pix and explanations of Tollan. They've been really helpful from a distance (I can't travel there). Muñeca Hielo

  4. I would like to see a photo from a "bird's eye view" of the top of the head dress of the warrior statue.
    As I remember climbing up to get such a view there were stylized swastika-like glyphs carved on the tops of the head dresses.
    Each swastika was almost circular with the bars of the "cross" curved.
    I have only seen a few replica statues with said swastikas on them as are sold to tourists.

  5. Hi,

    We are interested in using a couple of your photos for a TV series on the History Channel. Please email me at

    Thank you!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim