Today I took public transport to Teotihuacan – the remains of a complex of pyramids and buildings which was once the greatest city in Central America.
It is situated 50km north of its successor, Tehuanteopec (Mexico City). It took me three subway lines and an hour long bus ride, all carefully planned out, helped by the Lonely Planet’s “second-last desk on the concourse” level of detail.
Mexico City has a decent subway network. The lines are either just underground, or just over ground. The ticket price is a bit of a mystery. You pay more for a longer journey, but then surrender your ticket at the first gate, so you can get out where you like. Well you have to always get out on the right. The doors only open on one side, so there is no shuffling for position as in London. Once again, I was the only pair of blue eyes on the system, but I was soon changing trains like a local, this time with my camera safely in my rucksack. The bus was comfortable enough. All buses grunt and jerk and swagger like old men. I haven’t really been a bus fan since I threw up on the way to Chester Zoo on a school trip when I was about 8.
I spent about 6 hours walking the site. All day I was approached by hawkers selling historical Mexican memorabilia, silver bracelets, necklaces, wooden bow and arrows and whistles. (I really wish they hadn’t sold so many whistles). One guy offered me a bracelet “for your mother-in-law”. Not a bad offer, I thought, make it 2 bracelets and you have a deal (only joking Mrs Young).
The Teotihuacan civilisation pre-dates those old Mexican favourites the Mayans and the Aztecs. The site sports two huge pyramids, the Piramide del Sol and the Piramide de la Lune. The Sol is the third biggest pyramid in the world (no 2 is also in Mexico), and the Lune is on its shoulder. The city housed 125,000 people at its peak and dominated the area from AD100 through 600. It was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. But something brought it to an end in the seventh century, when it was burned, plundered and abandoned. Nobody knows what or why.
It was amazing to stand high up on the Piramide de la Lune, looking down the city’s thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, and imagine the place teeming with thousands of workers, priests, women and children, living in the various buildings whose remains we could still see. Now it is buzzing instead with tourists and hawkers. How the world changes.
World history is the story of civilisations prospering, waning and dying out. Seemingly all-powerful, clever and smart societies fall apart. We all know about the Greeks, the Romans, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, the Ottoman empire, the Xin Dynasty, The Mongols, the British empire, the Nazis. One way or another, thorough conquest, withdrawal or erosion, they are all now resigned to our history books. Relegated to a few pages in Wikipedia. They would never have imagined it!
Their growth and demise is of course the history of war. Men striving for territory and resources. Not satisfied with what they have within their existing boundaries. We saw it in Louisiana and Mississippi with the successive waves of Spanish, French and British rule, the Cajuns evicted from Canada. Mexico, like every country, has its history of conquests. After Teotihuacan came the Mayans and the Toltecs and then the Aztecs.
I was talking to my sister about the concept of a world without countries, where all land and wealth was shared across the world’s people, according to their need. John Lennon got there first: “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace”
In 1521, Spain destroyed, took over and rebulit Tehuanteopec . Yesterday I had walked round the Aztec ruins which were discovered in 1978 in the city centre. As empire succeeds empire, they build on top of the vanquished streets and buildings, setting a challenge for future archaeologists to unearth the past. You can see it in Athens and Rome and bath. Sedimentary layers of civilisation, providing a vertical record of history in bricks and artefacts.
Mexico City is sinking under the weight of the fabulous Spanish colonial buildings. Some already look like pictures in your living room that you are compelled to straighten up. I will resist the temptation to do that in photoshop. The Aztecs built their city on an island in a lake and the only way into it was via causeways.
Nothing is permanent. Empires rise and fall and some sink. Buildings likewise. All of those hundreds of thousands who inhabited Teotihuacan are forgotten. So are the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Spaniards and countless generation since. Only their landscapes and creations survive. Their way of live has been replaced by islands of the great post-modern empires of the western world, surrounded great seas, lakes and causeways of the poor and helpless.
Like many before, we feel we are impregnable, that things will go on like this forever. History tells us otherwise. Kingdoms rise and fall. One day, maybe when the oil runs out or the sea level rises, ours will become the latest top soil of history.