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Tula Hidalgo

Tula, Ancient Capital of the Toltecs

Home of the Toltecs, Tula served as an important link in a chronological chain of Mesoamerican city-states. It rose to power after Teotihuacán was abandoned at the end of the seventh century, and reached its height of power and culture between AD1000 and 1100. After Tula's demise, other cities emerged to fill the vacuum, including Tenayuca (founded around 1200 by a branch of the Chichimecs of the north) and nearby, the more famous Aztec nation centered at Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs borrowed much of Toltec culture after their rapid rise from illiterate parvenus to the wealthy and powerful kingdom that the Spanish encountered in 1519.

Tula was one of the largest cities of its time, with tens of thousands of inhabitants. Its two main structures (called Pyramids B and C by modern archaeologists) faced a large central plaza. Made of stone, sand, and limestone, and decorated with colorful bas-relief sculptures, they could be seen from anywhere in the city. Today the actual temples, which sat on top of the pyramids and were made of wood and other perishable materials, are gone, but the bas relief sculptures that remain give hints about their purpose and dedication of the temples.

Details, Details

Although the elements have worn away most of the color, you can still easily see a conga line of jaguars and coyotes that decorate Pyramid B, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. The jaguars and coyotes look very similar until you notice their tails: the jaguars' are long and thin, the coyotes, tapered and feathery. Below these panels, the eagles devouring human hearts are harder to make out. On another wall, a row of skeletons being devoured by rattlesnakes is still easily discernable. Called the coatepantli, or "wall with snakes," these serpent carvings are related to the rite of human sacrifice.

On top of Pyramid B are the four tall, stylized, rectangular Atlantes that the site is famous for. One of these warrior statues is a replica, the original having been moved to the Archaeology Museum at Mexico City. Statues with identical markings have been found at Chichén Itza, in Maya country, and they bear the same symbol-names and hieroglyphics.

The Toltecs and the Maya

Tula's relationship with the Maya of the Yucatan is also seen in worship of the god Quetzalcoatl ("Kukulcan" in the Mayan language) and certain types of ceramics shared by these two distant cultures. A statue of Chac Mool, highly characteristic of the Yucatan Maya, was discovered within the ruined palace that fronts Tula's main plaza, where you can wander through a warren of room and pillars. Burned at the end of the city's reign, it is now referred to as El Palacio Quemado, : the Burned Palace.

Like the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations, Tula was a militaristic culture given to conquest and human sacrifice. Facing the second ball court and the great plaza, a wall of skulls paid homage to the slain warriors of the enemy. Archaeologists have found there the remains of many human skulls and teeth.

Practical Info

Set among grassy hills that flower in the rainy season, Tula today is a minor archaeological site, but well worth a visit. Placards in English and Spanish provide lots of interesting information about the highly cultured Toltec society. The site museum gives additional information and has the usual ceramic ware and statuettes, along with some larger pieces. The site is open 365 days a year from 9AM to 5PM. At this time, the entrance fee is 41 pesos, including museum entrance.

Getting There

Located in the southern part of Hidalgo state, Tula is now accessible via the new toll highway Arco Norte (Carretera de Cuota D-40), which connects Querétaro with Puebla, permitting drivers to avoid the congestion around Mexico City. (If you follow this route, Tula is approximately 80 km from Teotihuacán, its predecessor, which is an important and imposing site not to be missed.) To get to Tula from Mexico City, take the Mexico-Querétaro Hwy and exit at Km 56, the road toward la Refinería and Tepeji del Rio, then follow the signs.

By Bus

Buses leave Mexico City's Central de Autobuses del Norte (North Bus Station). There's a more direct bus towards Tepeji del Rio every 40 minutes and one every 15 minutes towards Refinería. The bus trips take an hour and 20 minutes and one hour and 40 minutes, respectively.

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