Professor Michael Smith talks urban planning in Mesoamerica
On Thursday, March 5, Michael E. Smith, Professor of Archaeology at Arizona State University, gave a talk on the urban planning of ancient Mesoamerican cities titled “From Teotihuacan to Tenochtitlan: The Biggest Cities in the Ancient New World”. As explained in the title, the main focus of the lecture was Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, but he did describe other ancient Mesoamerican cities in order to compare them to Teotihuacan and to explain the influences that both Teotihuacan and the ancient Mesoamerican urban planning principles had on Tenochtitlan.
Teotihuacan was founded much earlier than Tenochtitlan and was populated from around 100 to 600 CE. It was the biggest city in all of Mesoamerica and the capital of a small empire when it was built, having a population of approximately 100,000 people. The layout of the city was grid-based, all of them being angled around 16 degrees East of North. The center of the city was a long street named by the Aztecs as the Avenue of the Dead. To the north, the road ends at the Pyramid of the Moon. The much larger Pyramid of the Sun is to the south and on the east side of the Avenue. Even further south, there is the Great Compound to the west, and right across from it, there is the Ciuduadela (citadel) with the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents inside of it. (It is important to note that most of these names are names the Aztecs gave to the buildings and the road, and are not necessarily representative of what the buildings were or what they were dedicated to. The original names of the buildings were lost along with the language used in Teotihuacan.) The people lived together in apartment complexes throughout the city. These living quarters are unique not only in Mesoamerica but also the world: Most apartments in historical cities were cramped tenement buildings, but these were spacious and beautiful. The apartment complexes were bigger than some Mesoamerican palaces and had murals and small temples inside of them. Based off of the living quarters, Teotihuacan likely had a more egalitarian society, with most people falling into what would be considered a middle class in the modern day. Offerings and sacrifices were left in public temples, presumably so that the public could participate as well in these gifts to the gods. Many of these elements were unique to Teotihuacan in the region, at least for almost a thousand years.
Compared to most other Mesoamerican cities, at the time following it, Teotihuacan was unique both socially and architecturally. It did not follow the template most Mesoamerican cities used at the time. Specifically, it did not resemble Tula, an ancient capital so uniform in its use of the ancient Mesoamerican planning principles that many other cities copied Tula when being created. Tula had a central plaza, a palace, a ballcourt, and a temple-pyramid. Teotihuacan only had one of these things, temple-pyramids. Tula also had circular pyramids and skull platforms; things not present in Teotihuacan. They left their residential neighborhoods unplanned as well, whereas Teotihuacan had large apartments for most families living there. Tula and other ancient Mesoamerican cities did not have a grid pattern or central roads like Teotihuacan.
Tenochtitlan, founded in 1300 CE and destroyed in 1520 CE, was also a capital like Tula and Teotihuacan. Like Teotihuacan, it was the biggest city in Mesoamerica when it was built, with a population of about 210,000 people. The layout and architecture was like other Mesoamerican cities, and the epicenter was based on Tula. It had a palace, a ballcourt, and temple-pyramids. It also had circular pyramids and skull platforms. When the Aztecs found the ruins of Teotihuacan, however, they decided that they wanted to reintegrate some of the once-lost architectural features of Teotihuacan. The shrines in Tenochtitlan are done in the Teotihuacan style; offerings are placed in public architecture, much like in Teotihuacan. Tenochtitlan is even a grid city, although that may be due to other factors such as ease of construction or effective use of a limited space — Tenochtitlan was initially two cities occupying the same island, so space was limited. Overall, as Smith argued, Tenochtitlan ended up being a mix of the city planning style dominating Mesoamerica for almost 1000 years before its creation and a reintroduction of Teotihuacan architecture and practice.