Translated from the Nahuatl language spoken by Aztecs, Teotihuacan means “the place where the gods were created” (Rosenfield, 2002). Teotihuacan was a one of the most significant political, economic, religious and cultural centers of Mesoamerica in the period of its heyday (between 250 and 600 AD) (Noble & Armstrong, 2010, p.36). While Teotihuacan is often called a city-state in the academic literature, it seems, the words ‘civilization’ or ‘empire’ apply better. For example, Noble & Armstrong refer to Teotihuacan as to “the first great civilization in Central Mexico” (Noble & Armstrong, 2010, p.36). In other references, Teotihuacan is called an empire.
At its height, Teotihuacan had the population as large as 125, 000 or up to 200, 000 people (Hassig, 1992, p.85). It stretched for 14 square miles, and in the north it reached the territory of modern Jalisco, while in the south it reached the lands of modern Guatemala and Honduras (Moctezuma, 1990, pl. 98). The aim of this paper is to explore possible reasons for the rise of the empire and to determine the role of a range of concepts in Teotihuacan’s development: those of central place, hegemony, religious objects manipulation and trade.
To begin with, there were a few objective reasons for the rise of the city-empire. Susan Evans from Pennsylvania State University and Linda Berlo from University of Missouri at St.Louis while exploring the historical context of the rise of Teotihuacan have come to the conclusion that a set of factors contributed to emergence and blossom of the city. First of all, successful efforts of water manipulation, which resulted in formation of a set of canals, enabled farming through irrigation and prevention of ground drainage. Thanks to water manipulation, Teotihuacan became a productive area that attracted many settlers (Evans & Berlo, 1992, p.7).
Secondly, the demise of Cuicuilco, the other great city in the Basin of Mexico, around 100 AD led to a considerable increase in the population of Teotihuacan. At that time, Cuicuilco and its neighboring farm lands were covered by the flow of lava from the volcano Xitle that erupted. In the end, refugees from Cuicuilco, supposedly, settled in Teotihuacan (Evans & Berlo, 1992, p. 7).
Thirdly, the geographical location of the city in the center of a natural trade route and vast obsidian resources contributed to its growing importance as a trade center. The route led to the east and south of the Valley of Mexico. Teotihuacan occupied the central position in the route and served as a trading hub. Owing to its centralized geographical location, it also served a separation between the eastern and western states. Apart from that, trade was flourishing due to vast obsidian resources. At that time obsidian, both gray and green, was used to produce artwork and mirrors. So it was a highly valuable commodity at the time of Teotihuacan rise (Rosenfiled, 2002). Obsidian trade brought profits to the city elite and made it economically stable.
Next, the rise of Teotihuacan is attributed to “intrinsic spiritual value of the natural world” (Evans & Berlo, p.8). Teotihuacan was located on a slope of Cerro Gordo, a volcanic cone. Under the shelf of basalt, numerous springs were found, which were thought to be signs of godly presence. Moreover, a natural lava-cave which led into a winding tunnel and led to a natural spring was of mystical significance for people (Rosenfield, 2002). It was thought to be holy and contributed to the spread of Teotihuacan belief as spiritually strong and thus attractive.
In relation to this, the development of a solid religious belief system contributed to Teotihuacan rise. Specifically, chief deities were those devoted to fertility and war. First of all, there was a goddess that symbolized the bounty of nature. Her imagery, as scholars note, symbolized the integration of the community with the universe and cosmos. Also, there was a god of warfare, which was male. It reflected the political preferences and values of the elite in Teotihuacan (Guocher, LeGuin,& Walton, 1998). Contributions to the development of te religion, especially through extensive buildings of grandiose shrines (pyramids) turned the city into a powerful religious center. The religious aspect, as Evans & Berlo admit, came to be even more important for the people of that time than agricultural benefits (Evans & Berlo, 1992, p.9).
In addition, the rise of Teotihuacan was attributed to its expansion and foundation of towns-“colonies” (Rosenfield, 2002). The expansion was achieved either through military invasion/ “colonization” or through gaining control over areas on the basis of trade hegemony. Cowgill writes, “Teotihuacan controlled or at least was very influential over a territory of a culturally similar populations covering at least a 60 km radius from the city” (Cowgill, n.d.). That hegemony largely contributed to the rise of Teotihuacan and its leading position in the valley.
Thus, the rise of Teotihuacan can be attributed to a joint impact of a number of factors. The centrality of the place made Teotihuacan a trading hub and a separation place between the cities of the east and west. Trade perspectives, including obsidian resources trade and the city’s central position on a trade route, contributed to its financial stability. Teotihuacan’s hegemony through military, political or cultural means ensured its expansion. Also, the manipulation with religious objects attracted lots of people who worshipped the deities of nature. Additionally, irrigated farmlands attracted settlers. Last but not least, destruction of Cuicuilco by lava contributed to the rise in population.