For most, monolithic pyramids are quickly associated with Egyptology, particularly the three great pyramids at Giza. These huge and ancient stone structures are symbolic of the lost Egyptian culture, but, enormous and imposing as they are, there are still bigger ancient pyramids to be found.
The largest pyramid ever built is in fact not to be found in Egypt, but is hidden half a world away in Mexico. From the first moment the Spanish arrived they heard rumors of a huge pyramid and temple complex, dedicated to the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl and the rain goddess Chiconauhquiauhitl.
How could such a vast structure be missed, and remain undisturbed and undiscovered for centuries after the Spanish conquest of the Americas? The answer lay, in part, in its great size: the great pyramid of Cholula was literally hidden right under their feet.
The pyramid was so massive, with twice the volume of the largest pyramid at Giza, that the Spanish had mistakenly thought of it as a hill. They even went so far as to construct a church on top of the monument, and although this is something known from elsewhere in the Americas to establish Christian dominance, here it may simply have been accidental.
The pyramid was simply to large to be seen.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula
The Cholula is located about 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) west of the Puebla city in the city of Cholula, Mexico. Cholula was known to be a sacred city as well as a major center of commerce. It was even considered as one of the most beautiful cities outside Spain.
The area was inhabited for more than 3,000 years, and the pyramid is believed to have been constructed about 2,000 years ago, making it older than the vast majority of Mesoamerican architecture. Around the time of its construction Cholula was in the process of evolving from a village to a prominent city. The city would be a key urban center for a succession of pre-Columbian cultures, including the Olmecs, the Mesoamericans of Teotihuacan, and finally the Toltecs and their great successors the Aztecs.
The pyramid consists of six layers built over each other. However, the stages and origins of construction are still a matter of debate among archaeologists, as is the much larger temple complex which surrounds the mighty structure.
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The building of the pyramid is believed to have been started during the late Preclassic period from about the 3rd century BC, and over the years it was expanded and added to a total of five further times. The final base of the pyramid is truly enormous, covering about 160,000 square meters of area (39.5 acres, or more than 30 US football fields.
The approximate volume of the pyramid is known to be 4.45 million cubic meters (15.7 million cubic feet) but it is a very different shape to the pyramids of Egypt. The height of the Great Pyramid of Cholula is only 66 m (217 feet), shorter than no fewer than five surviving Egyptian pyramids.
The great pyramid at Giza stands more than twice the height at 136 m (446 feet), with much steeper sides. It may be this squat, wide shape which contributed to its remaining undiscovered for so long.
The History of Cholula
The Great Pyramid of Cholula is believed to have been constructed in the greatest part by the Toltecs around the 10th century AD, but the core of the structure is much older. During preclassical times, it was known as an important mythical and religious center, called the “man-made mountain”.
It was used by the people of Cholula in order to perform a number of religious rituals which included human sacrifices. Children were even offered as sacrifices at the place. As per the historians, the temple complex was primarily built in order to honor Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of learning and wind, creator of mankind.
Cholula had an uneasy alliance with Tenochtitlán, great city of the Aztecs who were the last pre-Columbian custodians of the site. As Cholula was a sacred center, the Aztec leaders went to the city in order to get anointed. It was clear that the Aztecs themselves had no idea who had built the pyramid, and surviving narratives record that they believed a mythological giant named Xelhua had built it.
By this point Cholula was already in decline. With the shifting of powers among the indigenous groups during the 7th or 8th century, the population of Cholula had been steadily decreasing. In the 9th to 11th century, the Toltec-Chichimeca entered the area and started building a number of new pyramid temples near the Great Pyramid of Cholula, forsaking the old complex.
Neglected, the adobe bricks that were used in the construction of the pyramid were not able to hold up well in humid weather conditions and became a fertile ground for the lush, fast-growing vegetation in the area. The great pyramid eventually became hard to distinguish among the nearby mountains and green hills.
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When Hernan Cortés arrived with his Spanish conquistadors, Cholula was nevertheless still the second largest city in Mexico with a population of approximately 100,000. However, it seems that the alliance between the Tenochtitlán and Cholulas was discovered by Cortes, one he considered a threat to Spanish interests in the region.
This resulted in a pre-emptive attack that resulted in the slaughtering of thousands of people. According to the claims made by the Cortes, about 3,000 were slain. The entire temple complex including the great pyramid was abandoned and destroyed, disappearing under the vegetation. In its place, a church was constructed on the Pyramid of Cholula.
A Lot to Excavate
The Great Pyramid of Cholula has a long excavation history. The first study of the area was conducted by a Swiss-born American archaeologist named Adolph Bandelier. He arrived at the site in the year 1881, and after three years of research and site work published his findings in 1884.
The majority of his works included unearthing individual burials and collecting skulls, but he was the first person to make field notes as well as the earliest plan of the site. These directly led to an increase in awareness about this mysterious, “man-made mountain” and two further expeditions to the site would follow. The first phase of excavations was conducted in the year 1931, and the second phase started in 1966.
Ignacio Marquina, an architect, was in charge of the 1931 project. However, he is known to have spent comparatively little time at the site, and the majority of the work was done by the site supervisor named Marino Gomez.
The digging of the tunnels was directed by him that resulted in the mapping as well as modeling of the successive layers of the pyramid. During the excavation of the pyramid site, a number of elements were discovered, including human burials, altars, and evidence of the intricate decorations which once adorned the surface of the structure.
The rediscovered pyramid still remains as a religious site for the modern inhabitants of Cholula. It has also become an important as a tourist attraction as well as an archaeological site. On average, there are about 220,000 visitors to the site each year.
The church build by the Spanish still remains atop the pyramid, but with the grand architecture of the Mesoamericans revealed beneath it, the Catholic structure looks insignificant by comparison. In attempting to surmount the indigenous religions with their own, it seems the Catholics only drew attention to the powerful forces and beliefs that existed here, long before they ever arrived.
Top Image: The Catholic church atop the massive pyramid, still largely buried beneath vegetation. Source: lic0001 / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Andrei, M, 2022. World’s biggest pyramid isn’t in Egypt – it’s hidden under a hill in Mexico. Available at: https://www.zmescience.com/science/archaeology/biggest-pyramid-world/
Aztec-history.com, 2022. Mysteries of the Aztec Empire revealed. Available at: http://www.aztec-history.com/cholula-pyramid.html
Trip Trivia, 2020. The Strange Story of the World’s Largest Pyramid in Cholula, Mexico. Available at: https://www.triptrivia.com/worlds-largest-pyramid-in-cholula–mexico/X5mm9FIhqgAGwYDE