Great Pyramid of Cholula

by jptanabe

The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico was constructed as a Teocalli - a pyramid with a temple on the top. Now it looks like a mountain!

The Great Pyramid of Cholula is located ten minutes outside of Puebla in Mexico. It has the largest volume of the pre-Columbian pyramids. and is the largest stone monument in the world.

Today only part of the staircase on one side of this immense step pyramid has been excavated and restored; the rest is hidden under earth and vegetation giving it the appearance of a natural hill formation. On the top is a church, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios (the Church of Our Lady of the Remedies).

Image of Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla, Mexico from Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula - A Teocalli

The Great Pyramid of Cholula was constructed as a Teocalli. A Teocalli (meaning "God-house" in the Nahuatl language) is a Mesoamerican pyramid with a temple on the top.

Cholula also has the most amazing location with the volcanos Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl close by.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl

Constructed by various groups in four stages over hundreds of years from the third century B.C.E. through the ninth century C.E., this Great Pyramid was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity whose name means "feathered serpent." With Toltec control of the area Cholula and its pyramid attracted many visitors who came to pay homage to the great Quetzalcoatl.

When the Aztecs later took over they regarded the Great Pyramid as the work of Xelhua, one of the seven giants in Aztec mythology. He is said to have escaped the Great Flood by climbing the mountain of Tlaloc (one of the gods). After the deluge Xelhua went to Cholula and began construction of a great monument to Tlaloc - the pyramid of Cholula - which was later dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.

Teocalli at Cholula first published in the Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia
Teocalli at Cholula first published in the Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia

This is a drawing of how the great pyramid must have looked in its heyday. There's even smoke coming out of the volcano in the background. The whole thing really does look big and impressive!

In fact, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the world's largest monument and largest Pre-Columbian pyramid by volume. The base of this pyramid is larger even than the Great Egyptian Pyramids of Giza. The Great Pyramid of Giza is taller than the Cholula pyramid, however.

This Great Pyramid has a Church not a Temple!

This Teocalli is rather unique though, since the temple on the top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula is not the original temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity of the Toltecs who constructed it. Instead, on the top sits La Iglesia do los Remedios, a Catholic church built in the sixteenth century by the Spaniards led by Cortes. They destroyed the Aztec empire and massacred the residents of Cholula. At that time the great pyramid was hidden under grass and stone, looking for all the world like a natural hill. Cortes destroyed the temple and ordered a church be built in its place, unaware of the great pyramid underneath.

Church and Great Pyramid, Cholula, 1948
Church and Great Pyramid, Cholula, 1948

Rediscovered and Restored

It was not until the twentieth century that the pyramid was uncovered by chance. Archaeologists quickly became interested and began to survey and excavate the site. Now a section of the pyramid has been reconstructed. Although only part has been revealed and restored, it certainly shows how impressive the structure must have been when it was completed!

Great Pyramid of Cholula showing restored staircase
Great Pyramid of Cholula showing restored staircase

Visiting the Great Pyramid

The reconstruction of the pyramid is only partial, but it still allows visitors a good number of steps to climb! Altars and platforms are also open for visiting.

A great portion of the pyramid though is still underground. In order to explore these a huge labyrinth of tunnels has been excavated, producing five miles of passageways through the different levels of the pyramid. Visitors are warned, however, that although these tunnels are lighted the atmosphere is dark and there is a sense that in the depths of this "mountain" that constitutes the pyramid there may be many ancient spirits who might not want to be disturbed.

Perhaps visiting the church on top of it all is more uplifting!

The Volcano is Active!

Don't forget, Cholula is right beside not one but two volcanoes! In Aztec mythology, Iztaccihuatl and Popocateptl were unfortunate lovers, somewhat like Romeo and Juliet.

There are many versions of their story, but generally Iztaccihuatl was a princess who fell in love with prince Popocatepetl who was from a different tribe. Her father did not want their marriage so he agreed to it on condition that their tribe fight in a war with his troops, intending that the prince die in battle. He lied to them both, claiming the prince died in battle to his daughter and that his daughter had died of grief to the prince. Fortunately they didn't believe the lies and ran off together and lived happily, albeit briefly, together. Somehow she died and he was griefstricken and wanted to die too. (In other versions she did die before he returned and so he took her body and built a funeral altar and placed her on top; then he also lay down to die.) So the gods covered them with snow and changed them into mountains. Iztaccihuatl's mountain is called the "White Woman" because it is often white with snow and resembles a woman sleeping on her back. Beside her, his mountain is the volcano Popocatepetl, raining fire in rage at the loss of his beloved.

Popocatépetl from the Peripheral Ring of Puebla
Popocatépetl from the Peripheral Ring of Puebla

The volcano is still active today. From the pyramid of Cholula you can often see a plume of smoke can be seen rising from the top of Popocatepetl. What I don't know is whether he's happier to see the Catholic Iglesia on top of the pyramid in place of the temple of Quetzalcoatl, or whether that substitution makes him even angrier!

More about the Great Pyramid of Cholula

Updated: 02/12/2024, jptanabe
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What Do You Think of Cholula?

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CruiseReady on 09/20/2015

Agree with Veronica! Enjoyed the story of the star crossed lovers, and was also struck by hearing of yet another culture's account of a great flood.

Veronica on 09/19/2015

Wowwww ! That is all I can say.

THhs is a great read and the photos are just superb. TY for posting. The myth about the lovers being turned into mountains is so painfully beautiful.

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