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Volume 72, Issue 17, Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Life & Arts

A higher calling

Atop the Pirámide del Sol, ancient gods are within arms' reach

The Daily Cougar

Staff writer Zach Lee studied abroad this summer in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and will write about his experience south of the border throughout the semester in the Life & Arts section.

I have walked down the Avenida de los Muertos -- the Avenue of the Dead -- and I have returned with precious knowledge of the Pre-Colombian people of Mexico.

Sit with me by the fire, you students of the world, and I will tell you of my experience there.

The Avenida de los Muertos is the main road in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan, a city which some say was being built as early as 300 B.C. The road is lined with structures that, according to my native guide, used to house the wealthy among the people who lived in the city -- a people who shared their name with the city.

Today, the structures are obviously uninhabitable, but much of the original stone architecture remains, and in some places, the original paint remains clearly visible, some 1,500 years after it was first used to decorate the stone work.

Though it was obvious even to a novice explorer such as myself that much of the city's stonework was reconstructed, a large portion of the reconstruction used the same stones the original architects used in building homes for the city's elite, thus helping blend the reconstruction into the original ruins.

I, however, was not there to trip over half-standing walls or revel in archaeological discoveries.

Like many adventurers who make the pilgrimage to Teotihuacan, I undertook the long and dangerous journey to the famous ruins to see and climb the pyramids (and because my study abroad group took a bus there). They were everything the legends insist they are. 

The Pirámide del Sol -- the Pyramid of the Sun -- is massive. At 738 feet across and 246 feet high, it is the second-largest pyramid in Mexico and the third-largest pyramid in the world; the sight of it alone is breathtaking. But watching from afar as the long line of students, tourists and fellow thrill-seekers snaked up to the top stopped me in my tracks. 

As I readied myself to climb the tall steps, my guide made a joke.

"How long does it take to get up?" he asked. "Maybe 15 minutes. How long does it take to get down? Six seconds."

I noticed many people holding onto a black plastic guardrail as they crept up the first section, and I began my own march skyward.

I left most of the group behind as I scurried up the steps, but I did not prepare myself for the awe I would feel at the top. I could see nearly all of Mexico from the peak of that hulking monument, and the people up there with me were most intriguing.

I half-expected to see the small group I found on the top to be doing Yoga, but I was confused to see nearly everyone reaching upward. Some voice explained that action as a form of worshipping the ancient sun god, so though my damp skin already attested to the power of that god, the cultural anthropologist inside me could not help but thrust my arms into the air. Then I was amazed to see something that seemed only possible in a conquistador's hyperbolic praises -- several butterflies flitted between the open hands of the worshippers.

At the end of the Avenida de los Muertos is the Pirámide de la Luna -- the Pyramid of the Moon -- and though it is smaller and less geometrically sound than its sister pyramid, the views from the top of both pyramids are incredible. From the top of the Pirámide de la Luna, I looked down the entire Avenida de los Muertos and could almost see the world as it was two millennia ago.

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