Mesoamerica is home to a number of pyramids. Some of these pyramids are quite well-known, whilst others are much more obscure. Despite being recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest pyramid in the world, one of the less familiar pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Cholula.
It should be mentioned here that the Great Pyramid of Cholula (which actually functioned as a temple) is the largest pyramid in the world in terms of its volume. The volume of the Cholula pyramid is estimated to be 4.45 million cubic meters (157.2 million cubic feet). By comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza, though about 2.5 times the height of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, has a volume of 2.5 million cubic meters (88.3 million cubic feet).
Location and Construction of the Great Pyramid of Cholula
The Great Pyramid of Cholula is located just outside Puebla, the fourth largest city in modern day Mexico. This pyramid was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important deities of the Mesoamerican pantheon and during pre-Colombian times, Cholula was a large city and the religious center of highland Mexico.
Model of the city and Great Pyramid of Cholula. Cholula Museum, Puebla, Mexico. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
It has also been speculated that the Great Pyramid of Cholula was built to appease a nearby volcanic mountain called Popocatépetl. This is due to the fact that the contours of that volcanic mountain are reflected in the shape of the Great Pyramid, as well as the pyramid’s other name, Tlachihualtepetl, which means ‘Man-made Hill.’
The construction of the temple began during the 2nd century BC, and went through several stages before achieving its final form. The earliest pyramid at Cholula is believed to have been built around the same time as those in Teotihuacan, another religiously significant Mesoamerican city about 100 km (62.1 miles) to the northwest of Cholula. Based on similar characteristics between Cholula and Teotihuacan, it has been suggested that they were sister cities. Over the centuries, the Great Pyramid of Cholula ‘grew’ as builders made additions to the structure.
Artist’s rendition of what the Great Pyramid of Cholula may have looked like during its prime. ( Public Domain )
The Great Pyramid of Cholula Falls into Disarray
Around 600 AD, Cholula was conquered by the Olmec-Xicallancas, who also made additions to the city’s pyramid. However, around 1100 AD, the city fell into the hands of the Toltec-Chichimecas. It is said that when the Toltec-Chichimecas occupied Cholula, the Great Pyramid was already largely submerged under the earth, and vegetation and trees were growing all over it.
Ruins of an altar at the Great Pyramid of Cholula. When excavated it was found to contain two deformed skulls of decapitated children when it was excavated. ( Justin Ames )
Rather than reclaiming this ancient temple, the Toltec-Chichimecas decided to leave it as it was and focused on building new temples instead. Under the rule of the Toltec-Chichimecas, the city of Cholula flourished, and was even able to maintain its independence for some time in the face of the expanding Aztec Empire.
An excavated section of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Nevertheless, Cholula was eventually conquered by the Aztecs, and then fell to the Spanish. In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Cholula, the second largest city in Mexico at that point of time.
Like the Toltec-Chichimecas before them, the Aztecs did not restore the Great Pyramid of Cholula. As a result, when the Spanish arrived, they did not know that this was a man-made structure, but believed that it was just a natural hill.
In 1594, a church called the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of Our Lady of Remedies) was built by the Spanish colonialists. This church is also known as the Santuario de la Virgen de los Remedios (Sanctuary of the Virgin of Remedies), and is still visible by those visiting the Great Pyramid of Cholula.
From a distance the Great Pyramid of Cholula looks like a natural hill topped by a church. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
Rediscovery of the Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid of Cholula was only rediscovered in the early 20th century. In 1910, authorities began the construction of a mental asylum at the base of the Great Pyramid. it was only then that the ‘natural hill’ was found to be the home of an ancient pyramid.
The excavated Patio of the Altars at the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Surveys and excavations were then conducted by archaeologists. In the 1930s, tunnels were made in order to investigate the interior of the pyramid. As a result of this, a network of passageways amounting to 8 km (4.97 miles) in length was discovered. Today, these tunnels afford visitors the chance to see for themselves the various stages of the pyramid’s construction.
Another of the archaeological finds at the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the mural called “Los bebedores” (the drinkers). ( Tempo Ameríndio )
Despite the Great Pyramid of Cholula’s claim to fame, it has been noted that the city of Cholula is a “surprisingly ignored place.” However, this may actually be a good thing for the pyramid in terms of conservation, as many ancient sites in the world are overburdened by the amount of tourists who visit them each year.