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The silent dignity of ruined Tollan

By Kathleen Hinton-BraatenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1980

North of Mexico City, the raucous sophistication and noisy vitality of the urban area give way gradually and noisy vitality of the urban area give away gradually to an increasingly spare landscape, the tempestuous life of the capital replaced by small towns and villages amid barren hills and immense skies. In Tula de Allende, however, the clamor has merely changed its style, the town exuding an irrespressible spiritedness interwoven with the stinging dust of unpaved streets and foul smoke spewing from clattering trucks.

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In the angle formed by the junction of the Tula and Rosas Rivers, the town sprawls haphazardly, its streets twisting unexpectedly beneath the imposing ridge to the north. The visitor, entering from the west and accosted by the town's frontier air and bewildering disorder, faces an incongruity: Abov the north ridge and, at a distance, curiously like factory chimneys, loom columns of ancient Tollan, the capital city of the legendary Toltec empire (approximately AD 900-1200). Navigating Tula's chaotic streets, smack up against its garish distillate of modern life, you ar scarcely prepared for the silent dignity of ruined Tollan.

Essentially the stepchild of Mexican archaeology, Tollan has long been overshadowed by the huge pyramid city toe the southeast: Teotihuacan. Tollan's modern succesor, Tula, situated below the ridge since the time of the Spanish conquest, is equally indifferent, forcing travelers to reach the ruins by nose or instinct, and not by appropriate signs.

It is as if Mexico has forgotten and perhaps that is an advantage, for at Tollan the guided tours are few and the ruins slip into darkness without the affront of sound and light shows. The massive stone sculptures of the site's museum surround the low white buildings like hady plants, unmolested by explanatory labels or chattering guides. A slim yellow pamphlet, discovered on a back room's forgotten shelf, is the only interpreter of Tollan. It is you alone with the mystery of a vanished people.

But it is not merely the opportunity for unobstructed communication with the ancients that draws the traveler to Tollan, for it is here that the trends of centuries were set. The cult of the god Quetzalcoatl (The "Plumed Serpent"), which swept across Mesoamerica like a wind-sped brushfire, first flared up at Tollan, and the symbols of the Toltecs' Quetzalcoatl and their militarist society were expressed most magnificently in Yucatan's Chichen Itza -- several hundred miles to the east. The later Aztecs say Tollan's time as a Golden Age and zealously altered history in order to claim Toltecs as ancestors.

Though archaeologists are still compiling conflicting histories of Tollan, they quarrel only in details, for Tollan's importance cannot be ignored. It is in essence a prototype society.

At dusk the site assumes a mysterious attractiveness, the blind-eyed atlantean figures atop the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl acquiring an awesome dignity as they are silhouetted against the glowing sky. Once a densely-packed city of perhaps 60,000 within 13 square kilometers, Tollan's Main Ceremonial Precinct lis on the limestone ridge archaeologists call the Acropolis. By building artificial slopes to north and west to complement the natural cliffs to the south, the Toltecs created a center secure from attack, its proximity to the Tula and Rosas Rivers adding convenient trade routes.

The precinct's palza extends 600 feet on each side, its perimeter surrounded by ceremonial structures and a huge ball court. The visitor who ambles up the slope from the site's parking lot, approaching the plaza from the north, is cheathimself of some drama. In Toltec times, such a route would probably have been forbidden and a visitor would have entered from the southeast corner, swinging into the plaza to face head-on the stunning Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl on the north and the (then) higher Pyramid of the Sun on the east.

As the Pyramid of the Sun (or White Tezcatlipoca of the East) was nearly destroyed when Tollan collapsed in the 12th century, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl in his guise as Venus the Morning Star, the pyramid is less a true pyramid than a fourlayered cake of mortared stone, its sides glancing outward at a slight angle. The natural tones of clay and rock that remain today were once covered with painted stone panels, carved in relief with vivid depictions of jaguars and coyotes -- symbols of Tollan's warrior castes, and puzzling composites of birdfeline-man probably representing Quetzalcoatl. There are still some to see now, though the colors have long since faded.