The silent dignity of ruined Tollan

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Though in our time, youngsters irreverently scramble up and down the pyramid's sides, such frivolity would have been taboo to the Toltecs, whose only route to the top was the grand staircase ascending the southern face. At the summit they would have entered an imposing temple, whose roof was supported by the stolid stone warriors who stand there today, arms rigidly clasping atlatlsm (spearthrowers), eyes blank like palace guards, and chess ornamented by stylized butterflies.

The butterflies are a clue to part of Tollan's cloudy history, for they may be the symbol of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl, an engaging fellow believed to have transformed a sleepy Tollan into the capital of an empire. Supposedly the living incarnation of the god Quetzacoatl, blue-eyed Topiltzin apparently capitalized upon Teotihuacan's collapse (AD 750) by bringing colonists from the north to Tollah. A maverick King whose philosophy was appropriately symbolized by the gentle butterfly, Topiltzin abhorred human sacrifice and advocated peace in a bloody and violent era. Overcome, however, by the trickery of an opposing leader, Tezcatlipoca (the Lord of Darkness), Topiltzin was banished from Tollan and sent into permanent exile.

Tollan accepted his departure with equanimity, ignoring his admonishments and orienting itself more thoroughly toward human sacrifice, terror, and a strinent militarism.

A crazy mixture of history and legend have successfully obscured Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl's life after leaving Tollan, but it is quite definite that one gourp or another of Toltecs reached distant Yucatan, for Chichen Itza's most glorious architecture and sculpture is a clearly defined combination of Mayan and Toltec styles. Tollan's ball court, itself the second largest in Mesoamerica, is expanded at Chichen into the Great Ball Court (492 feet long) which, like Tollan's lies on a north-south orientation and is reached from the west by a splendid stairway.

At Chichen, too, are the whimsical chacmoolsm of Tollan, complacent reclining stone figures whose upturned bellies await offerings to the gods, and Tollan's Palacio Quemado ("burned palace"), a sea of columns used to create cool covered spaces, is seen on a grander scale in Chichen's Group of the Thousand Columns.

At chichen, the Toltecs' legendary skills as superb craftsmen and builders are in full-blown evidence, far superior to the sometimes careless workmanship of Tollan.

Why did Chichen probably collapse soon after Tollan? It may have been only coincidental, but, then, it's possible that Chichen was linked economicaly with Tollan. After all, the Toltecs of Tollan were inveretate traders, with contacts perhaps extending as far as South America, where they may have learned the techniques of metallurgy. But the questions continue, for metallury flourished in the areas the Toltecs dominated and yet not one single scrap of metal has been found at Tollan.

It is pottery at Tollan -- a million shards worth -- that the archaeologists have turned to for clues, and they have found them in abundance. The number of shards attest, of course, to potterymaking being an important craft in Tollan, but caches have been found of plumbate, a tough pottery with a metallic sheen made in the state of Chiapas and in Guatemala.

Lumpy mounds two kilometers norht of the Acropolis tell the trained eye of a second -- though lesser -- ceremonial center, and further north, by a strip of black-topped highway, sits the temple El Corral. El Corral, whose rounded walls indicate it was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl as the Wind God, has provided one of Tollan's most spectacular artifacts, a coyote-shaped plumbate jar embellished by feather-textured mother-of- pearl. In its yawning jaws is the face of a man.

In 1970, near El Corral, the University of Missouri's Tula Archaeological Project began excavating residential rather than ceremonial structures, exposing the foundations of what seem to be one-level multifamily dwellings several of perhas 10,000 yet undiscovered.

Tollan's importance vanished as mysteriously as it had once risen, its temples destroyed with peculiar savagery. Marauding northern barbarians -- or enemies within ? There are no satisfactory answers; in any case Tollan was to a great extent abandoned, many of its people vanishing into other regions.

Aristocratic Tollan, which the aztecs would extol as the center of exquisite craftsmanship, superb architecture philosphers and warriors, occupies its Acropolis with the serenity of all once-grand ruins -- imprvious to brazen Tula de Allende, sprawling at its feet with verve but indiffrent worth. Tollan attracts and intrigues precisely because of that jarring juxtaposition. It is clearly of another world.

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