Great Pyramid of Cholula: The Largest Pyramid in the World

With adrenaline pumping and cameras in hand, tourists from all over the world have trooped to Mexico either for the sheer catching of the thrill or to enjoy the memorable adventures at world-class tourist sites. One tourist site worth exploring every inch is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known to the locals as Tlachihualtepetl (“man-made mountain”) or Pirámide Tepanapa.

Many people often express shock when they first discover Egypt does not host the largest pyramid ever built. Rather, it is found over 12,300 kilometers away in the Mexican city of Cholula.

Until very recently, the Great Pyramid of Cholula was hidden in plain sight and relatively unknown despite its archeological significance. Today, Tlachihualtepetl draws in numerous visitors from all over the world every year.

Take a casual glance at a new tourist’s bucket list and you may find the Great Pyramid of Cholula at the topmost. The pyramid is the largest in the Western hemisphere.

Why is the Great Pyramid of Cholula the world’s largest pyramid by volume?

A first look at the Great Pyramid of Cholula highlights the incredible talent of the Aztec builders. From a distance, the pyramid looks like a grassy hill by a church as it is hidden under tufts of grass, trees and soil. The pyramid is an archaeological site and one of the most enigmatic tourist attractions in Cholula.

Standing about 216 feet tall with a base measuring at 450 by 450 meters, Tlachihualtepetl is almost two times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which measures 230 by 230 meters at the base. By volume, the Pyramid of Cholula is the largest as its total volume is estimated at over 4.45 million cubic meters. To put that into perspective just how large the Pyramid of Cholula is in terms of volume, the Great Pyramid of Giza measures at about 2.6 million cubic meters (92 million cubic feet).

Experts have noted that the Pyramid of Cholula is so massive that it would probably take 9 Olympic-sized swimming pools to make the volume of Tlachihualtepetl.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula is thought to have gone through four major constructions and at least 9 modifications. Apart from grabbing the world’s largest pyramid title, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is also known as the largest monument ever built by any civilization to date.

Cholula compared to Giza

The Guinness Book of World Records has certified that Cholula beats its more famous contender, the Great Pyramid of Giza, at about two million cubic meters more than Giza’s volume. However, the Giza Pyramid is significantly taller than Cholula. Giza Pyramid stands at about 146 meters (481 ft.) compared to Cholula’s height of 25 meters (82 ft.).

History of the Great Pyramid of Cholula

Known as the largest man-made pyramid by volume in the world, the Pyramid of Cholula sits buried in earth, and atop it is an old Spanish church. Owing to the overgrown grass that surrounds the pyramid, for many years the site was mistaken for a hill. It is a very important part of the Aztec culture.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula shows several evidences of varied pasts. Located in the alluvial Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley, the municipality of Cholula serves as the host of the pyramid. It is located about 6.4 kilometers west of Puebla.

The pyramid’s construction is believed to have taken place in stages, with the first phase beginning in the late Pre-classic Period of 2nd century BC. The history of the Tlachihualtepetl is colorful and varied, ranging some Mesoamerican history, Spanish conquest history, revolutionary war history to modern history.

The earliest pyramid at Cholula is said to have been built around the same time as those in Teotihuacan, another religiously significant Mesoamerican city about 100 kilometers to the northwest of Cholula. Owing to the features Cholula and Teotihuacan had in common, the two cities were considered sister cities.

Over the next hundreds of years, the Great Pyramid of Cholula became larger as builders made additions to it. Around the time of the pyramid’s construction, Cholula was transitioning from a village to a city of prominence. The myths surrounding the origins of Tlachihualtepetl make it an important pilgrimage site for native Mexicans even today.

Around 600 AD when the Olmec-Xicallancas took over Cholula, they built more pyramids. However, around 1100 AD, the city was repossessed by Toltec-Chichimecas (an indigenous people who lived in Mexico before the Aztecs) who helped construct some of the later parts of the Great Pyramid. During this period, a larger part of Tlachihualtepetl was buried under the earth, with vegetation growing around it. The Toltec Chichimecas focused their attention on constructing newer temples, allowing Cholula to witness tremendous progress. Eventually the city was conquered by the Aztec Empire and later by the Spanish.

Quetzalcoatl, a great god of the Cholula, as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus

The later portions of the Tlachihualtepetl were said to have been dedicated to the deity, Quetzalcoatl – a Mesoamerican god in charge of wisdom, rain, celestial water and their associated winds – while the earlier constructions were dedicated to Tlāloc, the Aztec rain god. Other historians speculate that the pyramid was built to propitiate a volcanic mountain named Popocatépetl. This could be because the contours of that Great Pyramid take on the shape of the volcanic mountain.

  • The Spanish Invasion

By the time of the Spaniards’ conquest of Mexico in the early 1520s, the Great Pyramid was overgrown with shrubbery due to years of disuse. The adobe bricks (i.e. sun dried mudbricks) used in the construction could not protect the pyramid from unfavorable weather conditions. As a result, the pyramid became a fertile ground for the other plants that eventually overgrew.

When the Spaniards, led by Hernan Cortes, eventually came to Cholula around 1520, they were so focused on getting rid of the natives and their more visible holy sites that they could not recognize the massive pyramid as such. As a result of the overgrown grass, Spanish invaders most likely mistook the pyramid for a hill, which was seen as a great site for one of their Catholic churches. Less than a year later, the Spanish invaders built the Iglesia de Neustra Señora de los Remedios , a Catholic church, atop the pyramid.

When was it built?

The Great Pyramid of Cholula is said to have gone through consecutive construction phases over many centuries, beginning around the 3rd century BC until the 9th century AD. The builders of the pyramid dedicated the complex to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec deity of wisdom, light, rain and wind. Therefore, the temple-pyramid was a very profound place, religiously and culturally, to the natives.

Why Tlachihualtepetl remained hidden for many years

The base of the Pyramid of Cholula covers about 45 acres with a height of 25 meters (82 feet). At those dimensions, the Cholula Pyramid, also known as the Great Pyramid of Tepanapa, is about two times (by volume) the size the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt. Tlachihualtepetl is made of 7 pyramids and 6 layers. Each of these layers are reportedly worth exploring.

In spite of its gigantic proportions, the Tlachihualtepetl remained undiscovered for hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest. Many wonder how this could have happened. The answer lay in the fact that, like the Spaniards conquistadores, many people saw it as a hill rather than a place of worship.

Some researchers have proposed a different theory. It states that when the Aztecs heard of the impending arrival of the Spaniards, they took to burying their precious pyramid in a final attempt to preserve a vital element of their culture.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the structure was simply too vast to have been discovered for what it was earlier. Till date, only a small part of the huge pyramid is exposed.

Excavation History & Rediscovery of the Great Pyramid of Cholula

The Pyramid of Cholula is one with a rich history of excavation. Swiss-born American archaeologist Adolf Bandelier began the first minor investigation of the area in the early 1880s. Bandelier and his team recorded measurements of the pyramid, its surrounding areas and went on to publish his findings after the 3-year long research.

Among the activities carried out by Bandelier were digging, collecting individual skulls and making field notes. His activities helped inform lovers of archaeology and ancient history about this mysterious “hill.” Two other expeditions to the site were conducted later.

In 1931, the first major excavation and study of Tlachihualtepetl was authorized in Cholula with the primary aim of helping Mexicans reconnect with their heritage. Architect and archeologist Ignacio Marquina was commissioned to draw a detailed tunnel-based system that could explore the interior of the pyramid. However, he dedicated relatively little time to the project, leaving the chunk of the work to the site supervisor, Marino Gomez.

Gomez and his team were responsible for directing the digging of the tunnels, which in turn led to the laying out and modeling of the layers of the pyramid. The excavation of the Tlachihualtepetl area brought into the open elements such as altars, human remains, and very detailed decorations that was used to beautify the pyramid. Eventually, what started out as an expedition was transformed into a magnificent tourist and archaeological site.

Gomez also supervised the digging of about 8 kilometers of tunnels through which an official tour of Tlachihualtepetl begins. Today, these tunnels give tourists the opportunity to enjoy the various stages of the pyramid’s construction.

From the 1970s, investigations shifted to brief rescue operations by archeologists. In spite of the several investigations conducted on the pyramid, publications on the subject have been inadequate.  This challenge has resulted in conflicting accounts over the construction history of Tlachihualtepetl. The weaknesses in the area of publications have been thoroughly discussed by archeologist, Dr. Geoffrey McCafferty in a series of published essays in 1996, 2000 and 2001.

A tour of Tlachihualtepet today

Many tourists who have been to the Great Pyramid of Cholula’s site have described the experience as “enchanting,” “interesting,”  and “fascinating,” among others.

  • The Tunnels

Visitors who plan to visit the great pyramid may do so with a guide or on their own. They must enter the site through a tunnel on the north that leads to the center of the pyramid and exits from the south.

There have been some visitors that have, however, issued a precautionary statement that the dark and narrow nature of the tunnels may cause panic attacks in people who suffer from claustrophobia.

Going through the tunnels may take an average of about 14-20 minutes. From there, one may head to the last stop at the of the pyramid: the museum.

  • The Excavated Area

Do you want a clearer idea of how the Great Pyramid of Cholula was built? The best way to achieve this is to exit the tunnels and stand at the pyramid’s excavated area. This affords you a beautiful view of patios, altars and rocks that tell the story of the most important points. The Patio of the altars, for instance, was the main channel through which the natives accessed the Tlachihualtepetl. Again, the legend is told that it was on the Mexica Altar that people were chopped into pieces and offered as sacrifices to the gods.

  • The Courtyard of Altars

The view of the Courtyard of Altars at the archeological is said to be spectacular. Some tourists recount an interesting acoustic sound much like a “quacking duck” that echoes through the courtyard when standing at the center of the courtyard. It may interest many to know that there is an unusual altar situated in the courtyard (called the Mexica Altar) which was believed to contain human remains when it was first discovered.

  • The Site Museum

A museum at the pyramid site shows various objects of cultural interest which were discovered during the excavations. A room at the rear of the museum showed a reproduction of some of the murals from inside the pyramid’s tunnels. The museum also has a large model of the Great Pyramid, explaining the various phases of construction in cutaway views, as well as displays of artifacts from the site.

Recently, a copy of the Codex of Cholula, an elaborate plan of Cholula indicating the location of different pyramid mounds and of the Cholula massacre, has been added to the museum’s collection.

Present-Day Significance of the Great Pyramid of Cholula

Studies have shown that an average of about a quarter of a million people visit the site of the Great Pyramid every year. The pyramid is indeed very important on so many fronts, especially in terms of the revenue it generates for the Mexican economy. Tourism, both directly and indirectly, is a major contributor in creating jobs, infrastructure and promoting cultural exchange between the citizens and the foreigners. The higher the rate of tourism in a country, the greater the demand for business to grow in terms of service offerings.

As a result of the religious and spiritual connotations of the pyramid, it has continued to be viewed as having spiritual implications even today. Many native Mexicans regard the pyramid as a vital part of their religious life and visit the church at the top during yearly festivals.

Another very important aspect of the pyramid and its site is the Quetzalcoatl ritual, which is based on an Aztec ritual. The rituals involves beating the teponazil war drum and taking in a sacred drink. The ritual, which is an annual event held on the spring equinox, often attracts about 20,000 visitors to the archeological area. The event is usually accompanied with such activities as poetry, music and dance.

READ MORE: 10 Most Famous Aztec Gods and Goddesses

The City of Cholula

From the magical beaches on its Pacific Ocean and Caribbean sea shoreline to its rich distinctive culture, Mexico, for centuries, has been globally known for its natural beauty. The incredible landmarks, heritage attractions and colonial architecture of the southern North American country make it more than just sunsets and tequilas.

Located in the alluvial Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley, which sits between the states of Puebla and Tlaxca in central Mexico, is the municipality of Cholula. It is located about 6.4 kilometers west of Puebla. In turn Puebla is a few hours east of Mexico City, the capital of Mexico.

“Cholula” is Nahuati for “place of retreat.” Thanks to the regular rainfalls between the months of June and September, Cholula is one of the most suitable places for the large scale production of crops in central Mexico.

Also called the “Magical Town,” the city is distinctively structured into two areas: San Pedro Cholula and San Andres Cholula. The former hosts numerous historical churches such as the Santa María Tonantzintla as well as a wide variety of museums. San Andres, on the other hand, is known more for its night life and boasts of top-rated restaurants and coffee shops. It is also the home of the Puebla’s State University.

For many years, Cholula has remained an economic booster for Mexico as the city has charmed its way into the hearts of tourists from all over the world.

Planning a visit to Tlachihualtepetl soon?

It’s been said that more than 100,000 people lived around the site of the Great Pyramid of Cholula at the time that prehispanic city of Cholula was at its peak. Image: What the Great Pyramid of Cholula might have looked like hundreds of years ago

Though there are at least four ways to arrive at Cholula from Puebla, a cab or train ride from the Puebla is more convenient and therefore recommended. The Puebla-Cholula train is absolutely free and would transport you to the base of the magnificent pyramid.

Going up the top of the pyramid is free. Since you may encounter some difficulties finding the entrance of the pyramid, do not hesitate to ask for help.

Exploring the tunnels is not free. Ensure you buy a ticket first. The entrance is lined with tour guides very enthusiastic, willing and waiting to be of services to visitors.

You may want to wear flat shoes, comfortable clothes and sunglasses. Remember to carry water with you. There is also a stand where you can get buy some snacks.

The city of Cholula has an array of other exciting tourist attractions. Feel free to also check out Templo San Francisco Acatepec, Explanada Puebla, Plaza de la Concordia, Plaza San Diego, among others.

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