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If someone told you that the world’s largest pyramid wasn’t in Egypt and had a Catholic church perched on top, you’d probably be skeptical, to say the least. As it turns out, it’s the truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza has long held the world’s attention as the most well-known pyramid, but it’s not the world’s largest by volume or even mass. An overlooked pyramid in Cholula, Mexico actually holds the world record.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, a.k.a. Pirámide Tepanapa or Tlachihualtepetl (“man-made mountain” in the indigenous Nahuatl language), is also the largest known monument ever constructed by any civilization on Earth. Still bewildered? Here’s why the Great Pyramid of Cholula remained unknown to the outside world for thousands of years.
Size, Dimensions, and Characteristics
At 481 feet tall, one of Giza’s three pyramids, Khufu, still holds the world record as the tallest pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Cholula reaches about 217 feet in height, but its base is over 200,000 square feet — roughly twice the size of Giza’s biggest pyramid’s base! According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Cholula also trumps Giza in volume, at 166,538,400 cubic feet versus Giza’s 84,755,200 cubic feet.
Russian Nesting Doll-Like Architecture
Most pyramids in Egypt and in the Middle East were designed and built as one massive structure, but the Great Pyramid of Cholula actually contains seven pyramids. Cholula is a giant nesting doll of construction, with multiple layers constructed in four stages, plus nine modifications. Using bricks made of adobe (a mud-clay mix), builders completed a phase, then over time, a new generation of builders built a new pyramid on top of the earlier structures.
Excavations discovered that ancient painters used red, yellow, and black paint to decorate Cholula’s first pyramid, named La Conjera. Insect motifs covered its exterior bricks, resembling a style common in Toltec culture (people who lived in the area at the time of construction). The pyramid’s second phase, the Pyramid of the Pointed Skulls, was built around 200 to 350 A.D. on top of La Conejera. This pyramid had seven stepped levels that led to the Altar of the Sculpted Skulls. The Pyramid of the Nine Stories (the great pyramid’s last major phase of construction) consisted of nine stories and the Altar of the Jaguar.
Significance as a Temple
Mesoamerican pyramids, including Cholula, were religious temples. Egyptians and other peoples of the Middle East built pyramids as tombs for powerful pharaohs. Most death rituals took place inside the pyramids and out of sight from locals. In contrast, Mesoamerican pyramids were used primarily as altars for religious ceremonies, including human sacrifice. Instead of keeping rituals secret, ancient Mesoamerican priests conducted them in full view of the local populations to demonstrate their power (and likely to instill fear). Excavations at Cholula have uncovered more than 400 human remains, some visibly mangled and decapitated from sacrificial activities.
Differences in structure between Mesoamerican and Egyptian pyramids demonstrate their cultural uses. Mesoamerican pyramids have open platforms and entrances on top with staircases leading up, often on more than one side, so witnesses could easily watch ceremonial rituals. Egyptian ones are pointed, with entrances near the bottom.
Who Built It?
Toltecs likely built the first pyramid of Cholula. Its characteristics match ones constructed in nearby Teotihuacán (where the Toltec Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon lie). The city of Cholula is situated in the Mexican highlands, and served as an important trading post for thousands of years, linking the coastal Mayan civilizations to the south with the Toltec-Chichimecan civilizations to the north. Various indigenous populations, including the Olmec, occupied the city over hundreds of years, and its rule transferred back and forth.
As each indigenous group took control, they added their contributions to the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Cholula became the center of worship for Quetzalcoatl, one of the Mayans’ most revered gods. When the Aztecs arrived, they were reportedly shocked at Cholula’s size. They believed Xelhua, one of the Aztec’s mythological giants, must have constructed the pyramid.
The Pyramid’s Decline
As many as 100,000 people once lived in the city of Cholula from the sixth through eighth centuries — second only in size to Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City). Eventually, during the power shifts between indigenous groups in the seventh or eighth century, Cholula’s population numbers dwindled, and the Great Pyramid of Cholula fell out of favor. The Toltec-Chichimeca, the conquering population during the ninth through 11th centuries, built new pyramid-temples near the great pyramid.
The adobe bricks used in the great pyramid’s construction didn’t hold up well in such humid climates. The bricks also provided fertile ground for the area’s fast-growing, lush vegetation. Once the great pyramid was no longer maintained or improved by a new layer, the vegetation eventually overtook it. The once majestic pyramid became almost indistinguishable from the green hills and mountains nearby.
Fall to the Spaniards
Spaniard Hernán Cortés arrived in modern-day Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico coastline in 1519. Cortés quickly realized that indigenous populations controlled access to gold and other precious metals. Montezuma II, the powerful Aztec emperor who ruled the entire region, tried offering gifts and negotiating with Cortés. Cortés began making his way from the coast toward Tenochtitlán, where Montezuma resided.
Some civilizations were friendly with each other, while others were hostile. The Cholulans had enemies in the Tlaxcalans, who lived in nearby Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalans were one of the few groups not under Aztec rule, and they resented the Aztecs’ dominance over the entire region. When the Tlaxcalans realized they couldn’t defeat Cortés, they decided to help him defeat Montezuma.
The most direct route between Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlán would take Cortés through Cholula. The Tlaxcalans warned Cortés that Cholulans were treacherous and aligned with the Aztecs, but Cortés decided to proceed anyway. When he arrived, he was impressed by Cholula’s well-organized streets and towering temples, calling it “the most beautiful city outside Spain.” Cholulans reluctantly allowed the Spaniards inside the city, but not the hated Tlaxcalans who accompanied them.
Montezuma had asked the Cholulans to attack the Spaniards. They had secretly prepared for battle by blocking the main road, digging pits lined with sharp stakes, piling stones on rooftops, and sending women and children away to safety. Cortés discovered the plot, rounded up the city’s nobles and warriors, and with help from the Tlaxcalans, brutally executed thousands in Cholula’s central plaza. Many Cholulans were trampled as they tried to escape the violence. Cortés permitted the Tlaxcalans to ransack the city and burn the great temple, leaving it in ruins.
Some legends say the Great Pyramid of Cholula was turned into an enormous hill of dirt when the Cholulans caught wind that the Cortés and his troops were on their way to conquer the city. The legend says citizens rallied together and buried the temple with dirt to disguise it so Cortés wouldn’t destroy it, but the evidence doesn’t seem to support the idea. Dirt and vegetation had already camouflaged the pyramid by the time Cortés arrived.
Where It Is Today
As a symbol of their triumph, the conquering Spaniards frequently built Catholic churches on top of ruined temples in the years following Cortés’ defeat of the Aztecs. Despite his violent rise to power, Cortés wasn’t a fan of human sacrifice and idolatry of pagan gods such as Quetzalcoatl. Rumor has it that Cholula has 365 churches, one for each day of the year, to match the 365 temples that Cortés and his conquering allies destroyed. The real number of churches today is much lower, and the most visible one sits on top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula.
Many speculate that the Spaniards didn’t realize they were building the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies Church) on top of such a significant religious temple since it looked like a big hill. They may have recognized the hill served some important purpose, but they likely didn’t know it was the largest pyramid in the world. The beautiful multi-domed church, built in 1594, still stands today.
Appearing on the World Stage
Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-born American archaeologist, discovered human burials in the area in 1881 and published his findings soon after, but the world still didn’t know about the pyramid’s existence. The great pyramid slumbered under the orange-hued, 16th-century church until 1910, when construction workers began building a so-called insane asylum at its base. They realized something more than dirt lay below the hill.
However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that archeologists who had worked on excavating Teotihuacán began digging tunnels and discovered the multiple layers. Excavations continued through the 1950s, and another round took place in the 1960s and ‘70s. Excavators stumbled upon a spectacular, 187-foot mural about 25 feet underground. Known as the Mural of Drinkers, it depicts 164 people drinking pulque (a hallucinogenic drink made from agave), which the Mayans used to loosen their inhibitions so they could connect with their gods.
The site remains largely unknown, likely because the pyramid isn’t clearly visible and well-known like Chichén-Itzá, Monte Albán, and Teotihuacan. Due to the historic, Spanish-built church’s protected status as a colonial monument, the pyramid cannot be fully excavated. The city still holds spiritual significance, and people journey here to worship and attend festivals.
How to Visit
Cholula lies about eight miles from the colonial city, Puebla, and about 80 miles from Mexico City. Known as the Zona Arqueologica de Cholula, visitors can catch glimpses of this fascinating, historically significant site. A small section of the five miles of tunnels dug by the archeologists is open to the public. You can hire a guide or explore on your own. A narrow, lighted 1,200-foot tunnel takes you on a spooky route through the pyramid’s center, where you can see examples of the various layers. From there, you’ll emerge on the east side and then follow a path to the Patio de los Altares. In the site’s small museum, you can find a reproduction of the large mural.
One of the best parts of visiting the Great Pyramid of Cholula is climbing the steps to the top where the church sits and enjoying spectacular views of the city and the towering volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.