The Toltec Empire

The Toltec empire was the second of three successive pre-Columbian empires in highland central Mexico (Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Mexica/Aztec Empire) Its capital city, Tollan (Tula), was first settled between A.D. 750-950, following Teotihuacan’s collapse, and reached its climax between A.D. 950-1275. Considerably smaller in size than the empires of Teotihuacan and of the Mexica/Aztec, it still incorporated a substantial territory and a population of perhaps 200,000-300,000 people. The empire included large sections of central and north-central Mexico, including much of Hidalgo and the state of Mexico, plus adjacent portions of Veracruz, Puebla, Querataro, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Morelos, and Michoacan. Archaeology supports the memory of the empire’s great prosperity and cultural achievement that spread its influence and commerce further than that of Teotihuacan, as far south as Costa Rica and Nicaragua and north to the pueblos of the Anasazi in the American south-west.

The city of Tollan (Tula) covered 5.5 square miles (24 square km) and contained at least 35,000 inhabitants by the middle of the thirteenth century. The temples, palaces, and ball courts in the center of the city were lavishly decorated with sculptures and facades laden with militaristic symbolism. Stone sculptures depicting warriors outfitted with feathered helmets, shields, protective garments, spear throwers, darts, and stone daggers are especially common. Carved facing tablets on the exterior of Tollan’s best-preserved temple (Pyramid B) depict jaguars, coyotes, and eagles probably symbolic of elite Toltec military orders similar to that of the later Mexica Eagle and Jaguar Knights.

The relationship between Chichen Itza in Yucatan and Tollan has been one of the most baffling questions about the Toltec empire. Chichen Itza flowered during the periods between A.D. 800-1200. Although clearly inhabitited by the Yucatec Maya, many buildings, sculptures, and artifacts show striking similarities to Toltec examples at Tollan. Numerous sculptures, architectural decorations, and mural paintings depict warriors wearing Toltec costumes and carrying spear-throwers and other weapons common at Tollan but out of place in Yucatan. These depictions suggest that Toltecs from Tollan conquered Chichen Itza and incorporated it into a tribute state. Mayan chronicles document a cruel and violent conquest at the hand of ‘Kukulkan’, or feathered serpent, in Mayan. Archaeological finds in Yucatan show that a conquering bearded Feathered Serpent arrived along their coast from the west.

To the later Mexica the name Toltec or Toltecatl referred to a ‘refined person who had great knowledge and artistic abilities’. The name of the city itself, Tollan, became synonymous with ‘great city’, ‘a place of abundant culture’ or ‘an authoritative center of cultural order’. Tollan came to signify perfection in all creative things-the exquisite gem, the supreme artist, and the finest poetry. To the Mexica, the Toltecs had been fine craftsmen in feather-work, precious stones, and gold. They had apparently invented medicine. They had discovered the art of mining, and treating, precious metals. The Toltecs had also been clever farmers, knowing, it was said, how to bring three crops a year from soil, which later produced one. Legend insisted that with them cotton grew in different colors, so that dyeing was unnecessary. Nothing could prove more important (but ultimately and ironically disastrous) for the Mexica than to successfully capture the Toltec heritage. The institutions of Tenochtitlan in the early sixteenth century were a combination of Toltec and ancient nomadic Mexican practices. The assimilation of the Toltec figure Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl (Our Lord the Feathered Serpent) would help bring about the destruction of the Mexican empire at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores.

Written by Indio



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