|The Aztec-period city of Calixtlahuaca covered this mountain|
Calixtlahuaca covered most of the top and sides of this mountain, plus another hilly area to the southeast (to the left, in this photo). The several thousand inhabitants built their houses on stone terraces, which were also farmed with maize and maguey plants. The city was founded ca. AD 1100, and was occupied until the first couple of decades after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.
The first place to look for comparative insights into Calixtlahuaca's hilltop location is to other Mesoamerican cities built on mountains. Monte Alban and Xochicalco are two of the largest and best known examples, both powerful capitals during their day. It has long been clear to archaeologists that these cities were built where they were for reasons of defense. Images of mountaintop cities in Mesoamerican pictorial codices (see my entry on the Calixtlahuaca blog on these) tend to show battles and defensive walls. But for several reasons, we don't think that defense was a major factor in the layout of Calixtlahuaca:
- We did not find any defensive walls or ditches.
- The largest civic buildings were not built in a protected location.
|view down the hill from excavation unit 323|
Well, what is so surprising about building a city on a mountain if defense was NOT a major consideration? The answer is the effort required to build the site. Every house that was built had to be accompanied by the construction (and constant maintenance) of stone terraces. Temples 3 and 4 required massive platforms and large excavations into the hillside to build level areas for these temples and their groups.
There is much flat land in the surrounding Toluca Valley, so it would not have been hard to find a level location for the city. This was rich farmland, and we don't think populations were so high that people couldn't build their settlements on the plain. One factor that comes to mind about Calixtlahuaca's mountain location is show: the city would have looked very impressive to visitors approaching from the north, with its north flank covered with houses and large temples. But how can such a hypothesis be tested?
In order to gain additional perspective on Calixtlahuaca's location, I have been looking for other ancient cities around the world whose residential zones were built on mountainsides, with the civic architecture at the base of the hill. Ephesus (the Roman occupation) is one example (see photo), and I am looking for others. If you have suggestions—whether examples of similar premodern cities, or ideas about how to interpret Calixtlahuaca's location—let me know!