Cholula . . . the largest pyramid in the world!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Cholula y Puebla – Estado de Puebla

One Summer in Mexico – Part Seventeen – July 21, 1970

Cholula is situated in a valley surrounded by massive strato-volcanoes.

Little known outside of Mexico in 1970,  the Cholula Pyramid is the largest pyramid by volume in the world and the largest monument in the world. 

Cholula was and is the name of the indigenous town, where it is situated. The actual structure was named Tlachihualtepetl in 1519, which is a Nahua word that means “made-by-hand mountain.” The architectural form of the pyramid is almost identical to that of Monk’s Mound in Cahokia, Illinois.  That fact strongly suggests that at least some members of the elite at Cahokia had seen Tlachihualtepetl, when it had deteriorated into more of a mound-like appearance. 

3D satellite image of the enormous Cholula Pyramid

Archaeologists believe that the Tlachihualtepetl pyramid was begun around 400 BC in a village that dated back to around 1400 BC.   According to a tradition among indigenous peoples, it was founded by a red-haired giant named Xelhua.  The original occupants of the Valley of Mexico had been giants. Xelhua had been one of a few, who had escaped a great flood by climbing a high mountain.   The city grew to a maximum population of around 50,000 persons.

Appearance of the pyramid in the early 1900’s

The city of Cholula was closely tied with Teotihuacan culturally from around 100 BC to around 600 AD. Unlike Teotihuacan, it was continually occupied by humans up to this day. Around 700 AD, it was conquered by a people from the Gulf Coast. Around 1200 AD, it was conquered by a Nahuatl people named the Olmeca Chichimeca. They went on to conquer the region where the so-called “Olmec Civilization” had existed.  It was conquered by the Mexica (Aztecs) in the early 1400s.

Architectural model of the Cholula pyramid and nearby buildings

The Great Pyramid at Cholula has a base of 450 by 450 meters (1,480 by 1,480 ft) and a height of 66 m (217 ft). Its volume is  4.45 million cubic meters.  In recent years, taller Maya pyramids have been discovered at El Mirador and Tonina.  The El Mirador – La Danta Pyramid rises approximately 70 meters (230 ft) tall from the forest floor, and considering its total volume (2.8 million cubic meters) is now considered to be the second largest pyramid in the world, while the Tonina Pyramid is 74m (243 ft) tall.

Telephoto image of the pyramid from a nearby hill

After the intermission, we will continue on with a description of the architectural details and construction history of Tlachihualtepetl.

Telenovela Intermission

Hell has no fury like a Mexican señorita jilted by Gringo in New Orleans!

The Spanish Inquisition arrives on July 20, 1970

Don’t believe the Bible, the Ante-Christ will first appear in the form of a Mexican señorita, who had been jilted by an older man (apparently married) in New Orleans. Late in the afternoon of Monday, July 20th, I was sitting at the Soto’s dining table and writing in my journal about Cuicuilco.  Five señoritas with grimaced faces appeared at the Soto’s front door.  Sra. Soto went to the door and recognized one of them, Pilar, who had graduated from Queen Mary High School with Alicia.  After inviting them in, she turned her back to them and made an exaggerated “fearful” face . . . whispering to me, “Cuidado.” (Danger! Danger! Aliens approaching!)

Four of the lovely ladies were friends of Alicia’s at the Unversidad de Anahuac, but Alicia didn’t know that they were visiting me.  The spokesperson was a recent graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, who spoke perfect English with a syrupy Southern accent. She seemed to hate Gringo men with a passion. I don’t think that she knew Alicia very well. Her preconceived image of me was that I was a married man from another country other than the United States (I didn’t look like a Gringo) about 15 years older than Alicia.  She opened up with the statement that “Gringo men think that all Mexican girls are prostitutes.”  We went down hill from there. 

I won’t go into the sordid details, because Sra. Soto came to the rescue.  She stuck her head out of the kitchen door to scold the girls, telling them that I was a very fine young man, who didn’t use narcotics, get drunk or go to brothels.  Any Mexican mother would be honored to have me as their son. It was about time that Alicia’s mother figured that out.   After then, four of the señoritas loosened up and started smiling.  Three of them, including Pilar, invited Alicia and I to upcoming parties in the ritzy Lomas del Pedragal community.

I did learn something very interesting.  Alicia never would talk about her romantic past, but constantly asked me about mine. I was shocked to hear that she had a reputation for never dating the same guy two weekends in a row.   Older men such as doctors and bankers, with lots of money, were constantly bringing her and mother flowers, but she did not return the attention.  Among the male students at Anahuac, she was known as “Alicia la reina de hielo” (Alicia the Ice Queen) because she normally did not even let men kiss her good-night at the end of a date.  THEN two weeks after we met, she invited me to spend the weekend with her in Cuernavaca at her cousin’s hacienda, then she called around to her friends, asking to “borrow” some form of contraception. 

Alicia didn’t understand that you could not just take a birth control pill immediately before or after sleeping with a man (at least back then) or with other forms of contraception, “one size did not fit all.”  Of course, I was uninvited to Cuernavaca by Alicia’s aunt, but Alicia had in recent days been calling around again, because we were going together to Cholula and Puebla.  

I told them, “We were going with a tour group to Cholula and will not be spending the night there. You know Alicia.  I never want to hurt her and just do what she asks me to do . . . nothing more.” (That was the truth!)  I then winked.  Four of the señoritas got the message and were relieved. The jilted señorita, who said “y’all” all the time, still did not look very friendly.

Very early in our relationship, Alicia would invite me into her bedroom, while she was getting ready for a date . . . if her mother was not there.  The bedroom door opened into the living room.   Until August, she made me look the other way toward her dresser mirror, while changing clothes, but I adored watching her put on lipstick and brush her hair. . . especially brushing her hair.  The filtered light of the windows, covered with gauze curtains, formed a halo on the edges of slightly curly, black hair.   She was not being an exhibitionist.  She wanted me to be a total part of her life.

All these years later, I now realize what was going on . . . aside from the spiritual stuff.  Alicia was an only child in an essentially Middle Eastern family, where men and women could not communicate with each other. She grew up without a father in an extended family of tyrannical men.  Her mother hated men because of the self-imposed misery that she had made of her life.  At the time, I did not realize that being Creek was so different, but I came from a background where men and women were equals AND REALLY LIKED EACH OTHER.  Some of my best friends were my sister and female cousins.  I was always very close to my maternal grandmother and aunts.  Until she met me, the real Alicia was terribly lonely, because there was no man, who could connect with her mind and inner soul.  

The bus arrives to takes us from Cholula to Pueblo.

Alicia and Ricardo the turistas

In order to assure that the fellowship grant was used as intended, the Georgia Tech School of Architecture had retained a travel agency to convert my winning proposal into a travel itinerary, around which three architecture professors had structured a study syllabus.   Naturally, being a 20th century travel agency, the travel agent drastically reduced the number of archaeological sites visited and placed me on packaged tours to the other sites. All hotels on the tours were expensive establishments that catered to visitors from North America and Europe. Using this approach, there was only enough money for me to be in Mexico about a month.  As readers recall from Part Two, Dr. Román Piña-Chan had tossed that syllabus into the trash can.  As a result, I was able to travel about much of central and southern Mexico, plus Guatemala and British Honduras (now Belize) for over 12 weeks.

Interior of the “Gringo Bus.”

Alicia want to go with me to Cholula, but I planned to spend the night, since the few standard buses, returning at night, were already booked up.   Alicia’s mother nixed the overnight stay so I went back to Plan A, which was a package tour of Cholula and Puebla offered by a company named Viator.  My journal states that the ticket was only $11 ($77 in today’s money) and included a gourmet meal at a hotel in Cholula.   Amazingly, Viator is still in business and the same jaunt is now only $55!   Because I had to keep detailed records of my expenditures, Alicia had to pay for her ticket, but apparently, she had plenty of money in the piggy bank.

I really wanted us to do this trip together, because it would last 14 hours, but we would be only able to hold hands, plus an occasional peck kiss.  I was worried that maybe my body was messing with my head.  Perhaps what I thought was love, was really a rush of hormones from being constantly caressed by Alicia.  As it turned out,  we never lost things to talk about the whole 14 hours and were more in love than ever when we got home. It seemed like we were old souls, who had known each other for eternity.

There was a stewardess on the bus, who was a Tejana from Houston.  The tour company made most of their profits from selling alcoholic beverages and snacks on the bus at inflated prices.  We only ordered soft drinks and peanuts.  The stewardess came up to us as we were at a rest stop in Río Frío de Juárez, high up into the mountains, where the landscape was alpine.  She looked at Alicia and said, “You two must be on your honeymoon.  Your face is so radiant.”    Alicia smiled back and said, “No, I am just happier than I have ever been in my life . . . then crossed her fingers.”

The Architecture of Tlachihualtepetl

Whereas it is now known that the so-called pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan went up fairly quickly,  Tlachihualtepetl was the product of many, many centuries of staged expansion by at least six  or more ethnic groups.  Archaeologists have dug a tunnel into the heart of the great structure, so visitors can see the many phases of its construction. Interestingly enough,  although the form of the pyramid changed some with each alteration, many of the architectural details stayed similar for over a thousand years.

The pyramid consists of six superimposed structures, one for each ethnic group that dominated it. However, only three have been studied in any depth. The pyramid itself is just a small part of the greater archaeological zone of Cholula, which is estimated at 154 hectares (0.59 sq mi).

Reconstructed talud-tablero architecture from Stage Five

Building of the pyramid began in the Pre-Classic Period, somewhat earlier than the large pyramids at Teotihuacan, Over time, it was built over six times to its final dimensions of 450 meters (1,476 ft.) on each side at the base and 66 meters (216 feet) tall. The base covers a total area of 160,000 square meters, making it three times greater than the 53,056.5 square meter base of Pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza. Tlachihualtepetl has the largest pyramid base in the Americas.

The earliest construction phase features talud-tablero architecture that is characteristic of the region.  That style has become strongly associated with the great metropolis of Teotihuacan, the Toltec capital of Tula and the Totonac city of “El Tajen.”  We will be visiting Tula and El Tajen later in the summer.

Pyramid tunnel

Some of the pyramid constructions have had burials, with skeletons found in various positions, with many offerings, especially ceramics.  There are also hundreds, if not thousands of Post-Classic Period burials on the lower slopes and surrounding grounds of the pyramid.  The pyramid was used as a cemetery long after it was abandoned as a temple.

The last state of construction has stairs on the west side leading to a temple on top, which faced Iztaccíhuatl. During the colonial period, the pyramid was severely damaged on its north side to build the Camino Real to Puebla. The west was damaged later with the installation of a rail line.

Very little of the Great Pyramid and virtually none of the city of Cholula have been excavated by professional archaeologists. Most of what you were told in this article was not even known in 1970. Standing on top of the pyramid, once does not see a vast, Per-Columbian city, but buildings dating from the mid-1500’s onward.  It has only been in recent years that the INAH and Mexican government realized that there is a potential gold mine, if the pyramid and surrounding ruins are fully explored.

This is the famous “Mural of the Drinkers.” It portrays a group of humanoids getting plastered by some alcoholic beverages. I said “humanoids” because look at the heads of those drinkers. They look like something out of a Star Wars movie!


  1. Richard, That’s one Giant volcano smoking! Has anyone connected the “Pre-Teotihuacan” type pyramids together for a star-sign design? The Maya’s connected their cities to represent a Constellation. If the Toltec’s are the starters of Central-Mexican pyramids cities they seem to be connected to a story of moving around in ships.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, I think the giants were the ancestors of the Upper Creeks. Remember an earlier article, when Dr. Pina-Chan found a perfect match between the art at the Toltec capital of Tula and the art at Moundville?


  2. Howdy, Excellent article as always. Query? Time line when the pyramid was covered in dirt? Cortez destroyed the PEOPLE, town(?)

    On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 4:54 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner > Cholula y Puebla – Estado de Puebla One Summer in Mexico – Part Seventeen – > July 21, 1970 Cholula is situated in a valley surrounded by massive > strato-volcanoes. Little known outside of Mex” >

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.