Xochicalco . . . Maya merchants in the Tepotztlan Valley

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Edo. de Morelos ~ August 5, 1970

One Summer In Mexico – Part 26

I was astonished to see a landscape like Eastern Tennessee about one hour’s drive south of Mexico City. It was here that around 650 AD, Maya merchants from Campeche established a fortified trading center, dedicated to the patron deity of merchants, Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl).

Xochicalco is about 10 miles (16 km) SSW of Cuernavaca

We are out of chronological sequence, but to understand Tula, one must first have an introduction to Tepotztlan and Xochicalco.  I spent the last week of July in the State of Michoacán.  We will next present a series of articles on the fascinating history of beautiful Michoacán.

Dr. Román Piña Chán thought that it was important for my education as a Historic Preservation Architect to also see both building ruins in a natural state and prehistoric buildings undergoing re-construction.  That summer, some restoration work was underway at the Xochicalco site in southern Morelos State  I got off the bus to Oaxaca and spent about an hour at Xochicalco then hopped on another bus headed the same way.  At the time, I could not discern what the final appearance of the city would be.  Only the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was completely restored.

Ten years later, I spent December of 1980 in Mexico City near Chapultepec Park,  plus the states of Morelos and Michoacán.  By then, several of the buildings were completely restored.  Much of the archaeological work and re-construction of less important buildings began in 1988.  During the 1990s, an outstanding museum and more facilities for visitors were constructed on the premises, making it almost unrecognizable from the first time I saw it. Xochicalco is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourist destination.

As you can see in the photos enclosed with this article, there are strong similarities between the buildings at Xochicalco  and Tula.  However, Xochicalco was abandoned about the same time that Tula was founded.   This is circumstantial evidence that backs up the indigenous tradition that the founders of Tula originally lived in southern Morelos near Tepotztlan.

Description of the city

Xochicalco was a fairly large regional center, now located in Miacatlán in the western part of the Mexican state of Morelos. The main ceremonial center is atop an artificially leveled hill, with remains of residential structures, mostly unexcavated, on long terraces covering the slopes.  The site was first occupied by 200 BC, but did not develop into an urban center until the Epiclassic period (AD 700 – 900). Nearly all the standing architecture at the site was built at this time. At its peak, the city may have had a population of up to 20,000 people.

The name Xochicalco may be translated from Nahuatl as “in the House of Flowers”. The site is located 38 km southwest of Cuernavaca, about 76 miles by road from Mexico City.

Xochicalco was founded in About 650 AD Xochicalco was settled in by the Xicallanca, which were a Mayan group of traders from Campeche.  It was a location that gave them an excellent position along several of the major Mesoamerican trade routes. The city-state had a population of 10,000 to 15,000 people, many of whom were engaged in craft production and long-distance trade. It became an important, fortified commercial and religious center, following the decline of the great Mesoamerican city states.

At some point around AD 900 the city of Xochicalco was burned and destroyed. Many of the excavated houses and temples have layers of burning and destruction that cover the deposits from the main Epiclassic occupation. Underneath destruction layers, numerous objects were left in place in the houses, indicating that the site was destroyed and abandoned quickly.

A small remnant population lived on, however, on the lower slopes of the hill. Later, around 1200, the site was recolonized by the Nahuatl-speaking Tlahuica peoples, ancestors to the Nahuatl-speaking populations of the modern state of Morelos.

Temple of the Feather Serpent (Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl)

Xochicalco’s architecture

Kukulkan or the Maya Feathered Serpent God was known as Quetzalcoatl to the Nahuatl settlers who settled the region around 1200 AD. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent has fine stylized depictions of that deity in a style which includes apparent influences of Teotihuacan and Maya art.  However, most of the less important buildings have the same austerity of lesser buildings at Tula. 

The observatory is a cave modified to allow study of the movement of the sun. The cave was covered with stucco and painted black, yellow and red with a chimney that measured from the base to the surface 8.7 meters, and which is hexagonal in the top. The chimney has a slight slope allowing the sun’s rays to be to projected on the floor of the cave.

In the 105 days running from April 30 to August 15, the sun shines into the cave. In the sun’s movement towards the Tropic of Cancer and upon their return, respectively, on May 14 & 25 and July 28 & 29, the sun is at its zenith and the astronomical noon, the beam of light falls directly through the chimney showing the image of the sun on the floor of the cave. Taking advantage of the solar phenomenon, the site was also used for religious ceremonies.

Some of the stelas at Xochicalco are identical to those in Campeche
Other stelas at Xochicalco are similar to those found at the Toltec city of Tula. The author found broken pieces of stelas on the crest of Cerra Gordo near Teotihuacan, which appeared to be the same writing system as seen here at Xochicalco.


  1. Howdy, Excellent photography!!!!!!!!

    On Tue, Aug 11, 2020 at 9:23 AM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner > Edo. de Morelos ~ August 5, 1970 One Summer In Mexico – Part 26 I was > astonished to see a landscape like Eastern Tennessee about one hour’s drive > south of Mexico City. It was here that around” >


  2. Richard, Excellent find of the same shape stelas, That make’s me wonder if they were the same people that placed stone stelas from Tenn. though Western Georgia? From what I have read Kukulkan was a long bearded man and still remembered with artwork at Chichen Itza. As you know some of the Mico’s of the South wore long beards in Eastern Georgia (1540). It is now understood that some of Cuba sinks / rises overtime based on movements of the Earths crust creating migrations. The ancient peoples of Cuba (Tana-se /Toa?) moved to Tenn. / Georgia and Mexico? That light hole in the cave was used in Western Cuba. Is Xochicalco another offset from due North aliened city? Thanks for the articles.

    Liked by 1 person

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