Toltecs Build Tula

Tula was the capital of the Toltec Empire, the most powerful and influential civilization of pre-Hispanic Mexico’s Early Post-Classic period.

Summary of Event

The archaeological site known as Tula (or Tollán) is associated with the powerful Toltec civilization that appeared after the fall of the great Classic period metropolis of Teotihuacán around 650. Tula is located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of what is now Mexico City on the northern fringes of the Central Plateau region. The ancient city’s ruins lie on a ridge flanking a rather arid plain. The ancient name appearing in early chronicles was Tollán (Place of the Reeds). [kw]Toltecs Build Tula (c. 950-1150)
[kw]Tula, Toltecs Build (c. 950-1150)
Toltec Empire
Central America;c. 950-1150: Toltecs Build Tula[1190]
Architecture;c. 950-1150: Toltecs Build Tula[1190]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 950-1150: Toltecs Build Tula[1190]
Expansion and land acquisition;c. 950-1150: Toltecs Build Tula[1190]
Trade and commerce;c. 950-1150: Toltecs Build Tula[1190]

Following the destruction of Teotihuacán, migrating groups from the north began to settle in the Valley of Mexico and adopt the more settled life of agriculturalists. The Toltecs who occupied Tula were apparently an amalgamation of several ethnic groups speaking a variety of languages and most likely coming from various regions of ancient Mexico. Although northern elements were most dominant and the main language was Nahuatl, the tradition of the former highly advanced urban cultures represented by some associated ethnic groups aided the rise of Toltec civilization at Tula.

Settlement at Tula began as early as 700-750 and continued for more than four centuries. There are two clusters of ruins at the site. Tula Chico represents the earliest occupation. The ruins of Tula Grande, a larger civic-religious center, are located three-quarters of a mile (a little over a kilometer) southwest of the earlier site on a large mesa. Here, the Toltec capital grew and reached its peak of influence during the period c. 950-1150. These are the excavated ruins now seen by visitors to the site.

A fully accurate reconstruction of the history of the Toltecs and Tula is complicated by contradictory sources. Aided by Aztec pupils and converts, scholarly Spanish friars such as the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún produced written accounts of this earlier era that contain some factual material mixed with fanciful tales and exaggeration. Later interpretations of Tula’s past, based on archaeological excavations, differ on some points, including Sahagún’s chronology of events.

The Toltec foundation myth speaks of an early mythological Toltec leader called Mixcóatl Mixcóatl (Cloud Serpent) who conquered much of the Valley of Mexico and established a capital at Culhuacán. Mixcóatl’s son, Quetzalcóatl Quetzalcóatl (god) (named Ce Acatl Topiltzin, Our Prince One Reed, at birth), became a high priest of the Quetzalcóatl (Feathered Serpent) cult. As was common in this profession, he also took on the name of the god he served. In later accounts, this mortal hero became transformed into this same deity and is credited with introducing many of the arts and inventions of civilized life during his leadership in Tula. According to the legend, Quetzalcóatl moved the capital of the Toltecs to Tula, where under his wise and benevolent leadership as a religious reformer, it developed into the mythical paradise described in later Aztec legends. Chronologies based on the early post-conquest Spanish sources (mid-sixteenth century) place this event close to the beginning of the Tula Grande or Tollan archaeological phase. However, the old sources also complicate matters in connecting the same cultural hero with events in Tula’s collapse around the mid-1100’. Modern specialists differ widely on the chronological context for Quetzalcóatl’s presence in Tula. One well-known treatise places Mixcóatl and Quetzalcóatl in the period associated with Tula’s fall rather than its beginning. Others suggest the old story may be connected with the earlier Tula Chico site and its collapse.

The Toltec statues at Tula, Mexico.

(Digital Stock)

By 1100, Tula had evolved into the largest urban center in Mesoamerica. The city covered 6 square miles (15.5 square kilometers) and had a population of at least thirty-five thousand. Some experts give even larger figures. The major structures and monuments include I-shaped ball courts, pyramid temples, and huge buildings with colonnaded halls that surround a great open plaza. Atop Pyramid B Pyramid B (at Tula) , also called the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are spectacular 15-foot-high (4.5-meter-high) Atlantean figures representing Toltec warriors armed with atlatls (spear throwers). These gigantic sculptures probably served as columns supporting a roof. One of the carved reliefs on the temple is a feathered serpent image and could possibly represent Quetzalcóatl. The so-called Burnt Palace to the west of Pyramid B contains a forest of rectangular and circular columns. A stone bench extends around three sides. Despite its name, this great structure most likely served as a meeting place for the elite rather than a residence for rulers. Other distinctive features at the site are large sculpted, reclining figures representing a male deity or a captive noble with raised head and knees. On the stomachs of these chacmools was a bowl, which may have served as a receptacle for hearts taken from human sacrificial victims. Other features are a skull rack on a 160-foot-long (49-meter-long) low platform near one of the ball courts and a 131-foot-long (40-meter-long) free-standing Serpent Wall with motifs that include rattlesnakes devouring human skulls. Toltec art and architectural decorations at Tula emphasize militarism and themes of death and destruction. Art;Toltec Empire

Excavations at Tula have uncovered thousands of well-made houses. Most were built on raised platforms and had stone or adobe walls and flat roofs. Features such as stucco floors and underground storm drains were also present. Rectangular or square buildings with several rooms formed residential complexes with up to five houses that faced interior courtyards containing a small shrine. Causeways and streets linked the city’s distinct neighborhoods. In some cases, neighborhoods were made up of people specializing in the same occupation. Architectue;Toltec Empire

Many residents of Tula were engaged in craft production, and the term toltec later meant master craftsperson or artisan. Many of the valuable materials craftspeople used in their trades were obtained through extensive long-distance commerce. Goods arrived from far-off regions such as Central America, the Gulf and Pacific coasts, and the far northern frontier in what is now the southwestern United States. Some exclusively Mexican trade items appear at ancient Anasazi sites such as Chaco Canyon in what is now northern New Mexico.

Tula was also the capital of an empire state. The motivation for empire building was probably collecting tribute from subjugated peoples. Although precise boundaries are difficult to determine, Toltec control most likely encompassed most of central Mexico and regions to the north. There is also some historical and architectural evidence that a freelance band of Toltecs under a cultural hero known Quetzalcóatl (also known as Kukulcan, a Maya term for Feathered Serpent) may have occupied some sites in the Yucatán Peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá, around 1000. Many monuments, sculptured figures, and Maya artwork at that famous site are replicas of those found in Tula’s central precinct.

The exact cause of Tula’s sudden mysterious collapse around the mid-to-late 1100’s remains a mystery. The colorful mythical account found in Sahagún’s work depicts an epic conflict between rival factions resulting in the downfall and expulsion of the humanistic and benign Quetzalcóatl. Going into exile with a group of followers, this deified cultural hero eventually sailed eastward from the Gulf coast, vowing to return on a predicted future date. Meanwhile, the legendary rule of Quetzalcóatl’s evil nemesis Tezcatlipoca Tezcatlipoca (God of the Night Sky) possibly led to Tula’s demise. The city’s ruins show evidence that it was laid to waste and burned. Most specialists today attribute Tula’s collapse to a combination of external enemies and internal pressures.

Some groups who left Tula before and during its final stressful period settled in communities of the nearby Valley of Mexico such as Culhuacán, Mixcóatl’s old center.


Tula’s destruction and the collapse of Toltec power in the twelfth century was by no means the final chapter in the history of this powerful pre-Aztec civilization. Later Mesoamerican peoples with imperial ambitions sought to claim the mantle of the Toltec legacy and embellished the legends about its greatness. The Aztec ruling classes linked themselves with royal Toltec bloodlines through marriages to Toltec descendants in neighboring Culhuacán. Marriage as a political tool;Aztecs Also, the compound at Tula described above was a prototype for the central precinct of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). Artifacts that Aztec peoples systematically looted from Tula’s ruins centuries after its fall have turned up in excavations of Tenochtitlán. Finally, the legend of Quetzalcóatl’s return from the east in a year coinciding with 1519 in the European calendar, his reportedly non-Indian physical characteristics, and other coincidental factors contributed to the downfall of the Aztecs at the hand of Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, beginning in 1519.

Further Reading

  • Davies, Nigel. The Toltec Heritage: From the Fall of Tula to the Rise of Tenochtitlán. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. Examines the lingering importance of this civilization’s legacy to successor groups such as the Mexica/Aztecs.
  • Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs, Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977. Attempts to resolve frequently conflicting historical and archaeological evidence on the prestigious ancient Toltec civilization.
  • Diehl, Richard A. Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Important overview on the Toltecs and the archaeological investigations at Tula.
  • Healan, Dan M., ed. Tula of the Toltecs: Excavations and Survey. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. Detailed treatise on the archaeological activity and findings conducted at Tula by a team of scholars from the University of Missouri.
  • Mastache, Alba Guadalupe, Robert H. Cobean, and Dan M. Healan. Ancient Tollan: Tula and the Toltec Heartland. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002. A work on origins and development of Tula and the Toltec civilization based on the extensive archaeological research on Tula.