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HISTORY - Tollan Xicocotitlan: The Rise of the Toltecs

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Tollan-Xicocotitlan is a Nahuatl phrase that means "near the cattails," though due to being misunderstood by the Spanish, is better known as Tula. Located in the Mezquital Valley of today's Hidalgo State, Tollan was founded by the King-Priest Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, after he had avenged the murder of his father, Mixcoatl.

Through the study of etymology, linguists have determined the word Tollan has a more complex meaning, being a "place where people are thick as reeds," thus explaining why Teotihuacan was a Tollan prior, due to her large population that may have grown to 200,000 at her peak. In the years following, the Mexica would refer to Tenochitlan as Tollan, as Chichen-Itza was also established as a Tollan during the Toltec invasion in the south.

Tollan-Xiocotitlan was once at least 16 square kilometers, and reached a peak population of 85,000. Tollan-Xicocotitlan holds significant importance to the history of Mesoamerica, due to her being the ancient capital of the Toltec, and the most powerful trade center at the height of the Tollan Phase.

Though the Mexica invaded Tollan-Xicocotitlan, they considered them to be the proprietors of artistry, with the word Toltec meaning artist. Noble families from the Chichimeca in the north to the Maya in the south claimed descent or political ties with the mighty Toltec, and archaeologists have concluded the Toltec were the first to commodify turquoise extensively, which deeply influenced other groups of Mesoamerica. The influence of the Toltec was prolific, though also based on the ideology of the Olmec.

Mosaic skull of Tezcatlipoca, c. 15th-16th century C.E., Mixtec/Mexica, turquoise, pyrite, pine, lignite, human bone, deer skin, conch shell, agave, 19 x 13.9 x 12.2,

Housed in the British Museum


Tollan rose to it's peak between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochitlan, with the Mexica adopting aspects of Toltec culture, architecture and religion as their own. This mask of Tezcatlipoca (above) is of the Mixtec/Mexica culture, yet Tezcatlipoco, like Quetzalcoatl, is believed to be a god of Olmec origin. The earliest known depictions of Tezcatlipoco that survive today come from Toltec contributions of Early Postclassic Chichen-Itza, which has several architectural and religious links with Tollan, from the columns of the Temple of 1000 Warriors, which is attributed to Toltec defeat of Chichen-Itza under the great Toltec leader Topilitzin. There are various correlations between Tezcatlipoco and Maya deities mentioned in the Popul-Vuh, which date him earlier. Either way, it's easy to see that the gods of Mesoamerica have a complex history of mimicking, borrowing and fusing, over several hundreds of years - and that the religious beliefs of these societies were well documented not only in their ceremonial regalia or codices, but also in their architecture.

Palacio Quemado (Burnt Palace) represents the most complex architecture of Tollan, and is considered to be an administration center. Archaeologists arrived at this conclusion due to a lack of household implements, or evidence of food waste. There are 3 large rooms assumed to have been open patios, as they have "impluvius" indents, thought to be for water collection. The structure we see today was built on an older structure, with the addition of adobe walls that were painted with stripes of red, yellow, blue, white and black. Room 1 was possibly a warehouse, as there were large numbers of pipes, censers and other ceremonial artefacts that were crushed when the ceiling caved in during a fire. There were also friezes with a tezcacuitlapilli (sun disc), a cuauhxicalli (vessel with bleeding hearts), and human figures thought to be the chiefs of Tollan. This structure also had altars and stone benches or thrones, which are pictured in codices, illustrating the hierarchy of Tollan.

Another indication of this being an administration center is the fact that it was deliberately burned. There is evidence of fire on the stone columns, and the fire was so intense, it turned some of the adobe walls into brick. Archaeologists theorize Tollan had a lot of internal struggle, and was also attacked by outsiders.

Trade routes are fascinating to explore, as the sharing of ideas and architectural styles are as evident as the exchange of goods. Pyramid C and the Adoratory is another example of such exchanges, and cultural continuity with the inhabitants of Teotihuacan, as it is styled after the Sun and Moon Pyramids there.

Archaeologists don't have any theories as to who this temple was dedicated to, though there is evidence of a temple that was once at the top of the structure. There is also a small temple platform in the plaza that aligns with the staircase of Pyramid C, and would have played an important ceremonial role.

Another structure at Tollan with architectural ties to another culture, is Edificio 4. The structure is believed to be connected to Pyramid B due to it's location beside it, and the architectural style is similar to the Casa de las Aguilas of the Mexica city of Tenochitlan, which was constructed much later.

As Tollan-Xicocotitlan was the regions largest political center, complete with an advanced military, she rose to be the commercial hub of Mesoamerica during the Tollan Phase. The Toltec melded with other groups, becoming a multi-ethnic society with fused ideas, religious beliefs and art styles from other areas.

Though Tollan-Xicocotitlan is seated in an arid and dry valley, the river was enough to keep their lands flowering with an abundance of agricultural goods. They were also successful at tapping into deposits of basalt, rhyolite, obsidian, alabaster, and a bountiful resource of limestone.

Obsidian was an important commodity for trade, used for creating sharp blades and tools, and 80% of the obsidian was acquired locally, while the other 20% of their obsidian arrived by trade with Zinapecuaro, in what is now Michoacan. The Toltec of Tollan imported Tohil Plomiza ceramics from Guatemala and Socorusco, and beautiful orangeware from Southern Veracruz, along with cacao from Chiapas and Guatemala.

The abundance of limestone was key to their trade, as most of Mesoamerica constructed their cities using limestone mortar, and also because limestone is an important ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine. Nixtamalization is an important process for corn, as soaking and cooking raw corn with limestone allows nutrients inside the corn to be digested, when otherwise the corn would be completely devoid of nutritional value.

With a central location for trade, and an abundance of natural resources, there are obvious reasons why Tollan-Xicocotitlan came under attack by invaders from the north, and also the Mexica. That said, part of the demise of Tollan harkens back to the battle that ensued between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoco, and the fact that the city was comprised of different cultural groups, who became polarized over religion. The Nonoalca supported Quetzalcoatl's reign that denounced the practice of human sacrifice, while the Chichimeca supported Tezcatlipoco's insistence that it was mandatory among the gods. There were purportedly two wars that ensued, with the latter resulting in the exile of Quetzalcoatl's supporters, who journeyed south to Yucatan. This particular narrative has caused much confusion about the lineage of Quetzalcoatl as a god, or as a human, as the group that departed Tollan were led by the King-Priest Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, who was a real man, and who was later known in the Maya world as Topiltzin, a mighty Toltec warrior.

Though Tollan was invaded by the Mexica, and endured what is known as the Fire Phase, when the city was razed, it was never completely abandoned, thus remained inhabited until the arrival of the Spanish.


Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 7th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005

Esperanza Elizabeth Jiménez García Sculptural-Iconographic Catalogue of Tula, Hidalgo: The Stone Figures 2010

Miller, Mary and Karl Taube The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993

Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Minster, Christopher 2015: 9 Facts about Quetzalcoatl: The Plumed Serpent God of the Toltecs and Aztecs

Ward, Brad, “Chichen Itza: The Tollan of the Yucatan,” HistoricalMX,

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