Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown pyramid standing 22 metres high inside a hill on the outskirts of Mexico city.
The earth pyramid, believed to have been built by the pre-Columbian Teotihuacán culture in around AD500, measures 150 metres on each side and sits underneath another historical site, on which Mexicans have re-enacted the crucifixion of Christ for nearly 200 years.
Archaeologist Jesus Sanchez said that the people of Iztapalapa were proud of the discovery. “When they first saw us digging there, the local people just couldn’t believe there was a pyramid there,” he said.
“It was only when the slopes and shapes of the pyramid, the floors with altars, were found that they finally believed us.”
The pyramid fell into disuse around AD800 with the collapse of the Teotihuacán culture, so the people of Iztapalapa would have been unaware of the significance of the eroded hill in 1823, when they started re-enacting the Biblical Passion on the site to give thanks after a cholera epidemic spared them.
The Passion ceremony, at the climax of which an actor portraying Christ is tied to a cross, attracts up to 1 million visitors every year. Sanchez said that this year, excavation pits would be filled in to avoid damage to the older site during the ritual, which is due to begin next week.
“Both the pre-Hispanic structure and the Holy Week rituals are part of our cultural legacy, so we have to look for a way to protect both cultural values,” he told the Associated Press.
Many of Mexico’s prime archaeological sites are dotted around Mexico City, and the city itself was built on top of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.
The builders of the Iztapalapa pyramid also constructed the temple complex of Teotihuacán, just north of Mexico city.
The two pyramids at Teotihuacán are the country’s most popular tourist attraction. One of them, the pyramid of the sun, is thought to be the largest such structure in the world, after the pyramids of Cheops and Chephren in Egypt.
Teotihuacán reached its peak between AD150 and AD450, when the city covered more than 10 square miles and was home to up to 200,000 people.
It is not the only example in Mexico of a Christian religious site being built upon the ruins of a former culture: the Spanish conquistadors are thought to have deliberately placed churches on Aztec religious sites in order to displace the pre-Columbian religion.
Mexico City’s cathedral is built on the site of an Aztec temple, and Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is believed to have first appeared shortly after the Spanish conquest on a hillside where the Aztecs worshipped their mother goddess.
The pyramid in Cholula, which according to some estimates is even larger than the Giza pyramids in Egypt, also has a church on top of it.