One of the largest, most important cities of ancient Mexico, Cholula was a holy city dedicated to the god QuETZALCOATL and was the location of the largest pyramid ever constructed.
Located to the east of Mexico’s central valley, Cholula has been inhabited continually since ca. 400 B. C.. It first rose to power, however, in the classic era (a. D. 200-800), along with such cities as XEOTIHUACAN, CoPAN and Tikal. It was during this time that construction began on the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Tepanapa). The original pyramid bears strong resemblance to the architecture of Teotihuacan, but as that great center declined, the Cholulans developed their own style. Between 600 and 800 the pyramid took on its final, massive form. The base of the pyramid was roughly 1,400 feet on each side and rose to a height of 210 feet, making it larger in volume than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. Cholula and its pyramid became one of Mexico’s most important religious and pilgrimage centers. During this time the city reached a population of perhaps 100,000 people and established extensive trading networks with other ancient Mexican cultures.
After 800 the city’s political position waned, although its status as a holy city steadily grew. With the collapse of the old, classic-era powers, trade dwindled and foreign groups began to invade. A group of Putun Maya (sometimes called the Olmeca-Xicallanca) from the TABASCO area invaded and seized the city, making it the capital of their kingdom. The invaders built up a new city, centered on the newer temple of Quetzalcoatl, to the west of the Great Pyramid. Over time the old city with its massive pyramid fell into ruins, and by the time of the European conquest, the Great Pyramid appeared to be nothing more than a natural hill. The cult of Quetzalcoatl gained strength throughout this time, with many myths claiming that the god briefly resided here before leaving for the east. Around 1292 the city was captured again by ToLTECS fleeing from the fall of their capital, Tula. In 1359 it fell under the dominion of Tlaxcala, and after 1450 it was overshadowed by the AzTECS. The city retained a precarious independence from the powerful neighbors around it due to its status as Quetzalcoatl’s holy city.
During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Cholula was the scene of a bloody massacre. Spanish sources state that Hernan CoRTES discovered that the Cholulans had welcomed him into the city only to ambush him. Cortes decided to strike first and made a surprise attack against the city. Native sources argue that Malinche and the Tlaxcallans wanted to take vengeance on Cholula for siding with the Aztecs and convinced Cortes to slaughter the Cholulans. Whatever the reason, roughly 6,000 Cholulans died in the attack, and the city surrendered to Cortes.
Cholula declined rapidly after the conquest. Within a few months, the Spaniards destroyed most of the city’s holy shrines. A PLAGUE in 1540 devastated the population, and thereafter the city was eclipsed by the new Spanish settlement at Puebla.
Further reading: Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 4th ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994); William M. Ferguson and Arthur H. Rohn, Meso-america's Ancient Cities (Niwot: University of Colorado Press, 1990).