The world’s largest pyramid is…drum roll please…not the Great Pyramid of Giza. According to the Guinness World Records, the honor belongs to Quetzalcóatl Pyramid at Cholula de Rivadavia (or the Great Pyramid of Cholula or Tlachihualtepetl), situated around 63 miles south-east of Mexico City. When translated to figures, the ‘largest’ scope mirrors the sheer base of the pyramid, which in the case of the Quetzalcóatl Pyramid accounts for an astronomical 45 acres – equivalent of more than 34 American football fields! Combined with the height of 177 ft, the total volume of the world’s largest pyramid is a whopping 166 million cubic ft, thus beating the ‘Egyptian’ Great Pyramid’s volume of 84 million cubic ft, by a significant margin.
The Mystery of History –
As a matter of fact, the mind-boggling structural ambit of the Great Pyramid of Cholula also makes it the world’s largest monument. But all of these fascinating numbers naturally puts forth the question – why is this incredible man-made architectural feat still elusive when it comes to popular history? Well the primary reason might pertain to the fact that this mammoth structure is hidden beneath layers of dirt, thus resembling a natural hill top. And rather complicating its history, a church (La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios or ‘Our Lady of Remedies Church’) was built atop the pyramid ‘hill’ circa 1594 AD, which has led to a religious significance of a different kind when it comes to the actual site.
Intriguingly enough, much like its present status, the history of the Great Pyramid of Cholula is vaguely mired in mystery. The initial founding of the monument probably harks back to 3rd century BC, though the exact builders are still not known – with myths ascribing its massive construction to a giant. On the practical side of affairs, the huge project was possibly started by the city dwellers of Cholula (known as Chololtecs), who migrated to the area by late 6th century BC.
In any case, judging by the sheer size of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, it can hypothesized that the builders had access to enviable economic means. The geographical setting of Cholula in the Mexican highlands rather bolsters this theory, as it would have controlled the profitable trade route that connected the northern Tolteca-Chichimeca kingdoms and the southern Maya realms. Legends and myths surrounding the Chololtecs also allude to their economic opulence, with the inhabitants willing to build gigantic pyramids for every year inside their sacred city, in a bid to garner favor from the gods.
Unfortunately for the Chololtecs, religious fervor alone didn’t protect the inhabitants, with the great settlement of Cholula being easily captured by Hernan Cortez and his Spanish army in 1519 AD. The conquistadors massacred around 3,000 of the city’s people (or 10 percent of its total population) within just 3 hours. In the ensuing bloodbath and destruction, many of the pre-Columbian architectural feats, including the religious structures, were plundered. As a symbol of Christian conquest, the invaders later established the aforementioned church atop the ‘hilly’ surface of the Great Pyramid of Cholula (which was probably already hidden in mud and dirt). Quite fascinatingly, as a later consequence of an unintentional cultural synthesis, these two vastly different monuments located in a single site are responsible for attracting over 220,000 visitors each year.
The Structural Giant –
Interestingly enough, while the founding date of the Great Pyramid of Cholula probably harks back to 3rd century BC, the initial scope only entailed a smaller pyramid. In other words, successive groups of people built (and improved) upon the core structures of the complex (dedicated to Quetzalcóatl), till 8th-9th century AD. In total there might be around six complete constructions that were built within a time-frame of over 1,200 years, and all of these additions account for the ‘mega-structure’ of the Great Pyramid of Cholula as we know it. Furthermore, it should be noted that among these constructions, the Pyramid of the Nine Stories (built between 350 – 450 AD) alone is bigger by volume than the famed Pyramid of the Moon at the Aztec capital of Teotihuacan.
So what exactly is the base area of the Great Pyramid of Cholula? According to modern measurements, the area is around 450 m x 450 m (1,480 by 1,480 ft), which makes it four times as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza (Pyramid of Khufu). However the Pyramid of Khufu is taller at 453 ft, while the Great Pyramid of Cholula goes up till 177 ft. This still makes the latter larger in terms of sheer volume (according to most calculations), as mentioned in our introductory paragraph.
With all the talk about construction and size, archaeologists are still excavating and assessing sections of the pyramid complex. To that end, it is known that the core structure of the monument is made of adobe bricks, which are composed of mud mixed with binding materials such as straw or sand – and then dried in the sun. And as the building grew larger, the outer layers were lined with smooth-faced bricks that contained more earth. Oddly enough, during its heydays, the Great Pyramid of Cholula was also decorated with kaleidoscopic facades covered in assorted red, black and yellow insects.
Finally from the historical perspective, the world’s largest pyramid possibly lost its religious significance circa 8th century AD. The Aztec city inhabitants constructed a newer temple complex, which was later destroyed by the Spanish forces in 16th century. But this act of abandonment possibly worked in favor of preserving the Great Pyramid of Cholula, since its mud bricks and the surrounding hilly landscape ‘conspired’ to hide the complex beneath a natural blanket of dirt, thus aiding in escaping the attention of the invading Spaniards.