The mysterious rock and tunnels of Tezcotzingo
In search of a lost City
Walking around the streets of the little town of Texcoco, very little suggests this was once one of the greatest cities of ancient America, capital of a dynasty of kings at least as old as the Aztecs.
Texcoco, the “Athens of America”, fell into inevitable decline soon after the Spanish conquest, and its fate was sealed with the drying up of the lake of Texcoco, which once bordered the city and extended over much of what is nowadays the valley of Mexico. The great Tenochtitlan itself, capital of the mighty Aztec empire, was but an island in the middle of this now largely vanished lake.
Still in the first half of the XIX century, travelers could admire the ruins of Texcoco on the now dry lake shore. Bullock (1824) saw there, among other things, the ruins of a large aqueduct, which was still in use at the time of his visit, as well as “several stone buildings of great strength” and the foundations of countless more ancient buildings “many of considerable size” . Several unbaked brick pyramids could be seen all over the plain, including the fabled Templo Mayor of Texcoco, once as large as the Templo Mayor of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Among all ruins that were shown to him, Bullock was deeply moved by the palace of the kings of Texcoco, a building “far surpassing any ideas I had formed of the architectural abilities of the aboriginal Americans. ”. This palace occupied one entire side of the great square, over a length of 300 feet, and was placed on sloping terraces raised one upon the other. It was composed “of huge blocks of basaltic stone, about four or five feet long, and two and a half or three feet thick, cut and polished with the utmost exactness. ”
Sadly, after a little less than 200 years of pillaging and quarrying, nothing remains of the great structures that Bullock could still see, all vanished under the modern town of Texcoco and sacrificed to the expansion of nearby Mexico City.
Bullock was also shown a very curious set of ruins, located on a mountain a short distance from the ancient city of Texcoco, and was probably the first person to provide a full descriptions of the ruins of Tezcotzingo (or Texcotzingo – meaning the “little Texcoco”). The very unusual character of these ruins led Bullock to the conclusion that they must have been “erected by a people whose history was lost even before the building of the city of Mexico. ”
It is now believed that Tetzcotzingo served as a royal residence of the Aztec emperors, originally built and embellished by the rulers of the city of Texcoco, and particularly by its most famous king, the poet and philosopher Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472 AD). This residence, which was much admired by the Spanish conquistadors and historians before its destruction, was a veritable garden of delights. The entire mountain, an oddly pyramid-shaped natural outcrop, was artificially shaped and terraced to host a number of constructions, palaces and temples meant to serve as a symbolic representation of the cosmic mountain.
The monolithic temples
The Aztec and Acolhua period constructions on the hill of Tetzcotzingo are now mostly ruinous and appear rather unremarkable. Yet, on the same artificially shaped hill one also finds the remains of puzzling trenches, stairways and chambers cut in the hard porphyry rock in a style quite unique in the Mesoamerican world – the only parallel being found in the monolithic temples of Malinalco, also in central Mexico.
A long aqueduct, over 8 Km long and partially dug into the bedrock, brought water to the site, feeding a number of pools and basins along the terraced slopes of the hill. The most remarkable of these pools is presently known by its popular name of “Bath of Nezahualcoyotl”. It is a perfectly circular pool, measuring 1.5 meters in diameter, with a depth of about 1.2 meters, cut out of the living porphyry rock. The pool is accessed by means of three steps that descend into the basin, and is surrounded by an ornate stepped parapet with a throne or chair carved in it. All around the basin, the rock had been cut into deep trenches, as large as to allow the passage of a man. Several similarly rock-cut stairways also departed from this spot in different directions towards the base of the hill, all carved with the utmost precision and exactness.
Other two almost identical basins, regrettably much more ruined, are found a few hundred meters from this one, and are popularly known as the “Bath of the Queen” and the “Bath of the Concubines”. The “Bath of the Queen” retains visible part of the original aqueduct that fed it, along with three sculptures of frogs facing the pool from different directions.
As it is often the case with such enigmatic ruins, the site lies today in a state of abandonment and has fallen prey to vandalism and graffiti of all sorts. Many of the rock-cut stairways and trenches are overgrown with vegetation, and it is possible that more structures lie buried towards the summit and around the base of the hill.
On one side of the hill the remains of a rock-cut temple with fragments of sculptures are found, while a vast square chamber was cut on the flank facing the aqueduct.
What is striking about these ruins is the very deep erosion to which they seem to have been subject, which appears only compatible with a very great antiquity – certainly more than the mere 500 years attributed by archaeologists. This is even more surprising if one considers the much better degree of preservation of the other Aztec period ruins on the hill, which, although built with much poorer materials, retain at places the original stucco facing.
All this seems to suggest that these ruins might belong to a much earlier period than that of the Aztecs and Acolhua, and were only incorporated in what was meant to be a symbolic representation of the cosmic mountain in the shape of a giant pyramid-shaped hill.
|A view of the monolithic shrine known as "Bath of Nezahalcoyotl" or "Bath of the King". It consists of a perfectly circular basin approached by steps and a set of rock-cut trenches and stairways of uncertain function. [Photo by Author]
|One of the great rock-cut chambers in the sides of the hill. This one was located at one extremity of the great aqueduct and contains a now much defaced throne. [Photo by Author]
Another mysterious feature of the place is the presence of extensive ancient tunnels, whose accesses (now mostly blocked) are found at different places on the hill. The entrances to these tunnels had been already noticed by Bullock, who mentioned in his writings that the entire mountain was “perforated by artificial excavations”, mentioning one particular tunnel near the top, approached by a flight of rock-cut steps, which his own guide had entered “but which no one as yet had had the courage to explore, although it was believed that immense riches were buried in it.”
|One of many rock-cut model of stairways and aqueducts that were probably used by the ancient builders for designing the complex system of gardens and communicating pools. [Photo by Author]
Nowadays, the entrance to at least three such tunnels can still be discerned at various points on the hill, although none matching the description provided by Bullock. The only tunnel entrance visible near the summit is in fact a small artificial cave, which does not extend more than a few meters and could hardly have been the responsible for the legends of labyrinthine tunnels reported by Bullock and other authors. Another tunnel entrance is found under a rocky outcrop below the monolithic rock-cut basin known as the “Bath of Nezahualcoyotl” or “Bath of the King”, but is presently locked with a metal gate. The longest tunnel that can still be explored for a certain length is found a short way from the base of the hill. It is entirely carved in the rock and slopes downwards for about 20 or 30 meters before meeting a blockage. While it is possible to see the tunnel continuing for some length after the blockage, it is impossible to proceed without proper equipment.
All these enigmatic features greatly contribute to the aura of mystery still surrounding the hill of Tezcotzingo and bear a striking resemblance to other similar sites throughout the ancient world, from the mysterious “City of Midas” in ancient Turkey to the enigmatic rock-cut shrines and subterraneans of the Peruvian Andes.
|Seen from above, the system of rock-cut trenches, stairways and pools carved in the flanks of the hill of Tezcotzingo bears a striking resemblance to other enigmatic megalithic sites, like the famous Fuerte of Samaipata, in Bolivia. [Photo by Author]
|Another aerial view of the area known as the "Bath of the King". The entrance to another tunnel is visible in the cliff face in the center of the picture. This one in particular appears to be closed with a metal gate. [Photo by Author]
 W. Bullock, Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico, London, 1824, pp. 283-394
 Francisco Arturo Schroeder Cordero, La arquitectura monolítca en Tetzcotzingo y en Malinalco, Estado de México Cuadernos de Arquitectura Mesoamericana, n. 4, UNAM, July 1985, pp. 66-91
 M. Dominguez Nuñez, Arqueología y astronomía del antiguo Tetzcotzingo, UNAM, 2007, accessed online: https://www.academia.edu/7975869/ARQUEOLOGÍA_Y_ASTRONOMÍA_DEL_ANTIGUO_TETZCOTZINCO_ESTADO_DE_MÉXICO
 Wikipedia entry on Texcotzingo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texcotzingo