Teotihuacan was central Mexico’s dominant urban center and the sixth-largest city in the world in 600 A.D. In addition to unprecedented economic and intellectual activity, Teotihuacan fostered the development of an origin myth centered on the belief that the city was the place where the cosmos and the present cycle of time began. This required the building of a ritual center and the organization of a cult of war and sacrifice to assure its maintenance and the beneficence of the gods. By the eighth century, the city was mysteriously deserted and knowledge of its people, even the origin of its name, was lost. Today it looms as a tourist attraction a short distance outside Mexico City, and is still a place of mystery.

Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods is the catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Handsomely illustrated with more than two hundred images of the exhibited objects, photographs of the site, maps, and diagrams, this book is a comprehensive compilation of the research done in the city over the past two decades. It will appeal to a wide audience of art lovers, Mexican aficionados, art historians, and archaeologists. Eleven essays explore the city from the perspective of the archaeologists on site and their vision of what happened, offering fascinating descriptions of funerary practices, human sacrifice, and symbolic imagery.

The first essay, “The Place Where Time Began,” by René Millon, is one such archaeologist’s interpretation and a provocative introduction. The story of Teotihuacan apparently began in a cave underneath the great Pyramid of the Sun. Millon sees the Sun Pyramid cave as the focus of a creation myth that gave legitimacy to the city and its rulers and a rationale to their power. So effective was the myth that the Aztecs even paid homage to the sacred location of the city and perpetrated its mysteries into the conquest period.

The Aztecs settled in the Valley of Mexico hundreds of years after Teotihuacan was abandoned, but sought clues to their own origins in its ruins. The mysteries of the Valley of Mexico were reborn in their own fabulous city, Tenochtitlan. For an excellent continuum of the myths and rituals of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic people, the reader need look no further than The Great Temple of the Aztecs: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. This small volume, replete with archaeological material that puts the art treasures into their original context, reads like a novel with drawings, maps, diagrams, and illustrations integrated into the text. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma directed the excavations of the Templo Mayor beneath Mexico City beginning in 1978, and here he incorporates not only his own archaeological expertise but also chronicle documents and codex drawings for a concise and up-to-date description of the Aztec people and their ritual art and architecture.