Though Egypt’s Great Pyramid in Giza remains the most discussed pyramid in the world, it’s not the biggest one in the world, that’s for sure. In fact, that title goes to Mexico’s Great Pyramid of Cholula.
The ancient Aztec temple in Puebla, Mexico, whose base is four times larger than Giza’s and has nearly twice the volume, is so often overlooked partly because it’s hidden underneath layers of dirt, causing it to appear more like a natural mountain than a place of worship.
Even the famed explorer Hernán Cortés totally missed it, obliviously building a church directly on top of it.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, known to the locals as Tlachihualtepetl (man-made mountain), stands around 66 meters (216 feet) tall and 450 meters (1,475 feet) wide.
Although archaeologists cannot seem to agree on who built the complex, it is thought to have been constructed at some point around 300 BCE.
As for the story behind the mysterious complex, it goes that the Aztec city of Cholula was infiltrated by Spanish invaders in October 1519, resulting in a mostly burnt and looted city. To symbolize Spanish dominance and the arrival of Christianity, the Spaniards built “Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remediosa,” a Catholic parish church, on top of the city’s biggest “hill.”
But underneath that “hill” resided the largest pyramid in the world, likely constructed with adobe, a type of brick made out of baked mud, with six layers built on top of each over many generations. Every time a layer was finished, a new group of works would resume construction. It was this incremental growth that allowed the Great Pyramid of Cholula to become so enormous.
It is thought that the ancient Aztecs used the Great Pyramid of Cholula as a place of worship for about 1,000 years before moving to a new, smaller location close by.
Prior to being replaced by newer structures, the pyramid was decorated in red, black, and yellow insects, but lack of maintenance allowed the mud bricks to support all kinds of tropical greenery.
“It was abandoned sometime in the 7th or 8th Century CE,” explained archaeologist David Carballo. “The Choluteca had a newer pyramid-temple located nearby, which the Spaniards destroyed.”
Upon arriving in Cholula in 1519, Cortés and his men killed around 3,000 people in a single hour, and while this took out 10 percent of the entire city’s population, and leveled out many of their religious structures, the precious pyramid remained mistakenly untouched.
It’s not known if the Aztecs knew the mud bricks would encourage things to grow all over it, eventually resulting in an entirely buried structure, but nevertheless, this occurrence allowed the pyramid to be salvaged. Appearing more like a hill than anything else, this deception, whether intentional or not, has given us the opportunity to study and celebrate the pyramid today.
Not only does the structure hold the title of the world’s largest pyramid, but it’s also the largest monument ever built anywhere on Earth, by any civilization, to this day.
The pyramid wasn’t even discovered until the early 1900s as a result of locals starting to build a psychiatric ward close by. And by the 1930s, archaeologists began to uncover it, constructing a series of tunnels stretching 8 kilometres (5 miles) in length to give them access.
Now, after more than 2,300 years from initial construction, the site has become a tourist destination.