Located some 100 km to the north-northwest of Mexico City, the contemporary Tula is a town and one of the 84 municipalities of Hidalgo, in central-eastern Mexico. Tula used to be the capital of Totlecs around 980 CE, but later, between 1168 and 1179, the city was destroyed. Parts of the site are open for tourist visits, and at the archaeological site there is also a small museum.
The core of Tula was a precinct containing pyramids, ball courts and vast halls. The distinctive Toltec features include terraced pyramids, colonnaded buildings and relief sculptures, such as Atlantean figures, among others the characteristic chacmools – reclining figures that may have been avatars of the rain god, Tlaloc.
These chacmools hold plates on their stomachs, which can be seen as an offering to the gods. The colonnades of Tula supported roofs of wood and adobe that covered airy halls. At the archaeological site there are two large courts for playing the Mesoamerican ball game. Some of the architecture is similar to that at Chichen Itza (a large Mayan city). Human figures known as “atlantids” served as main pillars in the temple that stood atop the central pyramid. The entrance was flanked by pillars sculpted in the form of the feathered serpent god – Quetzalcoatl. The serpent pillars are now missing. The two largest clusters of grand ceremonial architecture are nicknamed “Tula Grande” (the most visited by tourists) and “Tula Chico”.
The city was the largest one in central Mexico in the 9th and 10th centuries, covering an area of some 12 square kilometres with a population of at least 30,000 or more. Its inhabitants lived in nuclear family houses as well as larger compounds, a pattern that suggests weaker government but stronger nongovernmental organisations.
While Tula might have been the largest city in Mesoamerica in its heyday, some Maya sites in the Yucatán may have rivalled its population during this period. The site was extensively looted in the Aztec times, with much of the artwork and sculpture carted off. The first scholarly description of the ruins was made by Antonio García Cubas of the Mexican Society of Geography and History in 1873 and the first archaeological excavations were conducted in the 1880s by French antiquarian Désiré Charnay.