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The Largest Structure in the World



"Try to bring in 'Humboldt'," said the editor of this fine weekly paper when I signed on for this column. 'No problem," I replied, hoping I'd be able to find some link, somehow, somewhere ...

...which is why my heart leapt last week as I stood at the base of the world's largest structure -- according to the Guinness Book of Records -- the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Despite its better-known cousins, the pyramid of Cheops in Gaza, Egypt, and the pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuácan, north of Mexico City, the Cholula pyramid is tops in volume. With a base of about 1,500 by 1,500 feet and a height of 220 feet, it has a total volume of nearly six million cubic yards -- about a third as much again as Cheops.

The Humboldt connection is right there, on a plaque next to the temple complex next to the Cholula pyramid: Our county's eponym, the German baron Alexander von Humboldt (and the greatest botanist-explorer of his time), is celebrated for his visit there in 1804. He later wrote that not only was the base area double that of Cheops pyramid but -- in a mild put-down of Germany's European rival -- 'four times that of the Place de Vendome in Paris."

The story goes that after the Spanish conquered Puebla, massacring thousands of indigenous people in the process, they constructed a church on top of what they thought was a hill. It was only later that they realized they were building on a 'pagan' site previously dedicated to the Aztec feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and that the hill was in fact a huge artificial mound. Later still -- starting in the 1930s -- archaeologists dug five miles of tunnels through the hill to uncover its construction. They found that it had been built in about six stages, starting around 200 B.C., each stage enlarging on the previous one.

If you visit central Mexico, do try to get to Cholula -- it's just outside Puebla, two hours east of Mexico City, and makes for an impressive trip. You can even walk through some of the archeologists' tunnels, which is more than Alexander von Humboldt was able to do on his visit 205 years ago.

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