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The silent dignity of ruined Tollan

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North of Mexico City, the raucous sophistication and noisy vitality of the urban area give way gradually and noisy vitality of the urban area give away gradually to an increasingly spare landscape, the tempestuous life of the capital replaced by small towns and villages amid barren hills and immense skies. In Tula de Allende, however, the clamor has merely changed its style, the town exuding an irrespressible spiritedness interwoven with the stinging dust of unpaved streets and foul smoke spewing from clattering trucks.

In the angle formed by the junction of the Tula and Rosas Rivers, the town sprawls haphazardly, its streets twisting unexpectedly beneath the imposing ridge to the north. The visitor, entering from the west and accosted by the town's frontier air and bewildering disorder, faces an incongruity: Abov the north ridge and, at a distance, curiously like factory chimneys, loom columns of ancient Tollan, the capital city of the legendary Toltec empire (approximately AD 900-1200). Navigating Tula's chaotic streets, smack up against its garish distillate of modern life, you ar scarcely prepared for the silent dignity of ruined Tollan.

Essentially the stepchild of Mexican archaeology, Tollan has long been overshadowed by the huge pyramid city toe the southeast: Teotihuacan. Tollan's modern succesor, Tula, situated below the ridge since the time of the Spanish conquest, is equally indifferent, forcing travelers to reach the ruins by nose or instinct, and not by appropriate signs.

It is as if Mexico has forgotten and perhaps that is an advantage, for at Tollan the guided tours are few and the ruins slip into darkness without the affront of sound and light shows. The massive stone sculptures of the site's museum surround the low white buildings like hady plants, unmolested by explanatory labels or chattering guides. A slim yellow pamphlet, discovered on a back room's forgotten shelf, is the only interpreter of Tollan. It is you alone with the mystery of a vanished people.

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