An Aztec Temple in the middle of Mexico City
How do you hide a city? Throughout human history great empires built great cities all over the planet yet most people living now are as oblivious to their existence as they were to the existence bat soup 5 months ago. So where are they now? That is, the old cities not the bats.
A piece of one such city, Tenochtitlan, was unearthed during excavations for an electrical cable. A great temple now known as Templo Mayor was partially dismantled by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century and covered up during construction of the cathedral. The Spanish managed to flatten out and change the ancient Aztec capital so much that the location of its biggest pyramid was completely forgotten. In total there were 78 major buildings in the centre of the capital. Centuries later, archeologists theorized as to where it could be and carefully poked around Mexico City trying to locate it.
Today, several parts of the temple have been unearthed and recovered. Elevated platforms allow visitors to walk through different period of its life and see the seven layers of its various forms. Every new Aztec ruler enlarged the temple during his reign, signalling his power. Conveniently, it also allowed to elevate above the ever rising lake floods.
The temple was enlarged by building an additional layer on the existing one so that it grew in size like a layered cake. At its last stage, just before destruction, the temple was 45 meters high and the original layers inside it were completely hidden.
Templo Mayor was the centre of religious and political rule in the Aztec empire. As a political move of their own, the Spanish destroyed it when they conquered the Aztecs. They then used the stones from the temple to construct the new Spanish city. The temple’s time periods are now exposed like a slice through time.
The god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and the god of the rain, Tlaloc, ruled the temple from their shrines on the top platform. Two grand staircases, placed side by side, led up the pyramid to each shrine. Tlaloc’s shrine was decorated with conch shells at the top and Huitzilopochtli’s shrine displayed stone skulls and butterflies. The walls of both were pained in bright murals. Despite being over five hundred years old, some of that paint can still be seen today.
The temple was the place where kings were crowned and named, nobility was buried and gods were given sacrifices. It was built as a converging point of the four cardinal points of direction and as a conduit between the gods in the sky and the underworld below. In a way, it was the model of the universe as understood in Aztec mythology. In that universe, everything came in two’s as either a complementary or opposing force:
Around the temple, there are strange burials including mass human burials, sacrificial bones and even piles of human neck vertebra. At the top of the temple, just before the shrine belonging to Huitzilopochtli, is a black volcanic rock on which human sacrifices were made to the god. At the base of Huitzilopochtli’s staircase, is a 15th century oak tree which can still be seen today. The tree probably served some kind of ritual function, now lost in time.
During the second expansion of the temple, great serpents, measuring 6 meters in length, were added to the main façade which we can still see today. The temple also has an Altar of Frogs, where to announce the coming of the rain season, over a period of a month hoards of frogs were dressed in blue, sacrificed and cooked for the goddess Tozoztantli.
It's fascinating to note that the Aztecs were very much influenced by an earlier civilization, the Toltec, which left behind momentous sculptures. A room called the House of the Eagles inside the temple displays art motifs clearly influenced by the Toltecs. Remains of blood sacrifices found inside the room were substantial enough to permit mitochondrial DNA testing to be done.
Tenochtitlan is particularly impressive as it was only just over 200 years old when Hernan Cortes descended upon the Aztecs. Yet, it was very advanced in architecture, science and arts. The Mexica people had chosen its site after witnessing an eagle, representing Huitzilopochtli, settle on a prickly pear cactus in the middle of a lake. This was the sign they had been waiting for. Mexity City actually started out as a small settlement in the middle of a great lake. Later on, canals and causeways would be built as the city expanded in the valley.
So how did this great temple become totally buried and forgotten? After the initial conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the Avila brothers, who led the assault, destroyed the temple and used its stones to construct their own houses on the same site. Unfortunately for them, they were later imprisoned and decapitated for conspiring against the Spanish Crown. The Crown ordered their houses demolished and the land salted over so that it became useless. It remained useless for several centuries and ownership passed through several hands. It wouldn’t be until 1928 when the the land was finally repurposed to the construction of a bookstore. By then, very few suspected that it was once the centre of the Aztec empire.
Birth Story of Huitzilopochtli
If there was an award for miraculous conception, it would go to Coatlicue. This great goddess was sweeping the floor on top of a hill, as one does, when she elected to pick up a ball of feathers to place next to her womb, as one does. Suddenly, she was pregnant. But Coatlicue already had some children and they, led by the daughter Coyolxauhqui, plotted to kill her. Despite being a mere fetus, Huitzilopochtli told his mother “I got this”. When he was born, little Huitzilopochtli armed himself with a fire serpent and decapitated Coyolxauhqui, who fell down the very same hill. As such, there is a monolith at the foot of Templo Mayo representing the dismembered Coyolxauhqui, and Huitzilopochtli’s shrine is at the top. It all makes sense when you think about it. Just to make sure everyone has the point, drawings of the dismembered Coyolxauhqui were also carved onto volcanic rock and buried beneath the monolith stone. There were eight statues found at the temple, which are believed to be the brothers and sisters of Coyolxauhqui and Huitzilopochtli. In some of the statues, the chest is hollowed out and a green stone is placed in the niche to represent the heart.
Visiting the Temple
The temple can be accessed through the museum entrance which is just north east of the grand Catholic Cathedral.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9:00 to 17:00.
Admission price: about $5.
Time to explore: 1-2 hours