Monday, October 29, 2012

Mexico City Part 2: The Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlán and its Templo Mayor

A giant stone snake writhes along the base of the Templo Mayor. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the Mexica (Aztecs) were at the peak of their power and wealth. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, was larger in size and population, as well as more splendid and clean, than most of the cities of Europe at the time. The conquistadors were stunned by what they saw. In this and the following posting, we'll take a look at how this now-vanished world appeared to them, and also at some of its long-buried but recently unearthed fragments. Unlike many other ruined cities of Mesoamerica, we have the advantage of first-hand reports from Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his goggle-eyed soldiers. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Tenochtitlán as the Spanish found it

As the Spanish descended through the surrounding mountains, this view greeted them. Spreading out below was the vast Lago de Texcoco. Close to the southwest shore was a great island city, connected to the mainland by four large causeways and two aqueducts. The center of the city was dominated by a Sacred Precinct full of temples and palaces. In his book "The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain," written after the fall of Tenochtitlán, one of Cortés' young officers named Bernal Diaz del Castillo remembered it this way:

"When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about."

(Photo of painting in the National Anthropological Museum)

As the Spanish approached along a causeway, the city sparkled from the water of many canals. The canals enabled the easy transport of goods and people throughout the city. The structure that dominated all others was a great twin-temple, called by the Spanish "el Templo Mayor" (the Main Temple)It was devoted to the rain god Tlaloc and the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochitli. The Mexica founded their city in 1325 AD, and in less than 200 years had transformed a deserted island into one of the great urban centers of the world. In a letter to the King of Spain, Hernán Cortés described what he saw:

"This great city of Tenochtitlán is built on the salt lake, and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges..."

 (Photo from Diego Rivera mural at the Palacio National)

The Templo Mayor was literally and figuratively the center of the Mexica world. Above, in the top center of the model, you see the great twin-temple surrounded by many other beautiful buildings. It went through at least seven enlargements over 200 years, one on top of the other. The Templo Mayor reached a final height of 45 m (148 ft). The Mexica emperors seem to have been afflicted with the same infirmity suffered by modern politicians known as an "edifice complex." There were 78 major structures in the Zona Sagrado (Sacred Precinct). Bracketing the bases of the Templo Mayor's two great staircases were huge stone snake heads like the one in the first photo. Directly in front of the Templo Mayor was the Templo Quetzalcoatl, with its unusual curved base and conical top. In the bottom center is the huge wooden rack upon which hundreds of skulls were mounted, products of the human sacrifices conducted regularly at the top of the Templo Mayor. Cortés' letter to the King continues:.

"There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings.... Amongst these temples there is one, the principal one, whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts, which are surrounded by very high wall, a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built. All round inside this wall there are very elegant quarters with very large rooms and corridors where their priests live. There are as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of it and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville...".

(Photo from in the National Anthropological Museum)

El Templo Mayor as it is today

The ruins of the Templo Mayor lie adjacent to Mexico City's Catedral and Zócalo. In 1521 AD, Mexica Emperor Moctezuma II cautiously greeted Cortés and his Conquistadores. Initially, the emperor thought they might be the fulfillment of the ancient Toltec prophesy about the return of the god/hero Quezalcoatl. Cortés, after a short time, launched a coup d'etat and put Moctezuma under house arrest. This situation continued uneasily until, in Cortés' absence, Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado massacred a large number of Mexica nobles, claiming they were plotting a counter-coup. The Mexica, already disturbed by Spanish control over their emperor, were enfuriated and rose up in revolt. The Spanish were driven out of the city in the famous Noche Triste (Night of Sorrow). They suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat to Tlaxcala, the land of their indigenous allies. During this conflict--depending upon whose account you believe--Moctezuma was killed either by the Mexica or the Spanish. Cortés returned with more Spanish soldiers and thousands of indigenous warriors who were eager to overthrow their former masters. In the ensuing house-to-house battle for Tenochtitlán, the city was reduced to rubble. What the Mexica built in 200 years, the Spanish took only weeks to utterly destroy. Descriptions of the aftermath sound like Berlin in 1945. Using the rubble, the Spanish started building the capital of Nueva España (New Spain), which ultimately became Mexico City. Although they gloried in their triumph, some of the Spanish regretted the destruction of this enchanting, dream-like city. Perhaps the best epitaph was that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo:

 "I stood looking at {the Mexica capital} and thought that never in the world would there be discovered lands such as these...Of all the wonders that I then beheld, today all that I then saw is overthrown and lost... nothing is left standing..."

(Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Stone warriors lean against the Templo Mayor's great double staircase. The Sacred Precinct was guarded by numerous figures like these. Many of the stone warriors have hands that once gripped poles from which banners waved. The building you see in the upper left is from the colonial period. The Spanish were eager to assert their authority and to show all of Mesoamerica that the Mexica were no longer in power. They quickly dismantled what was left of the many public buildings and temples and used their materials to build churches, palaces, and other official structures in their own style. Stone from the Templo Mayor itself was used to build the Metropolitan Cathedral. Tenochtitlán completely disappeared from view and even the location of its old structures was forgotten. Over the centuries, periodic renovations occasionally revealed an artifact such as the "Aztec Calendar", discovered in 1790. During the regime of Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, much work was done to "spiff up" the Centro area of Mexico City. This process resulted in many more archaeological discoveries. By then, however, wealthy neighborhoods covered many of the suspected ruins and the inhabitants were not eager to have major excavations disrupt their beautiful neighborhoods. In addition, they gloried in their Spanish heritage and disparaged indigenous history. Why should they, literally, "dig up the past"? Then came the Revolution and a revived interest in Mexico's ancient history.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

The twin temples on top of the Templo Mayor, as they may have looked in Cortés day. The temple of Tlaloc is on the left. He was a very ancient god, going back at least to Teotihuacan, 500 years before the founding of Tenochtitlán. To the right is the temple of Huitzilopochitli, a god who did not become a major player until the Mexica arrived on the scene. He was the god of the sun of the 5th Age, the one in which the Mexica lived. In a mystical game of "musical chairs", other gods, including Tlaloc, had dominated the suns of the four previous ages. The Mexica believed that it was only because of Huitzilopochli's strenuous efforts that the sun made its way across the sky, then through the dark underworld, to fnally rise again each morning. As you might imagine, such a task required a great deal of energy, and the energy came from offerings of human blood. Since not many people could be expected to volunteer for such a dubious honor, most of the blood came from war captives, or people delivered as tribute by cities the Mexica had conquered. Therein lies the connection to Huitzilpochitli's other major area of responsibility, war. One of the incarnations of this war god was the eagle, probably because this great bird is a fierce predator who flies across the sky. This fit very nicely with the Mexica's military ambitions, and desire to emulate the militarized Toltec State. One of the two great Toltec military cults was that of the Eagle Warriors. Before moving to the next photos, take a look at the roof decorations on both temples above, and also the pillars framing the doorway of Tlaloc's temple. (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)

Large stone flowers decorated the tops of the twin temples. It at first seemed odd to me, given the blood-thirsty natures of both Tlaloc and Huitzilopochitli, that these decorations should be flowers. Perhaps it is not so odd, after all, when you consider that the Mexica conducted special wars, called Xōchiyāōyōtl ("Flowery Wars") to collect captives for sacrifice. They went so far as to allow independent, hostile states such as Tlaxcala to exist within the overall boundaries of their empire. The maintenance of these human "game preserves" was not unlike a rich man who keeps a pond full of trout on his property so he can catch fresh fish and feed them to his guests. Needless to say, the Tlaxcalans were not enamored of their part in this arrangement. They became extremely xenophobic, and were at first fiercely antagonistic to the Spanish. However, once Cortés convinced them that the Mexica were an enemy they had in common, the Tlaxcalans became loyal and valuable allies. Clearly, the few hundred Spanish troops with Cortés could not possibly have conquered an empire of millions on their own. With out the help of the Tlaxcalans, and many other former Mexica subjects, Cortés and his men would have left their bones to bleach white under the bright sun of Mexico, probably after they paid their final visit to the top of the Templo Mayor.  (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)

This pillar once stood on the right side of the doorway to Tlaloc's temple. Above the horizontal blue and red stripes on the pillar are a row of circular symbols about the size of a dinner plate. These features are called chalchihuites and represent jewels. They are an architectural feature that can also be found at the ruins of Teotihuacan, as well as at Cacaxtla, a city north of Puebla that thrived in the centuries following the collapse of Teotihuacan. Like many Mexica deities, Tlaloc had a dual nature. He could be beneficial, by providing rain to grow the all-important maiz (corn). He could also be destructive, bringing violent storms with their thunder, lightning, and high winds. Tenochtitlán was subject to periodic floods as Lago de Texcoco rose, which may also have been seen as one of Tlaloc's bad moods. An image of the rain god once stood on a bench inside the temple, and other images can be found in many other places and artifacts that I will show in future postings. To ensure adequate rain, and to avoid violent storms, it was believed necessary to provide Tlaloc with regular sacrifices, apart from those that were provided to his blood-hungry neighbor.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

This stone, known as a Techcatl, was a place where human sacrifices occurred. The black stone is made of tezontle, a volcanic material common for buildings in Mexico City. The Techcatl was set in the floor in front of the Huitzilopochitli shrine. Many a human heart beat its last before being summarily cut out of its living owner while he or she was stretched across this stone. Inside the shrine on a small altar stood an image of the sun/war god. According to historical reports, the image was made of seeds. On either side of the temple entrances were huge braziers in which fires blazed which were kept constantly burning to symbolize eternity. The only Europeans ever to witness Mexica human sacrifices were the Conquistators. Bernal Diaz del Castillo described how they watched helplessly from afar as the ceremony was performed on some of their own comrades who had been captured in battle:

"The dismal drum of [Huitzilopochtli] sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue[temple-pyramid] from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols, we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of  [Huitzilopochtli]. Then after they had danced, the papas [Aztec priests] laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them."

 (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

A chacmool reclines in Tlaloc's doorway. The slant of the floor is due to the subsidence into the mud of the former lakebed. This was a problem that plagued the Mexica, and continued to plague the Spanish and Mexican authorities after them. In addition to gradual subsidence, the mud underlying the city tends to liquify during earthquakes, causing much more damage than if the city had been built on solid ground. The great Metropolitan Cathedral across the street from the Templo Mayor needs almost continuous work to keep it stabilized. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Tlaloc's chacmool still wears much of his original 500-year-old paint. Both Tlaloc and chacmools were elements of Totlec culture adopted by the Mexica, although they may have also noted Tlaloc's presence in the ruins of Teotihuacan. It is believed that, following a sacrifice, the heart and blood were placed in the bowl the chacmool holds on its stomach. I was not able to determine the purpose of the pit just beyond the chacmool, or whether it was ancient or of modern origin. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

The Plaza around Templo Mayor

In front of the Templo Mayor is a plaza where excavations have yielded numerous treasures.  Visible is another of the several great snake heads that adorn the front of the Templo. Early in the 20th Century, the location of Templo Mayor was rediscovered, but again little was done archaeologically. In 1979, at the base of the great staircase of the Templo Mayor, construction workers discovered a huge carved disk 3.25 m (10.5 ft) in diameter. On it was carved the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. After this, scientific excavation began in earnest. According to Mexica cosmology, Coyolxauhqui ("Face Painted With Bells") was the daughter of Coatlicue, "The Mother of Gods", or "Mother Goddess of Earth". Coatlicue was an important deity with a truly monstrous appearance. Her head was a double-headed serpent, and she wore a necklace of human heads and hearts. Her skirt was a mass of snakes and she wore a human skull for a belt buckle. In spite of this appearance, she had apparently had suitors enough to give birth to at least 400 god and goddess children, including the treacherous Coyolxauhqui. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

The great stone disk of Coyolxauhqui, showing her dismembered body. It seems that Coatlicue became pregnant from contact with a ball of hummingbird feathers. She subsequently gave birth to Quezalcoatl ("The Plumed Serpent") and Xolotl ("God of Lightning and Death"). Coatlicue's daughter Coyolxauhqui incited her hundreds of brothers and sisters into jealousy, and they and attacked the Mother of Gods, decapitating her on the mountain called Coatepec (in some versions, she survived). The Mexica pantheon appears to have been a violent and very overpopulated place, probably not unlike the Mexica emperor's court. Instantly upon Coatlicue's death, Huitzilopochitli sprang from her womb fully armed and armored and killed many of his new brothers and sisters. He dismembered Coyolxauhqui, leader of the disloyal pack, and threw her head into the sky to become the moon. This was a gesture to his decapitated mother so she wouldn't pine for her treacherous daughter. The rest of Coyolxauhqui he threw to the base of the mountain which his mother was killed. Archaeologists believe this is why her disk was found near the bottom of the great staircase of the Templo Mayor. This may also have originated the tradition of tossing the bodies of sacrificial victims down the stairs. According to the legend, every month since this dramatic event, the sun defeats the moon and cuts it into pieces (phases), replicating Coyolxauhqui's dismemberment by Huitzilopochitli. The discovery of the great disk of Coyolxauhqui set off a series of excavations at the Templo Mayor that continues to this day. The museum at the site, opened in 1987, beautifully displays thousands of the artifacts recovered, and is a must-visit for any Mexico City tourist interested in its ancient history.  The photo above had to be taken from a gallery one floor up because the disk is too large to capture shooting from its own level. (Photo from the Museo del Templo Mayor)

Excavations in the plaza show how layer after layer was added over the centuries. Because of repeated flooding and soil subsidence, various emperors ordered additional levels added, in order to keep the Sacred Precinct above the water level. The plaza filled an area of 4000 m (2.48 mi) square, and contained more than six dozen temples, pyramids, palaces, and other buildings. The whole area was surrounded by a stone wall called a coatepantli which was decorated with snakes in carved relief. A very similar wall once surrounded the Toltec Temple of the Warriors at their capital of Tollan. In my next posting, I will show some of the other buildings that once occupied this area. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Like many other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mexica built over previous structures. Above you can see some of the various layers of buildings constructed over 200 years. The ancient people, rather than tear down an old, unwanted, or deteriorating building, simply built a bigger version on top. There were good reasons for this practice. In addition to the difficulty of building an entirely new pyramid from the ground up, it must be remembered that Tenochtitlán was an island, with limited space. The object covered by the roof in the corner was some sort of mythical animal that was part of an altar. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Tenochtitlán had a sophisticated water system for its time. Above is a water channel discovered under several layers of the plaza. Two large terracotta aqueducts fed the city fresh water from springs at the on-shore hill of Chapultepec.  Each aqueduct possessed a double channel and each was more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long. Lago de Texcoco itself was brackish (salty), although fed by fresh underwater springs. In 1453, during the reign of Moctezuma I, a dike was completed that separated the frresh, underwater springs from the broader, brackish areas of the lake. This was a considerable engineering accomplishment, given the lack of draft animals, wheeled vehicles, or metal tools. The levee of Nezahualcoyctl, when completed, was between 12 and 16 km (7.5 to 9.9 mi) in length. The new areas of fresh water adjacent to the island were used to create the famous chinampas, or floating gardens, some of which still exist. These were artificial islands created by driving stakes into the lakebed and then fencing them with wattle. Layered with mud and decaying vegetation, the fenced portion eventually reached above the waterline where it could be planted. The stakes themselves sometimes took root and became trees. The Mexica thus created their own arable land. The chinampas were easily accessible from the city and--just as important--easily defended by the moat created by the lake. Tenochtitlán had no sewers, but it did have an extensive system of public and private toilets where waste was collected in canoes to be used as fertilizer on the chinampas. The Mexica waste system, along with the frequent baths enabled by the fresh water from the aqueducts, created a remarkably healthy environment for a large city. It was certainly far superior to anything existing in Europe at the time. Unfortunately none of this afforded any defense against the diseases the Spanish brought.  (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

The tilted plaza and snake head are another example of Mexico city's sinking base.  After their city began to grow in power, the Mexica decided to reorganize it physically and administratively. They divided Tenochtitlán into five quadrants. The Sacred Precinct was surrounded by the other four. These four quadrants may have originated with four large communal structures that the original nomads built after their arrival on the then-deserted island. In the re-organization, each of the four non-sacred precincts was formed around its own central plaza containing a market and homes for the nobles. The common people lived on the outskirts of these plazas. All this was laid down in a strict grid pattern, based on the four cardinal directions. The Mexica apparently modeled this pattern after the nearby ruins of Teotihuacan. The canals that criss-crossed the city followed this same grid pattern, as did the streets and major causeways. Viewing all this superb organization, the Spanish were dumbfounded. They came from crowded, dirty cities with narrow, crooked streets that followed ancient Medieval lines. The resulting filth and disease made for short lives, but did create a certain immunity to the diseases they brought with them. Though they wanted to see these New World people as savage, uncivilized barbarians, it was difficult to make the charge stick, except for the issue of mass human sacrifice. The Spanish seized on this as a justification for much of what they did, though the depredations of the Inquisition were as bad or worse. Where you stand depends on where you sit. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

A huge snake slithers along one of the Templo Mayor's lower steps. Snakes were one of the three most sacred animals of the Mexica world, along with jaguars and eagles. Many other animals, including frogs, turtles, and rabbits, appear in the mythology, but they seem to have lesser roles. Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent) was one of the most important gods, going all the way back to Olmec times, almost 3000 years before the Mexica appeared on the scene. Part of a snake's power (at the least the deadly kinds) was its ability to strike suddenly from ambush, inflicting a mortal wound. In addition, snakes regularly shed their skins, so they also became symbols of rebirth, a powerful concept in Mesoamerica. Since the body of the snake above connects to the head of the same snake that first appears in this posting, perhaps this is the right place to close this segment. (Photo from the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

This completes Part 2 of my Mexico City series. Next week we'll take a look at some of other interesting structures that have been unearthed in the area of the Templo Mayor. I hope you found this posting of interest. If you'd like to comment or offer any corrections, I encourage you to do so by using the Comments section below or emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This website is rather good but it is rather confusing for me at times as I am just nine years old. I was looking for Aztec information for school homwork and me and my Mum thought this was the best website we had come across yet.From Gwen

  2. Gwen,

    Thank you for your comment. I am happy that someone 9 years old is interested in archaeology. I sometimes find it confusing too. If you have any specific questions, I would be glad to try to answer them. You can contact me at

    I'm guessing that, since you referred to your mother as "Mum" that you are British?

    Good luck on your homework assignment,

    Jim Cook


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim