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Acatitlán: The Mexica-Aztec city of the mighty war god

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The temple of Huitzilopochtli continues to stand the test of time, with a little help from INAH archaeologists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The exquisitely preserved ruins of the ancient city of Acatitlán are just a short drive from Mexico City. 

Acatitlán, formally known as Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, is an archaeolgocial site near the Chichimec stronghold of Tenayuca in Tlalnepantla de Baz, Mexico state. 

A sign across from the archaeological sites somewhat anachronistically reads “Pyramid of Teotihuacán Street.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Nahua name Acatitlán roughly translates as the place of the reeds, likely a reference to its far-out location in the periphery of Mexico’s Central Valley. 

According to the Xólotl Codex, Tenayuca was founded in the 8th century by Chichemec migrants moving in from the north.

Like Tenayuca, Acatitlán fell under Aztec dominion in 1425 when the Nahua began to expand the reach of their once modest empire to the entirety of the Valley of Mexico, down the coastline, and then through most of Central America. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that Acatitlán was likely just as large as Tenayuca, but during the conquest, most of its structures were leveled to build churches and administrative structures.

The Church of Santa Cecilia gives the site its name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Given the ravages of the city, it is quite remarkable that any of its structures survived at all, let alone in a state which allowed for such a level of reconstruction.

The main, and really, the only temple still standing at Acatitlán is simply known as La Piramide, which is dedicated to the powerful deity known as Huitzilopochtli.

An aerial view of the temple to Huitzilopochtli in Mexico State. Photo: Courtesy

In Mexica and later Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli played several roles being simultaneously the god of war, the sun, human sacrifice, and later the patron of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan

Huitzilopochtli in full sacred regalia from the Aztec Codex Borbonicus. Photo: Courtesy

It is more than a little ironic that Huitzilopochtli, being a conquered people’s god of war, would be so thoroughly adopted by their conquerors, the Aztecs. 

Clay figure of the Temple in Acatitlán along with a rendering of the same from the Ixtlilxóchitl codex. Photo: Courtesy

The temple to Huitzilopochtli at Acatitlán lay within a large fenced-off area adjacent to a museum exhibiting several pieces excavated at the site. 

The temple to Huitzilopochtli at Acatitlán, up close. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The front of the temple is dominated by a large staircase leading up to a structure atop a large base covered in imagery making reference to Huitzilopochtli as a god of war. 

Sculptures of skulls are found all over Acatitlán and are definitely the site’s main motif. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The top of the temple is crowned with skulls that resemble an elevated tzompantli, or skull rack, characteristic of cultures from Central Mexico, but also seen in sites much farther afield, such as Chichén Itzá in Yucatán. 

Skulls from the upper section of the temple of Huitzilopochtli are at the site’s museum for preservation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tzompantli are of course closely associated with Huitzilopochtli in his role as a war god, but also as the main Aztec deity of human sacrifice — for reasons which should be fairly obvious. 

Several other sculptures and figures have been unearthed at Acatitlán, most of which exhibit the figures of eagles and jaguars, the animals that represent the two main elite Aztec castes of warriors.

A figure of battling eagles found at Acatitlán is on display at the site’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is no denying that Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Aztecs’, could be violent. After all, the abundance of skull imagery and the emphasis on sacrifice is one of this civilization’s most recognizable aspects.

But there are several important things to keep in mind. First of all, archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice, even among the Aztecs, was much rarer than previously thought. When these sacrifices did occur, they were in carefully choreographed sacred rites, and usually performed on prisoners of war — through practices such as the sacrifice of an incarnate god — more on that another time — certainly also took place.

Tzompantli in Chichén Itzá, nearly 1,000 miles from the Valley of Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When it comes to the image of the skulls, here we must remember that Mesoamerican cultures are coming from a very different cultural/symbolic context. While the figure of a human skull surely was meant to be powerfully intimidating, it also carried another meaning. This secondary meaning, which is still present in Mexico’s cultural imagination, makes reference to the fact that underneath it all, we are all the same. The rich, the poor, the leader, and the follower at the end of the day will be reduced to exactly the same thing, a collection of bones and eventually dust. 

If you go

A map shows the location of  Acatitlán, just north of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps

To visit Acatitlán, go during the weekend when traffic is not as bad. Otherwise, avoid rush hour unless you want to spend hours in one of Mexico City’s infernal traffic jams.

A sign leads visitors to the arcaheological site of Acatitlán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When staying in Mexico City, getting to Acatitlán is quite easy. There are several options including public transit on Mexico City’s metropolitan Metro Bus system, as well as taxis and cars summoned on ridesharing apps. While in the area, make sure to check out the nearby site of Tenayuca, as well.

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