We have covered several archaeological sites well off the beaten path in thick jungles and extremely isolated communities. But not this week.
The remains of El Templo Mayor, or high temple of the of Tenochtitlan, are located in what today is the heart of one of the world’s largest urban areas — Mexico City.
With the defeat of the last Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtémoc, and the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521 the history of Mexico and indeed the world took a major turn.
Even after 500 years, the sacking of Tenochtitlan continues to resonate with Mexicans to this day as a great tragedy.
Unlike other great Mesoamerican cities which had long been abandoned or had undergone centuries of decadence before the arrival of the Spanish, Tenochtitlan was a truly thriving metropolis.
Tenochtitlan is often also referred to as the great capital of the Aztec empire, but here perhaps a little clarification is in order.
The Aztecs were not really a people per se, but rather a confederation of three city-states that developed a taste for empire.
The proper use of the term Aztec has long been a topic of debate but for our purposes its enough to mention that the alliance was made up of the cities of Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlan.
Though the Aztecs included people of different ethnic groups, most were Nahuatl speaking. They carried their language and culture far and wide their vast empire and area of influence across Mexico and deep into what today is Central America.
Though conflicts among the three city-states making up the core of the Aztec empire were not infrequent, there was also strong opposition coming from without, namely by the powerful Tlaxcaltec people to the east.
To the Mexica, the Templo Mayor was known as Huēyi Teōcalli and was dedicated to the god of war Huitzilopochtli, and the rain and agriculture god Tlaloc.
Like many temples in Mesoamerica, the Templo Mayor went through seven phases of construction, the first being completed in 1325, while its final version was mostly destroyed and plundered in 1521 by the Spanish.
The first phase of construction of the Templo Mayor was likely not much more than a modest stone platform topped with a thatched roof and a modest ceremonial niche.
As you can tell by the dates we are working with here, the great Mexica capital was a last great gasp of sorts for Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish. But despite its relatively short history, its impact on Mexico and Mexican identity is hard to overstate.
The Templo Mayor was in fact made up of two large twin temples standing 45 meters tall which sat side by side atop a large artificial platform.
Though undoubtedly Mixtec in its architecture, the Templo Mayor exhibits a great number of influences from across Mesoamerica, including features common in Maya and Toltec sites.
The Aztec emperor was seen by his people as quasi-divine and sat at the head of an absolutist theocratic government, backed up by the might of his own personal guard and mighty army.
According to legend, the location of the Templo Mayor sits on the spot where the god Huitzilopochtli designated the construction of his great city. The location happened to be on a small island in the middle of a lake, and the divine sign: an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its mouth.
Mexica society was centered around the person of the Aztec Emperor, or Tlahtoani, who addressed his people and oversaw religious ceremonies from atop the Templo Mayor.
One of the most noteworthy but often overlooked aspects of the Templo Mayor is its sophisticated aqueduct and drainage system.
Though comparable systems have been found throughout Mesoamerica, the aqueducts at Tenochtitlan stand out for their outstanding engineering and level of preservation — though they have been restored extensively.
Aside from representations of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, several other figures can be seen adorning the temple.
Upon the second temple completed in 1427 archaeologists uncovered in the rubble a chacmool, a figure surely familiar to anyone with an interest in Mesoamerican art.
One of the most significant discoveries made at the Templo Mayor complex is the massive stone disk depicting a dismembered Coyolxauhqui. In mythology, Coyolxauhqui was the goddess of the moon as well as the daughter of the mother goddess Coatlicue and regent of Centzonhuitznahua.
But the area commonly referred to as the Templo Mayor goes beyond its two main towers as it includes several other areas of great civic and ritualistic importance.
The House of Eagles is the name given to a structure that formed part of the Templo Mayor complex. It was likely the scene of both ritual, political, as well a military gathering.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the House of Eagles complex is a large amount of panels’ color still surviving on its detailed reliefs.
Aside from the Templo Mayor there exist a great number of other fascinating structures of the Tenochtitlan of old, but we will have to leave these for a further installment.
If you go
Getting to the Templo Mayor in Mexico City is extremely easy. It is very easy to walk to if you are staying in one of the many nearby hotels. There are also several subway stops nearby. Just make sure to watch out for pickpockets.
Travel to Mexico City is quite easy. Direct flights are plentiful from just about every major city in Mexico, or North America for that matter.
As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 80 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents with ID.