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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

El Templo Mayor, the great Aztec palace in the heart of Mexico City

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture into the concrete jungle of Mexico City to explore one of Mesoamerica's most iconic archaeological sites.

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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.

We have covered several archaeological sites well off the beaten path in thick jungles and extremely isolated communities. But not this week. 

The first page of the Mendoza Codex depicts the founding myth of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica who would later lend their name to the modern state of Mexico. Photo: Courtesy

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. 

The ruins of the once-mighty Templo Mayor, with Mexico city’s cathedral towering in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

At the time of the arrival of the Spanish to Tenochtitlan, the city was one of the largest in the world. Even the Spanish conquistadors expressed admiration for its beauty and sophistication. Photo: Courtesy 

Tenochtitlan is often also referred to as the great capital of the Aztec empire, but here perhaps a little clarification is in order. 

The first page of the Mendoza Codex depicts the founding myth of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica who would later lend their name to the modern state of Mexico. Photo: Courtesy

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.

A surviving section of staircases that would have once led up to the two majestic towers of the Templo Mayor. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

A relief of Tlaloc found in Uxmal, Yucatán attests to the far-reaching power and influence of Mexica and other Nahuatl speaking peoples. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

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. 

Based in Cacaxtla, the Tlaxcaltec were among the first to ally with the Spanish to bring Aztec hegemony to an end. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Detail of surviving decorative elements on the section of the Templo Mayor complex known as the House of Eagles. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

As in virtually all Mesoamerican cities, images and sculptures of serpents are to be found just about everywhere. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Three stone sculptures found within the Templo Mayor now stand guard outside the ruins of the temple once again. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

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.

Several surprisingly well-preserved adornments survived the ravages of time and the Spanish conquest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The sheer amount of well-preserved reliefs found inside the Templo Mayor is truly impressive, and really gives a sense of just how grand a place it must have been in its heyday. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Remains of the aqueduct and drainage system have been found to extend far beyond the Templo Mayor, deep into what was once the city of Tenochtitlan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gract

Aside from representations of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, several other figures can be seen adorning the temple.

Altar of the toads on the Templo Mayor. As is in the Maya region, toads and frogs were closely associated with rain and water, as well as their correspondent deities, Chaac in the Maya lands and Tlaloc in the Mexica realms. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

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. 

The chacmool likely symbolized slain warriors carrying offerings to the gods. The bowl upon the chest was used to hold sacrificial offerings. They are fairly ubiquitous across Mesoamerica, but especially on the Yucatán Peninsula.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The Coyolxauhqui disk is nearly 11 feet in diameter and was discovered in 1978. Photo: Courtesy

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. 

Much of the Templo Mayor is covered with a metallic roof to protect its architecture and artifacts from the elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Tenochtitlan’s House of Eagles obviously gets its name from the many representations of eagles in its architecture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The House of Eagles is rich in depictions of “eagle warriors” who along with “jaguar warriors” made up the highest ranks of the Aztec military brass. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

A map shows the location of the Templo Mayor in the historic center of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps

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. 

Surrounding the Templo Mayor you are likely to encounter several individuals dressed up in prehispanic regalia, dancing and performing music. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Mexico’s bustling capital rattling on in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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