Digging in the Center of the Aztec Universe: Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

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Skull Rack

Skull Rack by Mike Gasparovic

By Mike Gasparovic                                               

Mario Alberto Espejel can’t resist cracking a smile when he tells the story of the dismembered stone woman.

“I said, ‘Hey, since I was the first one to see it, I’m going to clean it off and take it with me.’”

The retired electrical worker from Mexico City’s now-defunct Compañía de Luz y Fuerza rubs the nape of his neck and settles more deeply into his chair, gripping the armrests.

“But you can imagine our surprise as we cleaned it and cleaned it, and it kept getting bigger.”

The “it” he’s referring to is actually a she: Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess with the unpronounceable Nahuatl name and a key role in one of the razzle-dazzle archaeological finds of the 20th century.

What happened was truly unanticipated. At 3:30 a.m. on February 21, 1978, a team of electrical workers installing a transformer one block from Mexico City’s main plaza unwittingly dug up an 11-foot stone monolith of the mutilated goddess. (Aztec myth says she was hurled to her death by her brother, the war-god Huitzilopochtli, after she tried to murder their pregnant mother.) The find brought in a team of archaeologists from Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia, who then set about deciphering just what it was they had in front of them.

As it turned out, what it was was the thread-end of one of the grand enigmas of Mexican history: the location of the Aztec Great Temple, or Templo Mayor. All unawares, Espejel and his coworkers had triggered an archaeological avalanche that, 30 years and countless tons of excavated debris later, would lay bare one of the most astonishing ruins in the Americas, erect one of Mexico’s most-visited museums, and spark a scholarly and popular overhaul of the country’s indigenous heritage—as well as spawning a must-visit destination for travelers to the Aztec capital.

And not surprisingly, since the Templo Mayor is nothing less than the center of the Aztec universe. Their Holy of Holies, the equivalent of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the Ka’aba in Mecca.

When you go, here’s what to expect.

Overview of the Temple Precinct by Mike Gasparovic

Sun and Rain

The Templo Mayor had long been the white whale of Mexican archaeology. Since the 19th century, investigators had known its approximate whereabouts in downtown Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlán), but no one had succeeded in bringing it to the surface.

No one, until Coyolxauhqui appeared on the scene.

When the electrical workers hit paydirt, the government ordered the demolition of buildings in the neighborhood. Led by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, the eminent Mexican archaeologist, the Proyecto Templo Mayor began excavating entire square blocks.

The results surpassed all expectations. When the rubble had been cleared, what stood before the gaping spectators were 80,000 square feet of a massive sanctuary complex built up in layers over centuries, like nested Russian dolls.

Royal vanity was the prime mover. The Aztec tlatoani or emperors had a practice of constructing new, bigger ceremonial pyramids over top of the old ones, as a way of trumpeting their superiority over their predecessors. In the Templo Mayor, they’d built no less than seven concentric pyramids, whose peaks had reached an eventual height of some 200 feet.

Gradually a picture came into focus. At the top of the main pyramid’s staircase had stood twin temples, devoted to Huizilopchtli, the god of the sun and war, and to Tlaloc, the god of rain. The former had housed an effigy of the god made from amaranth seeds, honey, and human blood. At holy festivals, the image was dressed with gold masks, paraded through the streets, then cut up and fed to the waiting crowds. By contrast, the shrine to Tlaloc was decorated with reclining figures with bowls on their bellies called chac-mools, together with stone frogs to herald the coming of the rains.

The pyramids were razed in 1521 by the Spanish, who pulled down the city brick by brick. But even the ruins today are staggering—the remains of a sanctuary that Bernal Diaz, a Spanish conquistador, likened to “an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis.”

Snake's Head, Main Temple

Snake’s Head, Main Temple by Mike Gasparovic

The Navel of the World

When you come to the center of the world, you need something to mark the spot.

So, at least, the Aztecs saw it. When their forefathers, wandering through the desert, saw an eagle with a snake in its beak sitting on a cactus, they identified the site as the land promised by Huitzilopochtli, their divine patron. This became for them the navel of the world, an axis mundi or pivot uniting heavens, earth, and underworld. (The snake-devouring eagle also became the symbol of modern Mexico.) It was on this site that they erected the Templo Mayor.

But the Templo was no Buddhist pagoda. It was the site of a grisly ritual that was fundamental to Aztec worship.

It happened in key months in the Aztec calendar. Priests at the top of the stairs would plunge an obsidian knife into the chests of captured prisoners, extract the still-beating heart, hold it aloft, and roll the dead carcass down the stairs, where it would land on the disc representing Coyolxauhqui.

The liturgy reenacted—bloodily—the story of Huitzilopochtli himself. When his sister attacked his mother while he was still in her womb, he sprung from her body fully armed and hurled his rivalrous sibling from the peak of Coatepec, Snake Mountain, into the abyss.

The ritual’s significance? A triumph of the masculine forces of war and will over feminine chaos.

Skull Rack, Museum by Mike Gasparovic

Cached Artifacts

When you visit the Templo Mayor, you’ll follow a raised walkway that leads you through the different structures of the complex, accompanied by detailed descriptions in English and Spanish. There’s also a (highly recommended) audio guide that brings the ruins to vivid life.

Among the highlights: the Palace of the Eagle Warriors, a structure that housed a crack military troop, and containing paintings of the warriors engaging in auto-sacrifice (piercing their flesh with needles, which were then embedded in balls of grass and offered to the gods); and the central shrine to Tlaloc, featuring one of the precinct’s many chac-mools. There’s also a macabre group of tzompantlis, or racks made of human skulls.

Chac mool

Chac Mool by Mike Gasparovic

But the highlight of the tour, apart from the archaeological zone itself, is the indoor museum, built in 1984 to house the ever-increasing number of artifacts dug up at the site. It’s well known that layers upon layers of pre-Colombian goodies lie just below the surface in Mexico City, and on display here are caches of coral, animal skeletons, human skull masks, obsidian knives, and the like. It’s also the final resting place of the disc of Coyolxauhqui herself, as well as an equally monumental sculpture of the earth-goddess Tlaltecuhtli, discovered in 2006.

Coyolxauhqui Sculpture by Mike Gasparovic

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, speaking of the sculptures, and of the Templo Mayor in general, sums things up:

“This is a sample of just what the Aztec people could do.”

Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Tucan Travel, known for providing adventure travel to Mexico and all over Latin America.


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