In the heart of Mexico City’s Centro Historico district, the ancient Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, lies the ruins of Templo Mayor. Today, what remains is only ruins, but the site was once one of the most important temples in the Aztec Empire. It is now a great look into Aztec and Mesoamerican culture and history in the center of the now bustling Mexico City.
Our path to visiting Templo Mayor was part of a much longer and bigger day. Because of the way that we went, it seemed to be far more complicated to get into the archaeological site than it actually is.
We had approached from the west, on the north side of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Zocalo Square. There is an elevated walkway that goes around the north side of the site and offers decent views of the ruins – but it didn’t seem to offer any actual entrances.
We walked the entire outer boundary of the ruins, but with no luck. At one point, we thought we found the entrance, but it actually turned out to be the exit. The exit is surprisingly more elaborate and conspicuous than the entrance. Most likely, it served as the entrance at one time.
Regardless, the actual entrance to Templo Mayor is on the south side of the compound, and can easily be accessed via the east side of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
We were wearing shawls and hoods, not because it was cold – but because of pretty bad sunburns we received the previous day at Teotihuacan.
Once you exit the entry building, you arrive to the ruins of Templo Mayor itself. We broke this up into two different viewing times: once before, and once after visiting the Templo Mayor Museum. This may not seem intuitive at first, but it actually does serve a purpose.
We entered a small, elevated walkway and explored the ruins some. There are plaques, but upon initial viewing, you don’t walk away with much understanding. But this is okay! It piques your interest for the monster to come that is the Templo Mayor Museum.
Legend says that the Aztecs were in search of a location to build their city. In a vision, the king was told to found their city when they found an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake. The next day, that is what they saw. The city of Tenochtitlan was founded sometime around 1325 CE with the main temple built at the site the eagle was seen.
The site is a very large and robust archaeological site, still undergoing excavation today. On some days, you may even see archaeologists hard at work to recover more artifacts. Much of the site is buried beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral, Zocalo Square, the Palace, and other colonial buildings.
However, in 1978, electric workers came across the massive stone monolith while digging. Work stopped, and a special study ensued from 1978 to 1982 to determine if the site was worth studying. At the end of the study, it was deemed a very well preserved and intact site, which lead to the demolition of 13 buildings. The ruins remain as found, with small artifacts housed in the adjoining Templo Mayor Museum.
The coup-de-grace of Templo Mayor is the massive pyramid that once stood 200 feet tall. It went through seven different construction phases, each phase building a new pyramid atop the old.
When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, lead by Hernan Cortes, they saw the seventh phase of the pyramid. It was topped with two temples: one to Huitzilopochtli – the god of war and sun; and one to Tlaloc – the god of water. They were impressed at the number and grandeur of the temples, but were revolted at the beliefs of the Aztecs and human sacrifice.
In 1519, the Spaniards began a war against the Aztecs that would rage on in bloody conflict until Tenochtitlan fell in 1521. Cortes ordered the destruction of the city – and of the temple – and began the construction of a Mediterranean style city built in its place.
The site of Templo Mayor quickly fell to nothing more than memory as the Spanish and later Mexican governments continued to build atop the site. It would remain mostly forgotten until its rediscovery in 1978.
We entered the museum, not knowing what to expect. We had thought it would be rather small – but we were wrong. The museum is rather large, although compact, and is very well curated. You can easily dedicate 2 – 3 hours wandering it’s four floors and eight exhibition rooms. It even has a small gift shop.
This room provides an overview of the history of the site and it’s discovery.
This room showcases artifacts relating to the violence of the Aztecs. Funerary offerings, skulls, and weapons adorn the room.
The fired clay statue of Mictlantecuhtli shows the god of the underworld with his liver hanging out and skin removed.
This room covers the important role of trade and commerce throughout the Aztec Empire. Merchants were extremely important in the Mexica culture. They would often serve as communication links between cities, and assault of a merchant was seen as an act of war.
This room is dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and human sacrifice.
This room is showcases the god Tlaloc, the god of water. It was believed that rain was the result of breaking pots in the heavens. The shattering of ceramic was believed to be the sound we know as thunder.
Animals and plants were an important part of Aztec and Mexica life. This room covers the different species of importance in the cultures of the regions including: jaguars, dogs, eagles, crocodiles, and hummingbirds.
Part of the success of the Tenochtitlan was the innovative agricultural practices. The city was built on a lake, and food was grown on chinampas. Chinampas were floating platforms built of reed, wood, and filled with soil.
Important plants grown were:
The final room documents the colonial times of city, and it’s transition from Aztec to Spanish to Mexican.
Each room had an interactive video display. However, most were not working when we went – much to the dismay of a security guard.
After completing our long run through the museum, we returned to the ruins outside. With a now far greater understanding of the site, we could now better appreciate what we were looking at.
Most of the ruins remain open to the elements. But a few sections have permanent roofs. These sections contain important relics or areas such as rooms.
The walkways in this area are far longer and more extensive than the initial ones. As well, they get lower, so you can start to get a better scale of what it was like to walk among the temples.
After many hours, we made our way out of Templo Mayor. If you didn’t leave anything at the entrance then you can simply exit through the main exit – otherwise, just backtrack to the entrance to gather your things!