AZTEC TEMPLE 'TEMPLO MAYOR'
Templo Mayor is the name of the main temple in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec Empire was a civilization in central Mexico that thrived in the time before the arrival of European explorers during the Age of Exploration. Throughout its history as a civilization the Aztec Empire expanded across much of central Mexico and other surrounding areas, to become that most dominant and powerful people in the region. Tenochtitlan was the center of this vast empire.
Tenochtitlan was first founded on July 20th, 1325 on the western shores of Lake Texcoco. The lake was actually quite shallow and had swamp-like conditions on the western edge where the Aztecs built their city. The city itself was constructed on an island in the lake and was connected to the land by causeways. As well, there were reports of the Aztec people draining parts of the lake to improve fresh water supplies and to allow for more construction of the city. The Aztec also built large aqueducts that supplied fresh water to the city from nearby wells. The location for Tenochtitlan proved excellent as the waterways of the lake allowed the Aztec to easily travel and trade with other societies in the region. Also, the island location gave it better protection from any possible attack.
Finally, the island was large enough to support a large population with many markets, public buildings, temples and palaces. For example, by the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been three to five square miles (eight to thirteen square kilometers), and have a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. This means that it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and larger than any in Europe. At the center of the city was the main Aztec temple-pyramid called Templo Mayor. In fact, the great temple was located in an area of Tenochtitlan that historians refer to as the ‘Sacred Precinct’. This was an area dedicated to the religious and historical traditions of the Aztec, and the Templo Mayor was the largest of the structures located there. In Aztec tradition, the location of the Templo Mayor is said to have been the site on which the Aztec first arrived in the Valley of Mexico after they discovered the sign from their god Huitzilopochtli.
The time period before the Aztec established the city of Tenochtitlan is referred to as the ‘Long Migration’. During this time, Aztec history talks of the Aztec people leaving their homeland in the desert, called Aztlan, and migrating south over a period of two centuries. They didn’t settle again until reaching central Mexico and Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. This period of migration is an important aspect of Aztec history and highlights their religious beliefs. For example, in searching for a new homeland, the Aztecs waited until they came across a specific sign that was said to have been instructed to them by the god Huitzilopochtli. The sign they searched for was an eagle on a cactus holding a rattlesnake. They supposedly came across this sign after two centuries of migration when they arrived on the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley Mexico. The Templo Mayor is considered to be the site upon which the Aztec witnessed the sign from Huitzilopochtli.
Structurally, the Templo Mayor was a stepped-pyramid with two shrines constructed on top of it and it was located in the center of Tenochtitlan. Unfortunately, very little of the original pyramid remains and most descriptions of the temple come from historical accounts, including those of the Spanish conquistadors who witnessed it during their conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. This is because, much of the Templo Mayor and Tenochtitlan were destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered the city and defeated the Aztec Empire. Furthermore, following the destruction of the Tenochtitlan, the Spanish (led by Hernán Cortes) built their own city on the ruins of the former Aztec capital, which is today the modern-day Mexico City.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who participated in the conquest of the Aztec, commented on the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and the Templo Mayor in his famous 1576 account titled 'The True History of the Conquest of New Spain'. In it he wrote: "When we arrived near the great Temple and before we had ascended a single step of it, the Great Montezuma sent down from above, where he was making his sacrifices, six priests and two chieftains to accompany our Captain. On ascending the steps, which are one hundred and fourteen in number, they attempted to take him by the arms so as to help him to ascend (thinking that he would get tired) as they were accustomed to assist their lord Montezuma, but Cortés would not allow them to come near him. When we got to the top of the great Temple, on a small plaza which has been made on the top where there was a space like a platform with some large stones placed on it, on which they put the poor Indians for sacrifice, there was a bulky image like a dragon and other evil figures and much blood shed that very day."
The Templo Mayor that the Spanish conquistadors witnessed in 1521, was supposedly the seventh and final version of the great temple. Historians believe that the great temple was first built just after the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325 and then went through many different additions throughout the history of the Aztec. Originally, the temple was quite small and constructed out of earth and wood. Then, successive Aztec leaders, known as huey tlatoani, built onto the temple. Modern excavations of the ruins of Templo Mayor show that the additions to the temple were literally built on top of the old structure, thus creating many different layers to the temple that show its history with each layer.
The final version of the Templo Mayor (and the one that the Spanish witnessed in 1521) was likely constructed sometime at the end of the 15th century. It was a pyramid with four different levels or terraces and two sets of staircases that reached to the top platform. The temple reached as high as 180 feet (60 meters) and was topped with a large platform. This top platform contained two shrines to two different Aztec gods that played a significant role in the religion of the Aztec. Spanish records report that the pyramid was painted in bright colors and contained artistic reliefs of serpents and Aztec warriors.
In Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), the Templo Mayor was referred to as Hueyi Teocalli and was dedicated to two different Aztec gods: Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. Huitzilopochtli, whose name means ‘left-handed hummingbird’ or ‘southern hummingbird’ was one of the main gods of the Aztec and likely the most prominent. For instance, he was considered the national god of the Aztec people and was the patron god of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Tlaloc was also an important god in Aztec religion. Tlaloc translates to ‘earth’ and modern historians interpret the name as meaning ‘he who is made of earth’. The Aztecs considered him to be the god of rain, earthly fertility and water. He was a popular god throughout the Aztec Empire and widely recognized as a ‘giver of life’.
Due to its importance in Aztec religion, the Templo Mayor was the site of ritual human sacrifice. For instance, historical reports suggest that human sacrifice occurred on the top platform in honor of both Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. To the Spanish conquistadors that arrived in the Aztec territory in the early 1520s, the practice of human sacrifice carried out by the Aztecs was horrific and brutal. For example, several early accounts by these Spanish conquistadors highlight their horror to seeing festivals and ceremonies in which people were sacrificed atop Aztec temples and pyramids. In Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, sacrifices were carried out on top of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan).
For example, a first hand account of the Aztec sacrifice comes from Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo's famous memoir. He was a conquistador in the time of the Age of Exploration and accompanied Hernán Cortes on his famous mission to overthrow the Aztec Empire in 1521. In his memoir, Bernal Diaz del Castillo stated: "Hardly a day passed by that these people did not sacrifice from three to four, and even five Indians, tearing the hearts our of their bodies, to present them to the idols and smear blood on the walls of the temple. The arms and legs of these unfortunate beings were then cut off and devoured, just in the same way we should fetch meat from a butcher's shop and eat it: indeed I even believe that human flesh is exposed for sale cut up in their markets."
However, from the perspective of the Aztec, sacrifice was necessary to ensure the survival of life. For instance, in Aztec religion, the world was created from the sacrifice of the gods. As such, they viewed sacrifice as necessary to repay their debts to the gods. Therefore, sacrifice did not necessarily just focus on human beings, as both animals and precious objects were also offered to the gods. Further to this idea, some historians have suggested that the Aztec practice of sacrifice was designed to protect and ensure the survival of the universe.
As stated above, the Templo Mayor was destroyed in 1521 following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish conquistadors destroyed Tenochtitlan (with the Templo Mayor included) and built their own city on top of the ruins of the once great Aztec city. Today, archaeologists and historians continue to make discoveries of the old Aztec city (including the Templo Mayor) during excavations in modern Mexico City.