Aztec Templo Mayor: History & Facts

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we'll explore the ruins of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. We'll learn about the history, architectural characteristics and facts of these ruins, which were once at the heart of the Aztec civilization.

The Aztec Templo Mayor

Many have seen the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Those ruins are amazing, huge and nearly perfectly built. Now imagine a complex even bigger, formed by over 70 structures with taller pyramids - this is Templo Mayor! Templo Mayor is the Spanish word for ''Main Temple.'' It's the name given to a vast complex of religious and civic buildings that were once the center of the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The buildings are now ruins located in the center of modern Mexico City. The main pyramid inside the compound is also known as Templo Mayor.

Model of Templo Mayor in Mexico City
Model of Templo Mayor in Mexico City

This area was the heart of the political and religious life of the Aztecs. It was one of their most important temples. The compound was also the focal point of the city, as it was the center of the urban area, and the different access gates were connected to the major roads of the ancient capital.

History of Templo Mayor

The history of Templo Mayor is closely related to the history of the Aztec people, who were also known as Mexica. Many historians and archaeologists believe that between the 12th and the 14th centuries this tribe moved between different places until finally settling in the Valley of Mexico and founding the city of Tenochtitlan.

According to Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli was one of the main deities. He ordered his people to establish a new capital on the place where they would find an eagle sitting on a cactus devouring a snake. That legendary place was the island where the temple was built, around 1325 CE. At that time, most of the area was covered by wetlands. The mythological scene of the eagle is represented on the seal of the Mexican government.

The temple was considered the center of the universe. Therefore, its location couldn't be changed. But, with every new emperor usually came the desire to expand the temple. This led to a layered construction, as newer expansions were built over the remains of the existing buildings. It's believed that the Templo Mayor was expanded at least six times, during the reign of different Aztec rulers.

Model of the layered construction of Templo Mayor
Model of the layer construction in Templo Mayor

The arrival of the Spanish brought the temple and the Aztec civilization to an end. In 1519, Hernán Cortés took over Tenochtitlan and ordered the destruction of all Aztec relics. The temple was destroyed and as part of the colonization process, a Spanish city was built over the ruins. The main square of Mexico City, known as Zócalo, the Cathedral and the other colonial civic buildings were built over the ancient Aztec city. The ruins of the temple were then forgotten for a long time.

The colonial Cathedral and the ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City
The colonial Cathedral and the ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City

There were some minor archaeological excavations in the late 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. However, in 1978, the city's electric company was excavating and found a huge Aztec round stone. This discovery awakened public interest and gave origin to the Templo Mayor Project, which is the archaeological excavation that has been going on ever since. The project also included a museum, which was established next to the site. Excavations still continue, and little by little archaeologists are gaining more knowledge about this site.

Facts & Characteristics of Templo Mayor

The sacred ground of Templo Mayor was a square compound over a 1,000 feet long on each side. It was enclosed by a perimeter platform with stairs on the interior and exterior. The compound had three access gates: one aligned to the north, one to the south and one to the west. There was no access gate on the east side, as it was located directly behind the main pyramids of the complex.

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