General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Nov 2017/9 Rain
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Aztec pyramids

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - William Cawthorne: I’m doing a school project. Can you please help me by telling me where did the aztecs build their pyramids? I also have to make an aztec pyramid: do you have any tips or instructions on how I could do this? Thank you so much. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Architect Ignacio Marquina’s famous 1951 reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre
Architect Ignacio Marquina’s famous 1951 reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre (Click on image to enlarge)

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, was laid out in a grid pattern, with a network of canals, roads and bridges dividing the land into rectangular plots. The city was split into 4 administrative sectors, one of which - the ‘Teopan’ quarter - contained the main Temple Precinct, the focal point of the entire city. At the centre of the Temple Precinct was the Great Temple (the ‘Great House of Gods’), with its twin shrines to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli sharing a single pyramid.

Model of the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Model of the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

There were temples in each of the four city quarters or sectors, and within each quarter there was a local temple in each of the neighbourhoods or parishes (called calpulli or ‘groups of houses’ by the Aztecs). Building pyramid-temples ( teocalli or ‘house of god(s)’ in Náhuatl) was one of the most important architectural duties for the Aztecs, because of their religious meaning. The pyramids represented mountains - sources of water and fertility and homes of ancient ancestors.

Model of an Aztec temple-pyramid in the patio of the Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City
Model of an Aztec temple-pyramid in the patio of the Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs employed ‘monumental’ architecture - they built to impress! Public buildings such as temples were highly visible structures that could easily be seen by the public. The Spanish were struck by just how the temples stood out: describing 3 Aztec towns just before the conquest, Torquemada wrote that they:-

...had many temples, and very high towers, that were white-washed, that from afar glimmered like silver in the sun, and they ornamented the towns greatly.

Model of Aztec single-temple pyramid, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Model of Aztec single-temple pyramid, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Most Aztec public buildings consisted of stone platforms, or rooms built on top of stone platforms. Professor Michael Smith (who is on our Panel of Experts) classifies these as: double-temple pyramids, single-temple pyramids, circular temples, ballcourts, shrines, and palaces. All Aztec cities, except the most powerful capitals, used the single-temple pyramid as their major temple, and most or all Aztec cities had additional, smaller, single-temple pyramids (in local parishes) in addition to their main temple. Most pictures in the codices are of the single-temple type.

Two representations of single-temple pyramids from the Codex Borgia (plates 14 and 18)
Two representations of single-temple pyramids from the Codex Borgia (plates 14 and 18) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the single-temple pyramid was the Aztec ‘norm’, they varied greatly in size, form and orientation. In most Aztec towns the pyramid temple was the tallest building, standing next to a large open plaza in the town centre; the temple stood out to visitors approaching the town or city and loomed over visitors in the plaza. Most temples faced west, built on the east side of the plaza (main square), with the stairway being approached from the plaza. The staircase then faced west, where the Sun descended into the underworld.

Painting of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias
Painting of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Double-temple pyramids became much more standardised in size and form - probably reflecting their status as the largest and most central temples at the most powerful Aztec capital cities. The most famous of all, of course, is the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, whose plaza could fit 8,000 people. It was the centre point for the four cardinal directions (N,S,E,W), the place where the 5th axis or direction led up to the heavens and down to the underworlds, and where the supreme ruler and his priests communicated with the gods...

An example of a model of the Great Temple, from our School Displays pages
An example of a model of the Great Temple, from our School Displays pages (Click on image to enlarge)

More info:-
• ‘The Aztecs’ by Michael E. Smith
• ‘Aztec City-State Capitals’ by Michael E. Smith
• ‘Handbook to Life in the Aztec World’ by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• ‘Everyday Life of the Aztecs’ by Warwick Bray

Making a temple!
You can find several examples of Aztec temples made by schools studying the Aztecs in our ‘School Displays’ pages (link below). Graciela suggests you may like to start with a set of square cardboard boxes that get smaller and smaller - each must be the same height, but obviously the largest one is the base.
Look at these school displays for starters:-
• Morgans Primary School
• Kettlefield CP School
• St. Peter’s CE Primary School

Picture sources:-
• Reconstruction of Tenochtitlan: scanned from Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951, p.197
• Model of Sacred Precinct: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Model of temple at Frida Kahlo museum: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Model of single-temple pyramid, MNA: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Codex Borgia examples scanned from The Codex Borgia: a Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993
• Painting by Miguel Covarrubias from The Aztecs - People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958
• Model, school display: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Our Aztecs School Display pages

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