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The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC TEMPLES

Aztec temples were more than buildings dedicated to prayer – from their very foundation blocks to the murals on their walls, these incredible structures represented the Aztecs’ vision of the world... (Written by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Some of the steps in ancient Mesoamerican temple-pyramid design
Pic 1: Some of the steps in ancient Mesoamerican temple-pyramid design (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec temples were usually found at the top of pyramids and they are often called temple-pyramids. Designed using ancient Mesoamerican architectural traditions that went back thousands of years (pic 1), temple-pyramids were tall structures forming four main platforms, with grand stairways running up one side; you can see them in the picture above, which comes from an old Aztec book, the Codex Ixtlilxochitl.

Pic 2: Cholula pyramid, Puebla, Mexico
Pic 2: Cholula pyramid, Puebla, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Temple-pyramids were used for religious ceremonies and sacrifice. One of the largest pyramids in the world is at Cholula, near Mexico City. Picture 2 shows the part of the pyramid that has been uncovered by archaeologists. In fact, the pyramid goes right to the top of the hill and the church you can see is built on top of it, exactly where the temple would have been!

Pic 3: Reconstruction by Ignacio Marquina of the ancient site of Cuicuilco
Pic 3: Reconstruction by Ignacio Marquina of the ancient site of Cuicuilco (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs believed their pyramids were the homes of their gods and places of worship. Burials have been found within their walls, and the pyramids were also used to perform rituals of sacrifice. Being ziggurats (pyramids with flat tops), pyramids from the Americas (including those of the Aztecs) were located inside busy cities, and were centres of regular worship and festivities, as well as centres of astrology and astronomy. This was unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built exclusively as the tombs of kings, and resting places of the dead.

Pic 4: A colonial Aztec illustration of the mythological sacred mountain Coatépec, where the god Huitzilopochtli was born. Coatépec means Coatl (snake) and Tepetl (mountain). Do you see the snake inside the mountain?
Pic 4: A colonial Aztec illustration of the mythological sacred mountain Coatépec, where the god Huitzilopochtli was born. Coatépec means Coatl (snake) and Tepetl (mountain). Do you see the snake inside the mountain? (Click on image to enlarge)

What did temple-pyramids mean to the Aztecs?
When the Spanish conquistadors first arrived in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, they were astounded by the huge pyramid they found at its centre. One Spanish soldier described it as a ‘lofty pyramid’. Instead the Aztecs called it Coatépec, which means Serpent Mountain (today we call it the Great Temple). Coatépec was the mythological mountainside birthplace of the Mexicas’ patron god, Huitzilopochtli (the Mexica were a powerful Aztec tribe). This place was, in the Aztec imagination, a great mountain and the heart of their identity (pic 4).

Pic 5: A famous reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre, by Ignacio Marquina
Pic 5: A famous reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre, by Ignacio Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

So you see, temple-pyramids were not just visually awesome, they symbolised the very essence of the Aztec nation and were centres where people went to worship their nation’s gods, ancestors and history.

Pic 6: Plan of Tenochtitlan’s sacred precinct, now buried under Mexico City’s main square, Cathedral and National Palace. Coatépec, Tenochtitlan’s largest pyramid, is at the back
Pic 6: Plan of Tenochtitlan’s sacred precinct, now buried under Mexico City’s main square, Cathedral and National Palace. Coatépec, Tenochtitlan’s largest pyramid, is at the back (Click on image to enlarge)

Like many other Mesoamerican civilisations, the Aztecs prided themselves on their knowledge of architecture and engineering, and their city centres often included a special area, called the ‘sacred precinct’, which housed palaces, lodgings for the highest ranking warriors, temples, ball courts, and great squares (pic 6). Surrounding neighbourhoods also had their own temples, market places, and schools.

Pic 7: Four Aztec priests transport their god Huitzilopochtli (Left-Hand Humming Bird). He is in the bundle on the far right with his beak sticking out!
Pic 7: Four Aztec priests transport their god Huitzilopochtli (Left-Hand Humming Bird). He is in the bundle on the far right with his beak sticking out! (Click on image to enlarge)

Amongst all religious shrines, temple-pyramids were prized as the homes of Aztec gods as well as long-departed human ancestors. This is partly because the Aztecs’ ancestors had journeyed together with their gods on a long and dangerous pilgrimage in search of their ‘promised land’, Tenochtitlan. Picture 7 shows the Aztecs carrying Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec patron god) with them on their journey. He is wrapped up in a special ‘sacred bundle’, and carried by his priests.

Pic 8: Model of an Aztec single-temple pyramid, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 8: Model of an Aztec single-temple pyramid, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Three types of pyramid were constructed by the Aztecs, the Twin Stair Pyramid, the Single Stair Pyramid (pic 8), and the Round Pyramid. Twin and Single Stair Pyramids were four-sided constructions with a single or double staircase on one side. This staircase always faced West, which the Aztecs believed was the place where the sun descended into the underworld. These pyramids were comprised of four main platforms and a final fifth level containing one or two temples. The temples were set back from the stairs and impossible to see from ground level. This gave the illusion that the temples were in the heavens...

Pic 9: Virtual model of the Aztecs’ Great Temple. It illustrates stages 3-6 of the pyramid’s construction. Archaeologists cannot reach the first level because it is below Mexico City’s water line
Pic 9: Virtual model of the Aztecs’ Great Temple. It illustrates stages 3-6 of the pyramid’s construction. Archaeologists cannot reach the first level because it is below Mexico City’s water line (Click on image to enlarge)

Temple-pyramids went on for ever...
Most pyramids started as small platforms made of organic materials such as clay and wood. Over time, as the Aztecs became more powerful and wealthy, bigger pyramids were built right on top of the old ones! Rebuilding pyramids was important because larger, more glorious temples would honour the gods and, hopefully, make them happier. Many beautiful offerings to the gods have been found within the layers of pyramids. Picture 9 shows the stages of construction of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Some pyramids were seven layers deep!

Pic 10: The wind god’s temple at Calixtlahuaca, Toluca. The conical roof is missing because it was made from grasses and wood
Pic 10: The wind god’s temple at Calixtlahuaca, Toluca. The conical roof is missing because it was made from grasses and wood (Click on image to enlarge)

Round pyramids were less common, but used across the Aztec empire. Smaller than conventional pyramids, they had stairs up to a round temple with a cone-shaped roof. Round pyramids were dedicated to one god, Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) when he represented the Wind (Ehécatl). The round shape of the pyramid was meant to help gusts of wind flow easily around it. Imagine the wind god arriving at his temple in a rush of air!

Pic 11: The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, illustrated by Aztec writers in the sixteenth century
Pic 11: The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, illustrated by Aztec writers in the sixteenth century (Click on image to enlarge)

What were temple-pyramids used for?
- As centres of worship, religious schools, astronomical observatories, sacrificial centres, and as the focal point of regular religious festivities involving the whole community. The Aztecs dedicated their temples to gods. Did you notice (top picture) that the two temples on top of the Great Temple are decorated differently? They were dedicated to different gods - Tlaloc (left) and Huitzilopochtli (right), so the temple roofs had special symbols that belonged to the gods they represented (pic 11).

Pic 12: Tlaloc pot, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 12: Tlaloc pot, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Temple offerings
Archaeologists are constantly finding incredible artefacts inside the layers of Aztec temple-pyramids. Offerings to the gods were placed in these buildings at every stage of their construction. Here are a couple of the most prized objects found so far...
Pic 12 shows a beautiful pot dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc, excavated at the Great Temple in Mexico City.

Pic 13: Coyolxauhqui stone, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 13: Coyolxauhqui stone, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

This stone (pic 13) was found at the base of the Great Temple. It’s a sculpture of Coyolxauhqui, Huitzilopochtli’s crafty sister. She plotted to kill him, but he fought her and tore her body apart. This offering would have been made to Huitzilopochtli as he represented war and the sun, whereas his conquered sister represented the moon. It was probably placed at the base of the Great Temple’s steps, where the bodies of those sacrificed in Huitzilopochtli’s honour would have landed when thrown from his temple-top. Grim!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 31st 2015

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