If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Unearthing the Aztec past, the destruction of the Templo Mayor

The Templo Mayor, a key Aztec temple, was destroyed and buried by the Spaniards during their conquest. Today, its remains reveal seven layers of construction, each by a different ruler. The temple was dedicated to two main Aztec deities, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. Despite its destruction, Mexico continues to discover and protect its cultural heritage. 
Unearthing the Aztec past, the destruction of the Templo Mayor (Mexico City) Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're standing in the middle of Mexico City in what was once the sacred precinct of the Aztecs. And we're looking at the ruins of the Templo Mayor, their main temple. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] When you are on site at the Templo Mayor today, it can be a bit disorienting, because the temple itself is not complete anymore. It was destroyed and buried by the Spaniards with the conquest. And so what you see today are the remains of this temple. - [Dr. Zucker] And we've just walked up this ramp that has taken us through layer after layer of seven building campaigns. These were undertaken by succeeding rulers. The previous temple would be filled over with dirt and stone rubble and then encased in a finished stone structure, a larger pyramid which would be then surfaced with stucco and brightly painted, and then decorated with an enormous number of sculptural forms. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] We get a good sense of how the Templo Mayor would have looked to the Spanish when they arrived here in 1519. The Templo Mayor was a twin temple, devoted to the Aztecs two main deities. Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and a sun god. And the god Tlaloc, who was a rain and agricultural deity. And so the Templo Mayor was part of this larger sacred precinct that included a variety of buildings, including temples to other important deities, like the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl, or to the Sun disk, Tonatiuh. So when Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador arrived here in 1519, he and many of the men with him were incredibly impressed with what they were seeing. They were overwhelmed with the beauty of Tenochtitlan, or the Aztec capital city. One of the soldiers with Cortés wrote about his experiences. He says this, "we saw so many cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed, on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water. And all built of masonry, and some of our soldiers asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream." - [Dr. Zucker] So let's describe for just a moment what the Spanish must have seen when they first arrived. They saw a huge double staircase that rose steeply up, and then at the top a large platform, with twin temples on the top. In order to get to the temples, you would have passed by on the right a stone altar, and on the left, a sculptural figure that showed an individual on his back with a bowl over his belly. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And this is what's called chacmool, and both this individual and the sacrificial stone that you would have passed were likely used during many of the ritual ceremonies that took place during the monthly festivals. Unfortunately today, much of what was once the sacred precinct is underneath modern day Mexico City. Underneath buildings that are still standing. - [Dr. Zucker] Such as the cathedral of the City of Mexico. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And the Plaza Mayor or the Zócalo. All of these would have been part of the sacred precinct, or the area just immediately surrounding it. - [Dr. Zucker] We've gone inside to look at reconstructions of the Templo Mayor. The temple was intentionally destroyed. It wasn't transformed the way that for instance, a catholic church might be transformed into a protestant church. This is the actual destruction of the most sacred temple, in the most sacred part of the capital city of the Aztecs. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] Even though we have all these accounts written by Spaniards, who were commenting how beautiful and amazing it was, they still raized much of the city, in particular the sacred precinct. And what we do find then is the building on top of many of these structures using the stones that had been part of these Aztec buildings. - [Dr. Zucker] And the violence wasn't just perpetrated on the people and the buildings of Tenochtitlan, but other kinds of symbols. For instance sculptures were intentionally toppled, or buried. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] And you have sculptures that are then recarved into columns. You have sculptures made by the Spaniards, for Christian purposes that were clearly once Aztec sacred objects. So objects like Cuauhxicalli, receptacles for blood or various implements for sacrifice were sometimes transformed into baptismal fonts. And if we look at the Metropolitan Cathedral, the main cathedral in the Zócalo in Mexico City, we know that some of the stones from the Templo Mayor were reused in its initial construction. - [Dr. Zucker] So this is a physical expression of the spiritual and political conquest. This needs to be understood within a broader context of the reconquest. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] The Reconquista, the reconquest in Spain, is when we're talking about Spaniards who are trying to reconquer the Iberian peninsula from Muslims. Who had taken over much of the peninsula in the eighth century. So the reconquest ends in 1492, shortly before their coming to the Americas and coming into contact with people like the Aztecs. You can see for instance the Great Mosque of Cordoba, with a Christian church built into the center of the building as this sign of both political and spiritual conquest. - [Dr. Zucker] But in that case, they left the great majority of the mosque, and simply built a church in the center. Here, we have almost a complete destruction of the sacred precinct. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] If you go to Mexico City today, you can see ongoing excavations of parts of what had been the sacred precinct. Mexico is very protective of its cultural heritage. You have organizations like INAH, who are responsible for these excavations and the protection of these important sites. And so, say a building is going to be taken down and something new built on top of it, or if they are constructing subway lines, INAH has the responsibility to send in archeologists to see if there is anything there that is part of this Meso-American cultural heritage. - [Dr. Zucker] And new things are being discovered regularly, this awareness of the value of Mexico's cultural history goes back even to the colonial period. Where you have an increasing recognition of what was lost. - [Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank] During the colonial period you have Spaniards born in the Americas known as Americanos or Criollos, Creoles. And as we're progressing throughout the colonial period, they're becoming increasingly interested in the Meso-American past as a way to separate themselves from Spaniards on the Iberian peninsula. - [Dr. Zucker] And then in the post-colonial period, after Mexico wins independence, we see this interest most visibly in the 1920s, in the 1930s, in the great mural paintings of artists like Diego Rivera. So modern Mexico City is a complex layering of modern and pre-colonial history. Imagine what we'll find in the future. (jazz music)