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Mexico: Templo Mayor

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Templo Mayor | Mexico | Americas

[Visited: December 2014]

It is a bright winter afternoon, just days before Christmas, when I walk onto the vast Zócalo. It looks smaller than usual: there are two skating rinks on which Mexicans try out skates, and there is an artificial hill where people can try sledding on artificial snow. Then, there are many shops around, and when I walk towards the entrance of Templo Mayor, it is almost impossible to make my way forward through the thick crowd. To my surprise, when I reach the entrance, I see few people down at the ruins, so I buy my ticket and enter into history. I am at the southwestern side of the temple complex, and thanks to the clear explanation panels everywhere, I quickly gather a deeper insight into the history of the temple, and its recovery in recent decades, leaving me always more impressed.

Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Serpent head and toads at the steps of the west side of Templo Mayor

First to catch my eyes, are the serpent head sculptures sticking out of walls that seem to be capsizing. Actually, Templo Mayor was first built in the early 14th century, and expanded six times after that. Together with the bland soil under the temple, no wall is standing straight. Perhaps the fact that the temple was hidden in the ground for several centuries helped preserve it? Fact is, that when the Spanish conquistadores led by Hernán Cortes reached Tenochtitlan, as Mexico City was then called by the Aztecs, Templo Mayor was the foremost place of worship for the Aztecs. According to legend, it was constructed precisely at the spot where the god Huitzilpochtli indicated the Mexica people (the Aztecs) was their promised land. It consisted of two major pyramids dedicated to Huitzilpochtli, god of war and sun, and Tlaloc, god of water and agriculture, as well as many other, smaller, buildings. At around 30 metres in height, they must have been impressive. Nothing remains of the pyramids: the 7th temple was destroyed by the Spanish, who considered the Aztec religion blasphemy. They built a Spanish-style city on top of the Templo Mayor, built a church nearby, and for centuries, the Templo Mayor was forgotten under the ground.

Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Chacmool, reclining figure with bent knees and bowl on its stomach, on the shrine of Tlaloc

In the 19th century, various people started to wonder where the Templo Mayor was located exactly. For a long time, it was assumed the Spanish had built their church on top of the temple, but there were also theories it was located a little to the northeast. It was only in 1978, when workers of the electric company were digging in the soil, that they stumbled upon a massive stone disc. It showed the goddess Coyolxauhqui, dismembered by her brother Huitzilpochtli, and the find would spark excavations that still continue to this very day. I walk the ruins, where in some parts you can clearly see the layers of various stages of the temple complex. There are the serpent heads and toads, there is a chacmool, guardian statue on a shrine for Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. There is the House of the Eagles, with surprisingly well preserved sections of the interior, with brightly coloured paint still on them. There are other shrines and buildings, with skulls, with red paint, with statues. And to top it all off, there is the very interesting museum of the Templo Mayor, full of artifacts found at the excavations, as well as explanations on the history of the temple, its symbolism, its value for the Aztecs, the lack of respect shown by the Spanish conquistadores, and its re-discovery. The history of the museum can be seen from the entrance of the museum which is located more or less where the mighty pyramids once stood: the ruins lay in front of you; in the background, the colossal cathedral on the Zócalo, only marginally higher than those pyramids once were.

Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Brightly coloured decorations on a banquette in the Casa de las Aguilas
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Casa de las Aguilas with eagle heads at the northern side of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Coyolxauhqui goddess dismembered; finding this huge disc triggered the excavations of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Brazier in the museum of the Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Serpent heads on a wall of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Ruins of Templo Mayor in the foreground, cathedral in the background
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Statue with a stare in the museum of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Two rows of stairs at the Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Brazier of Tlaloc on display in the museum of the Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Carved face on display in the museum of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): The Altar Tzompantli consists of rows of skulls on its outer walls
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Detail of the delicate mosaic of Turquoise Disc, dated to Phase VI of Templo Mayor
Picture of Templo Mayor (Mexico): Skulls, jewelry, and small statues were among the objects found in graves

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