The remains of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Mexica (Aztec) empire, today lie buried beneath Mexico City. The palaces and temples that greeted Cortez and his soldiers are gone and in their place is a teeming city with its own palaces and temples, including the Metropolitan Cathedral that dominates the Zocalo, the immense central plaza of Mexico's capital.

Adjacent to the Cathedral is the excavated Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán, glimpsed here through a window of the magnificent museum that houses finds from the temple.

In 1978 workmen digging a trench for an electricity cable northeast of the Cathedral found a monumental stone disk carved with the image of the dismembered goddess Coyolxauhqui. According to legend, when Coyolxauhqui was killed on the summit of Coatepec by Huitzilopochtli, her beheaded body was torn apart when it fell down the mountainside. A monument to Coyolxauhqui, thus, would be expected to be found at the foot of a "mountain," that is to say a temple. Excavation soon revealed huge serpent heads, which turned out to flank stairways to the temple top where, as might be expected, there was a shrine to Huitzilopochtli. The Templo Mayor had been found—and in the following years large parts of the sacred precinct over which the Temple presided were revealed.


In the museum, a model of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlán provides some small idea of the splendor that bedazzled the Spaniards in the 16th century. With as many as 300,000 inhabitants, the Mexica capital was one of the largest cities in the world, rivaling Paris and Constantinople. It was certainly the largest, the most sumptuous, and—with its bloody religion—the most blasphemous city the Spaniards had ever seen.

Like most mesoamerican temples and pyramids, the Templo Mayor was constructed over many years by many rulers in many stages. Begun in 1390 ("2 Rabbit") the Temple eventually was (re)built in seven distinct stages with numerous enlargements.

Two shrines, part of the second phase of the Templo Mayor's construction (about 1400), were dedicated to the rain god, Tlaloc, and the war god, Huitzilopochtli. They were small structures covered with murals. According to the signage near the shrines, ancient documents reported that they were very tall and that (1) the Tlaloc shrine had conch shell sculptures on the parapet while (2) Huitzilopochtli's upper portion was filled with stone skulls painted white with butterflies above.

The drawing above, which appears on the signage for the Templo Mayor, actually depicts the main temple of Texcoco, one of the cities, with Tenochtitlán and Tlacopán, that composed the Triple Alliance. It is an illustration for a 1582 document written by a descendent of one of the Texcoco rulers. (Click here for more information.)

The bulk of the Templo Mayor remains unexcavated below the level of today's Mexico City. Thus, visitors are able to stand on the platform next to the shrines on the top. Here, next to the Tlaloc shrine (solid block at far right below) is a choc-mool with original color that bears attributes of Tlaloc. The colorful Tlaloc image, which appears on signage near the shrine, is from the Codex Magliabecchiano. Tlaloc is usually colored blue.

To the north of the Templo Mayor is a religious building known as the House of the Eagles. The life-size ceramic sculpture of an Eagle Warrior is one of two that stood with Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death. The figures of the god and the warriors had been drenched with human blood during an elaborate ceremony that "closed" the sacred building before construction began on enlarging it.

Benches built into the lower part of walls at the House of the Eagles retain the bright color of their bas reliefs, which reflect Toltec influences from four centuries earlier.

Altar of the Frogs. According to the signage, frogs' croaking announced the beginning of the rainy season during which a month-long fiesta honoring the maize goddess occurred. Frogs were dressed in blue (like Tlaloc), sacrificed, and cooked.

The Tzompantli (Skull Rack) Altar, north of the Templo Mayor, is faced on its rear and sides with 240 stone skulls covered with white stucco. This altar is different, of course, from the actual skull rack, which held rows of flayed human skulls.

Here now are a few random images from the very fine Museo del Templo Mayor. Explore the museum's website for all sorts of information about the temple and about Tenochtitlan in general.

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