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7.16: Aztec Templo Mayor (1326 CE (first version))

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  • The Aztec Templo Mayor, located in Tenochtitlan, is what is today, Mexico City, Mexico. The Templo Mayor (7.64), was in the Aztec’s capital and one of their principal temples. The tradition passed down declares the god Huitzilopochtli gave the people in Tenochtitlan the sign of an eagle sitting on a nopal cactus with a snake hanging out of his mouth. This sign indicated the Aztecs needed to erect the great temple where they found the eagle perched on the cactus. The different levels of the temple are based on the cosmology of the Aztecs. The levels aligned with the cardinal directions where the gates connect to the roads. The area around the temple was 4,000 square meters, all surrounded by a wall.

    Templo Mayor model recreated
    7.64 Templo Mayor model recreated

    The temple was dedicated to two major gods: Huitzilopochtli, the god of rain and agriculture, and Tlaloc, the god of war. Each of the gods had a separate staircase to reach the shrine at the top. Both pyramids were crowned with two shrines representing their gods, the twin pyramids symbolizing the two sacred mountains in the surrounding area. The spire in the center of the square was devoted to Quetzalcoatl in the form of the Ehecatl, the wind god. Construction began on the first temple around 1326 CE then rebuilt six more times after various wars, or natural catastrophes destroyed it. The last temple had two pyramids with four sloped terraces and a passageway between each level for access to both temples. Only the priests and sacrificial victims used the sacred stairways.

    7.65 Serpent
    7.66 Frogs

    The third temple built by Itzcoatl in 1427 CE included a set of divine warriors guarding the temple's upper shrines. Montezuma ruled when the fourth temple was built between 1440 and 1481, and the Aztecs were primarily in the apex of their civilization, and available resources and labor to construct elaborate sculptures and carved decorations. Montezuma ordered a pair of undulating serpents (7.65) to be carved up the spiraling stairs, in the middle of the shrine was a set of giant sculpted frogs (7.66).

    7.67 Skulls

    The temple was finished and occupied when the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan, proceeding to eventually destroy the Aztec population with disease and warfare, destroying the temple. During excavations of the temple in the 20th century, they found large numbers of stone urns, slab boxes, small bells, and gems thought to be offerings stored in the structure for sacrifices. A few structures still survive, including a panel with rows of skulls (7.67) covered over with stucco, two life-sized Aztec warriors made of clay, and a stone eagle where sacrificial victims hearts were places.

    Civilizations ebb and flow depending upon natural resources, military power, and climate change. In this chapter, we have seen many civilizations rise and fall, and they all seem to have the same predicaments and collapse regardless of where in the world they are located; climate change, disease, and warfare from neighboring civilizations or invading armies. Although civilizations collapse, new civilizations rise from the ashes. In the next chapter, we enter the Renaissance or “rebirth” of the world.