In the very center of downtown Mexico City only meters past the Zócalo and Palacio Nacional sits what had been the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, up until the Spaniards destroyed the city in 1521. Although Tenochtitlan and its counterpart at Tlatelolco (now called the Plaza de las Tres Culturas) were major civic-ceremonial centers of the Aztec empire, until fairly recently, the exact location of Tenochtitlan and the Great Temple was unknown. Much has been known about the Aztec capital cities because historians and anthropologists have extensively studied codices produced by the Aztecs and accounts from the 16th century–most notably writings and drawings by friars and soldiers, like Bernardino de Sahagún and Bernal Díaz del Castillo. But the recent re-discovery of Aztec ruins of Tenochtitlan several decades ago provided the physical evidence to support much of what had been gleaned about Aztec religion, culture, and construction from the textual primary sources and open up avenues for further study of Aztec cities.
It wasn’t until February of 1978–when workers for an electricity company were digging to make new lines hit a massive stone object–that Templo Mayor had been located. The electric workers had struck a massive disk (weighing around 9 tons) that depicted a dismembered Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxuahqui, and the discovery of this monumental disk stimulated further archaeological work that eventually uncovered ruins of the temple and several other structures now open to visitors. A colored reproduction of the disk picturing Coyolxuahqui, an object which when re-discovered signaled that the Aztec capital had finally been pinpointed, can be found near the entrance to the ruins. Don’t miss the real disk on display in the site’s museum.
For me, this recent history of archaeological work is part of what makes visiting these ruins so exciting; walking through the ruins, visitors observe workers continuing to excavate, as the site is still actively being investigated. And beyond witnessing important archaeological work still in progress, I find it exciting to imagine how thrilling and fulfilling it must have been for anthropologists and historians studying the Aztecs to have this new rich source of knowledge about the Aztecs at their disposal. From visiting various archaeological sites in Mexico, in Latin America more generally and beyond, I have gotten the sense that most of the “major” ruins of civilizations were discovered around a century ago and have been well-studied (a prime example is Machu Picchu). But Tenochtitlan was perhaps the largest Pre-Columbian city (thought to be home for over 1 million inhabitants at its peak), and is still a fresh subject for study among archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians because of how much has been unveiled since the 1980s.
The structure of Templo Mayor had been central to the Aztec civilization pre-conquest, and because of how it relates to so many of the fundamental components of Aztec culture and religion, a thorough visit to the ruins can be incredibly enlightening (a visit is considerably more informative if you hire a guide). The Aztecs (or more accurately, the Mexica peoples) first founded the city atop a lake in the Valley of Mexico in 1325 as the culmination of a search for a new homeland. Codices indicate that they selected this location because they saw the image of their sun and war god, Huitzilopochtli, above the lake, and he gestured for them to take note of an eagle sitting on a prickly pear cactus and killing an eagle (an image that is preserved in Mexican national identity via the coat of arms on the Mexican flag); the Mexica interpreted this as a signal of where they were to build their great temple, Templo Mayor. Today, the site contains several cactus plants, recalling this story of divine communication and the founding of a metropolis.
Soon following the founding of the city in 1325, construction on this great temple began. The design was essentially a great pyramid topped with two shrines, one dedicated to the sun and war god, Huitzilopochtli, and another dedicated to the water god, Tlaloc. The decoration on the two sides of the pyramid corresponded to the gods, with serpent heads flanking the walls on the side of the shrine to Huitzilopochtli and frog figures represented on the side of Tlaloc.
The pyramid was expanded upon in many phases by subsequent Aztec rulers as a strategy for the new leader to assert his power and commitment to Aztec religion, leaving his mark with grandeur. By the time Cortes encountered the massive structure in 1519, Templo Mayor had undergone 7 phases of enlargement. Observing the ruins today, visitors can distinguish several layers of construction (more easily with the direction of a guide); those that cannot be seen so easily are the seventh layer, which was largely destroyed by Cortes’s forces, and the first layer, which cannot be excavated because of how low it is in relation to the waterbed line of the lakebed that used to comprise this area of the Valley of Mexico.
Other impressive observable features of the archaeological site are several other temples, a recreation of a tzompantli, or skull trophy rack, that was found on the site (the actual skull rack is located in the Templo Mayor museum), a structure called the House of the Eagles that contains benches with original decoration and paint from the 15th century, and ruins of aqueducts that the Aztecs had constructed and were among the first structures to be destroyed by Cortes in his effort to the Aztecs off from resources. These ruins are though to comprise a small fraction of the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, with substantially more ruins of structures (such as ball courts) remaining underneath much of the Zócalo and El Centro. Because all of El Centro Histórico of Mexico City (the historic center in downtown) is protected by UNESCO, these ruins cannot be excavated and the precise layout of the Sacred Precinct will remain a mystery.
Many of the objects discovered in the site have remained near where they were found, with over 6,000 of these objects on display in the museum on the site. The museum collection especially strongly features various objects that were used as offerings. A visit to the museum should include observing two aforementioned objects, the massive skull rack and the disk of Coyolxhuaqui that was discovered in 1978 and led to the re-discovery of Templo Mayor.
But before entering the museum, while still wandering the ruins, try to remember to look up and around you. One of my favorite aspects of these ruins is how visitors can be immersed in the layers of these 14th and 15th century constructions and glance up to see 16th-18th century colonial structures, 19th century buildings, and even modern businesses. Seeing the Catedral Metropolitana in the same view as several layers of Templo Mayor serves as a potent visual reminder of how Aztec religion and culture has deeply informed contemporary notions of Mexican national identity. And the fact that Cortes ordered the capital of the Spanish settlement to be built right atop Tenochtitlan importantly recalls and reflects the dynamics of Spanish colonialism and the desire to suppress the influence of Aztec religion and impose Catholicism and uncontested Spanish rule.
Additional Info to Plan a Visit
As mentioned above, I would highly recommend hiring a guide to explain what you are seeing as you explore the ruins. There are many placards in the site, but the guides tell the more complete story and give more context about Aztec religious beliefs and how these guided construction of most elements of the temple. It can also be difficult to see the 7 layers of the temple without a guide to point out each discernible layer. To find a guide, approach Templo Mayor from the Zócalo, and when you are beside the Catedral Metropolitana and in front of the Templo Mayor entrance, you will find guides advertising their services. They typically cost around $200-350 pesos for a 45 minute – 1 hour tour. Both times I have gone I have used a guide and it greatly enhanced the experience (even though I have taken courses on Aztec religion and studied Templo Mayor, having someone to point out the things I studied and reminding me of the stories made the visits more satisfying). This last time I visited my guide was incredibly informed and even cited specific knowledge about the Aztec temple and what source (e.g. which codex or friar) first wrote about or visually represented this element of the temple or Aztec culture.
If you are also going to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, it may be overkill to dedicate more than 30 minutes or so to the museum at Templo Mayor. Seeing the real disk of Coyolxuahqui is something you should do, and the tzompantli is also fascinating but the focus of your visit should be on the ruins themselves (they are quite spectacular) with a quick visit to the museum to see select things of interest.
The site and museum are open Tuesday – Sunday 9am-5pm.