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Part 17 Part 19

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (18)

The Templo Mayor

Dramatis Personae


photo by DKJ
This beautiful bronze fountain at the site of the Templo Mayor is a scale model of Tenochtitlan at its height. This view looks south towards the great plaza in the middle, with an imitation of it at Tlatelolco, closer to the camera. The great boulevards and causeways stand out in white.

The year of the Tarascan debacle (1478) saw the death of Emperor 6 and his succession by his brother Tízoc ("pricked leg") as Emperor 7. With Tízoc, the imperial expansion paused to some extent, and energies were focused instead on other projects. One of these was the expansion of the temple to Huitzilo-póchtli and its complex. Although most of the complex was eventually covered by later buildings, archaeologists have exposed a small portion of the base of the pyramids beside the cathedral in Mexico City, confirming the scale and magnificence of the project.

Tízoc, with his rather weak record of conquest, seems to have inspired a good deal of distrust among the Aztec leadership, and he died under mysterious circumstances after a reign of about ten years. He was followed by his younger brother Ahuítzotl ("water porcupine," Emperor 8), apparently assisted, like his predecessors, by Woman Snake Tlacahélel. Ahuítzotl continued the enlargement of the temple without interruption.

Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
The Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan was dominated by the double pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli facing the circular temple of Quetzalcoatl in his manifestation as god of the wind, Ehecatl. The tzompantli is on the same alignment in the lower, right-hand corner of this picture.

However, Ahuítzotl's first task was, as usual, to put down rebellions, and perhaps because of Tízoc's relatively restricted military adventurism, there were more of them to be taken on than usual. One approach to reducing rebellion, perhaps advised by Tlacahélel, was a further expansion in the scale of human sacrifice.

The population of Tenochtítlan had been growing, supported by the wealth acquired by force from surrounding peoples. A second aqueduct was built to bring fresh water to the city, but it was also deemed desirable to encourage people to move out to other areas, and a new approach to warfare can be seen. Rather than killing only the warriors defending cities that were attacked, the Aztec armies now destroyed the entire population, making room for migrants from the Valley of Mexico to resettle. (A few adults were sometimes saved to be sacrificed later, and children were usually saved to be sold as slaves or used as later sacrifices.)

It is not clear when Tlacahélel died. The mostly likely date was sometime early in 1487, about five years before Columbus set forth from Europe in the hope of reaching India by sailing across the Atlantic. The same year saw the dedication of the forth and final enlargement of the great double pyramid complex at the center of Tenochtítlan (with the beautiful new Coyol-xáuhqui stone). It was a grand occasion, with thousands —some sources say hundreds of thousands— of young men killed on the sacrificial stone at the top.

33. A similar but earlier structure at the "Toltec-influenced" site of Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán reminds us that skull racks were not an Aztec invention; but rather, that the Aztecs built upon these and other traditions already present in Mexico.

The temple and central ceremonial complex (today called the Templo Mayor) which were dedicated at that time were to be the final enlargement, the same one that Spanish visitors saw (and eventually dismantled), and the one represented by most of the foundations visible today. It included a palace compound (where the presidential office building now stands), priestly quarters and schools, and various temples, including a round one (about where the Cathedral now is) dedicated to Quetzal-cóatl, the feathered serpent, in his manifestation as a god of the wind. Nearby stood a tzompantli ("wall of heads") or skull rack, where row upon row of the heads of sacrificial victims were displayed using long poles pushed through holes broken into their sides. The base of this, decorated with carved skulls, still survives. [Note 33]

photo by DKJ
Heads of at least some sacrificial victims were removed and their skulls eventually displayed on a tzompantli or "wall of heads." the stone base of the tzompantli of Tenochtitlan was covered with crude sculptures of skulls. Below is a modern tzompantli, from Tijuana, with papier-maché skulls instead of real ones.
photo by DKJ

The most imposing structure was, as it had always been, the soaring double pyramid dedicated to Tláloc and to Huitzilo-póchtli. Mesoamerican pyramids, although sometimes containing tombs, were principally high platforms atop which rituals could be performed, either in open view, or behind the walls of a small temple chamber. Some anthropologists have used the term "theatre state" to describe governments that depend for their legitimacy upon their performance of dramatic rituals, and the term is especially appropriate when at least parts of these rituals are visible to the public. The pageantry of the Aztec régime was very much centered upon the human sacrifices performed at many towns, but especially upon the great pyramids of Tenochtítlan.

At the dedication of this great "bigger and better" central temple complex, the leaders of allied and enemy states were invited to Tenochtítlan to view the festivities, sitting behind a screen so that hoi polloi could not see that "enemies" were sitting with their leaders to observe the spectacle.

The leaders of Tenochtítlan were surely perfectly aware that much of their power lay in their ability to intimidate, and that may have lain behind the invitation to enemy leaders. The little town of Teloloh-ápan ("in the river of pebbles"), to the southwest of Tenochtítlan, declined to send a representative to the great event, and an Aztec army immediately descended upon the place and liquidated all of its inhabitants. The same thing happened to other towns that did not send representatives to view the days of sacrifice, including Oztóman, a heavily fortified town on the edge of Tarascan lands that had apparently hoped (vainly) to have Tarascan protection.


Templo Mayor Museum Exhibit
To mount them on the tzompantli, skulls had holes bashed in the side.
photo by DKJ
The picture is from a scale model at Tijuana's (extinct) Mexitlan exhibit.

In the years following the dedication of the last phase of the great temple, the Aztec armies penetrated into new areas. Towns in Oaxaca were destroyed and resettled. The Pacific Coast was conquered from modern Zacatula to modern Acapulco. And by century's end, as Europeans were landing in the Caribbean, the Aztecs had crossed the Isthsmus of Tehuantépec and established their authority in Xoconoxco (modern Soconusco, where Mexico meets Guatemala along the Pacific coast).

34. By comparison, at about the same time Paris was about half again the size of Tenochtítlan, London and Seville were each about half as large as the Aztec capital.

Emperor 9, Moteuczóma Xocóyotl ("the younger frowning lord") (or Moteuczóma Xocoyótzin or Moteuczóma II), the emperor we know in English as "Montezuma," came to the throne in 1503. It was not an easy year, for Tenochtítlan, now a city of between 150,000 and 200,000 people, [Note 34] or for the Valley of Mexico, now home to between a million and a million and a half people, for the dikes and waterworks failed and the lake flooded.

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