by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells
It was late morning and the air was still cool and refreshing as my girlfriend, Fernanda, and I walked through the historic center of Mexico City. I had not expected the weather to be so fair, and in truth there would would be the dry, white sun to contend with shortly. But in the shade of the decaying colonial structures around us, it was very pleasant. The interiors of these buildings were made up in modern styles for the tourists, but the facades betrayed every bit of their declined elegance. The old homes and businesses were grey or red or blue and rose abruptly from varying distances and angles from the street, the structures so old and quirky they felt like natural formations. In their shadows, it felt like we were passing through a cavern. Well… a cavern with a skylight.
It was all really exotic to me, and on top of that, the streets were packed with people who were heading towards the National Plaza where thousands were gathering to watch Mexico play Brazil in the World Cup. For the viewing pleasure of these masses, three enormous screens had been erected among the old seats of government — grand and impressive buildings whose facades had once been a purer off-white but had since been corrupted by dirt and grime into a shade of gray. In these surroundings, the screens didn’t seem at all out of place because the game was as much a symbol of national pride as any politician. Perhaps more so.
It was our first international trip together. Fernanda is Brazilian, and of course she wanted to stay and watch the game a little, but I was much more excited about something else. I’ve studied Latin American history in college for years. It’s my favorite subject. Earlier on the trip, we had visited the ancient city of Teotihuacán, one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Americas, and the Museo Nacional de Antropología, which holds some of the finest collections of Mexican indigenous artifacts in the world — artifacts from the Aztec and Mayan cultures and many other civilizations history books have chosen to forget. We had even seen the palace of the Emperors of Mexico, lording over the city from atop a mountain, its grounds adorned with grim-faced marble statues of men holding machetes, the men who had helped bring an end to that decadent age. But all the amazing things we had seen did not compare to the place we were about to visit: the Templo Mayor.
Forgetting my usual policy of early relationship affability, I insisted we press on, past the crowded plaza and cheering fans, past the gloomy cathedral the Spanish had placed at the head of the plaza, to what looked like a pile of rocks huddled behind a fence. This, the old pyramid’s foundations, was all that remained of the most important religious site in Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital city of the Aztec Empire. The conquistador Hernando Cortéz and his men had been efficient in their practice of dismantling the structures of the old city and using the stones to build the new Spanish capital. Of course, by the time he had captured Tenochtitlan for the second and final time, most of the buildings had been destroyed by the cannon balls with which Cortéz had bombarded the city into submission.
But there was still much left to see. Portions of the lower parts of the walls were preserved, rising about twenty feet in the air in all directions and angles. If the Spanish city felt like a cavern, the Templo Mayor looked more like a windswept, craggy range of mountains, like those found in the Antarctic. The unnatural angles were created by people plundering the architecture for building materials over the years since the fall of Tenochtitlan. I got a cold impression from that place, even with the white sun burning the back of my neck.
We approached what was left of the two stairways that had originally led up to the two shrines at the head of the temple. One shrine was for Huitzilopochtli, the sun god and another was for Tlaloc, the god of rain and thunderstorms. Today, the stairs rise about 20 feet before ending abruptly in crumbly, eroded peaks. Originally, they would have ascended 300 feet. At the base of these stairs, we were greeted by serpents’ heads carved at the foot of the stairways on either side — Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, whom Cortéz was mistaken for by King Moctezuma. This case of mistaken identity is why Cortéz and his men were able to march unimpeded into the city. Many of Moctezuma’s commanders and trusted officials had advised against it, saying the Spanish should be treated like an enemy, but the emperor disagreed and all must obey the emperor.
In an alcove carved out behind one of the staircases, there was a stone medallion depicting the dismembered body of a woman. The woman was Coyolxauhqui, the older sister of Huitzilopochtli. According to the myth, Coyolxauhqui became angry when she learned that her mother would have a baby, so she allied with her hundreds of brothers and sisters and plotted to kill both mother and child. Huitzilopochtli heard this plan from his mother’s womb, so he made himself emerge a full-grown warrior and killed his sister. Then he chopped her body up and threw her pieces down a hillside.
For the ancient Egyptians, pyramids were meant for burial, but for the Aztec, pyramids were stages — platforms raised high above the plaza so spectators could gather and see the rituals being performed at the top. On the Templo Mayor, in front of the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, it is believed priests would reenact the story of Coyolxauhqui by decapitating prisoners and rolling their bodies down the steps of the pyramid. The bodies would come to rest near the medallion depicting the goddess whose story their sacrifice symbolized.
But why was the medallion behind the staircase? Over time, the Aztec kings added onto the temple as a show of their success and of their devotion to the gods. They would build a new shell right over the old pyramid. With the top gone, now the structure looks a bit like those Russian nesting dolls, with one facade, one staircase and one medallion behind another. There are seven layers of facades, and inside those, in the center of the structure, is the very first temple, magnificently preserved. It’s a stunted-looking pyramid from the early days of the city.
Near the temple, a few other structures are preserved, including the House of Eagles, where members of the order of Eagle Warriors would gather for rituals, some of which involved human sacrifice. There are beautiful stone benches lining the walls, whose intricate relief images still bear their original paint. Archaeologists have found traces of what could be blood on these benches. It has been argued that auto-sacrifice was practiced there. Men would sit and let their own blood as a sign of devotion to their gods.
Obviously, there was a lot of violence and bloodshed within the Aztec Empire. Human sacrifices usually would have been prisoners of war. The Aztec were known to start “flower wars” in which they would engage another city in combat for the sole purpose of capturing warriors for sacrifice. In order to become an Eagle Warrior, one had to capture a certain number of prisoners in two consecutive battles. The capture of prisoners was believed to be vital to the future of the kingdom. The Aztec gods required blood. For them, blood was kind of like Gatorade; it gave them energy do perform the celestial duties. Without blood, the sun would not rise, the winds would not blow and life would end. Within the remaining walls of the Templo Mayor, archaeologists have found sacrificial victims from other cultures around Mexico, buried with objects related to their society. These burial caches were meant to symbolize that Huitzilopochtli, the most important Aztec god, held dominion over all the peoples of Mexico. This brutal practice was one of the reasons that Cortéz was able to gather a massive army of indigenous warriors with which to fight the Aztec. The empire had made many enemies.
But besides all the violence and bloodshed, the Aztec were a highly innovative society. The air is rather dry in Central Mexico, and for that reason Lake Texcoco, the lake in which the Island City of Tenochtitlan was built, was a salt lake. However, the Aztec were able to create areas of freshwater by building dams between the areas where freshwater was coming down from the mountains and the briny water in the rest of the lake. Also related to the importance of water is the fact that the Valley of Mexico was filled with many cities and cultures at the time, and there was a fair amount of competition for arable land.
One of the ways the Aztec helped solve the need for more land was to build chinampas, basically islands of rich soil dredged from the bottom of the lake. These man-made islands huddled around the margins of Tenochtitlan and hugged the shores around Lake Texcoco. They created their own farmland. Of course, another way they fixed the problem was to conquer the territory of surrounding cultures.
The Spanish were in such awe of the achievements of the Aztec that they named their new city after the leading tribe among the Aztec people, the Mexica. The seal of Mexico is taken from the Mexica legend of how they settled on the island. The story says that Huitzilopotchli had told the holy men of the Mexica to look for an eagle perched atop a cactus, eating a snake. That would be the sign that they had arrived at their promised land.
Now, the island is gone. It was drained by the Spanish, who did not understand the purpose of the dams. Now most of Mexico City lies at the bottom of the valley, which was once underwater. Flooding is a big problem. I still remember the last night we were in Mexico City. We had been enjoying the Museum of Anthropology all day, and in the evening (as had happened every evening we were there) the moisture that had evaporated in the dry sunlight all day and had been trapped by the mountains began to rain down as the air cooled. It was a hard rain and we couldn’t get a taxi, so we were forced to brave the torrent. And it was truly a torrent. The rain beat down from the sky and washed into the streets, flooding as deep as a foot in places. There was a point when we had to climb onto the high stone base of a wrought iron fence and scoot along, holding onto the bars to avoid slipping up to our knees into the deep water in the streets. There was a whole crowd, young and old, scooting along with us.
In spite of the rain, it was a wonderful trip, and sometimes I go up to the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas on the third floor to stand in the re-creation we have of the Templo Mayor and spark memories from the trip. I hope you will come and visit too. Our re-creation is scaled down, but at the top of the structure we have an actual statue of a god related to Quetzalcoatl and objects from different cities cached in our walls, much like in the original. Some of the objects are beautiful (but dangerous) obsidian blades that were actually used by the Aztec, most likely in rituals of burial.
We also have some mummy masks and incense burners for the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, a city so old and so impressive the Aztec believed it was built by the gods. They considered it a holy site, and its history is worthy of a blog of its own. When I stand in our little ruined pyramid, all by myself, visions of the white sun come to mind. I remember the dry breeze blowing across the valley and the sound of indigenous flutes being played, albeit by street vendors who always hounded me to buy their stuff. Still, the music they made in attempt to lure tourists and their cash lent a mystical air to the site which I really appreciated. So if you’re planning a trip, come get inspired like I do. In the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we have many pieces on display and all of them have a cool story and a place of origin. Maybe you will discover a new destination.
Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris Wells is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.