Rediscovered 500-year-old temple lets Mexico City visitors walk back into era of great Aztec civilization

Sometimes myths become reality -- as this ancient myth of the Mexica-Aztecs did 13 years ago.

Once upon a time . . . there lived the Mother Goddess, Coatlicue, who had 400 sons and one daughter. Each day her task was to sweep the top of Coatepec hill. One day she found a tiny ball of fluff which she picked up and placed in her bosom. Shortly thereafter, she found herself miraculously pregnant. Her children, incensed at this mysterious pregnancy, decided to kill their mother rather than suffer disgrace. Led by their sister, Coyolxauhqui, the 400 brothers stormed Coatepec hill. Just in the nick of time, Coatlicue's child -- Huitzilopochtli -- was born, armed for battle. He decapitated Coyolxauhqui and defeated the 400 brothers. Coyolxauhqui's body was flung from the top of Coatepec hill, becoming dismembered on the way down.


It was a startling discovery in 1978 when Mexican workmen digging beside the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown Mexico City unearthed an enormous stone disk intricately carved with the dismembered image of Coyolxauhqui.

The Coyolxauhqui disk is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Aztec art, which often managed to fuse symbolism with art. The disk symbolized Aztec society's victory over divisive groups within its own ranks. But even more exciting was the discovery of something far more important -- the foundations of the Templo Mayor, the foremost temple of the Aztecs.


Archaeologists had long speculated on the exact location of the Templo Mayor. They knew that beneath the Zocalo, Mexico City's immense main square, and under much of the downtown area, lay buried what had once been Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire.

At the heart of this capital stood the Templo Mayor, a double pyramid topped by two shrines, one to Tlaloc, god of rain, and the other to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, who had defeated and decapitated Coyolxauhqui. The discovery of the Coyolxauhqui disk provided the vital clue needed in locating the Templo Mayor. Appropriately enough, the disk lay at the base of the steps leading to Huitzilopochtli's shrine.

The Aztec rise to power was swift. Beginning about 1100 A.D., the Aztecs migrated from the north of Mesoamerica, arriving in the Valley of Mexico about 1250. At first, they served as vassals to more powerful overlords.

Within a period of 200 years, they overthrew their overlords, became overlords themselves and, through conquest, created an empire which stretched from coast to coast over most of central Mexico. Tenochtitlan was the administrative and religious center.

When Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors arrived in 1519, they found a magnificently planned city of palaces and temples, carefully laid out around plazas and intersected by canals. At its center stood the Templo Mayor.

Today the Templo Mayor is again visible -- or to be more accurate -- its foundations are. After lying buried beneath Spanish colonial buildings for more than 450 years, the temple once again stands surrounded by the bustle of the busiest section of Mexico City, still at the heart of things, as it was when Cortes first saw it.

To help the visitor visualize Tenochtitlan at the peak of its glory, there's a model of the Aztec city at the entrance to the archaeological zone, with water-filled canals, miniature pyramids and causeways crossing a pint-sized Lake Tezcoco.

Within the archaeological zone, walkways cut across the excavated area, exposing the numerous layers of Aztec history. The layers are most obvious in the Templo Mayor itself. Its building consisted of seven phases spread out over 200 years.


Instead of destroying an older temple as they expanded, the Aztecs merely built over it, enlarging without destroying. This proved a boon not only to archaeologists but to visitors, who can walk through the building phases back to the earliest days of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan.

Besides foundations and remnants of staircases that once led to the shrines to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, there are numerous other reminders of the Aztec past: two 20-foot-long stone serpents writhing across a temple platform, seven almost life-size stone standard-bearers lying shoulder to shoulder against a pyramid staircase, and a chac-mool -- a recumbent statue with a vessel on its chest meant to hold a human sacrificial victim's heart. Each belongs to a different building phase.

Three small shrines stand side by side next to the Templo Mayor. The one in the middle is a Tzompantli altar covered with symbolic stone skulls. The actual skull rack probably stood only a few hundred feet from where the cathedral now stands. It once displayed the skulls of sacrificed victims and, it is said, the skulls of some of the conquistador horses.

Adjacent to the three shrines lies the last great structure within the Templo Mayor archaeological zone, a multichambered building called the Sanctuary of the Eagle Warriors. Murals cover the walls and low stone benches are carved with vivid processions of priests and warriors.

At the rear of the zone, the newly built museum houses the thousands of objects found during the five-year excavation. The Coyolzauhqui disk -- whose discovery initiated the Templo Mayor project -- is appropriately accorded the place of honor.

If you go . . .


Templo Mayor archaeological complex: The entrance to the complex is located at the northeast corner of the Zocalo, across from the east side of the Metropolitan Cathedral. It is open daily except Monday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 750 pesos (about 35 cents).

You can hire a guide at the site entrance or you can guide yourself using one of two booklets: "The Great Temple and the Aztec Gods," by Doris Heyden and Luis Villasenor (Mexico City: Editorial Minutiae Mexicana, 1984), or "Official Guide: The Great Temple by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma" (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historica, 1985).

Neither of these is available for purchase at the site or in the adjacent museum, but I did see one or both titles at the Museum of Anthropology Gift Shop, the Ministry of Public Education bookstore (a block north of the Templo Mayor on Argentina Street) and in several hotel gift shops.

Museum of Anthropology: Plan to spend at least a few hours in Mexico City's outstanding museum in Chapultepec Park, particularly in the Mexica wing, where so much of Mexico City's Aztec past is so beautifully displayed.

Where to stay: As to hotels, Mexico City is blessed with many world-class establishments. The Presidente Chapultepec is a luxurious 42-story hotel, located on Campos Eliseos at the edge of Chapultepec Park. It offers everything to make a visit to this cosmopolitan city comfortable: spacious rooms, panoramic views over the city and the park, efficient concierge service and a number of excellent restaurants. Two of our favorites -- Maxim's and La Chimenea -- are located within the hotel. So is the Balmoral Tea Room, probably the best tea salon in Mexico City.