TEMPLO MAYOR AND TLATELOLCO
For those interested in seeing the heart of the Aztec Empire,
the first stop is Mexico City's Zócalo
-- the centerpiece for visits to the Templo
Mayor. Another must-visit is Tlatelolco Square, where an
excavated mural painted in the early 1530s shows animals around
the lake that used to occupy the valley.
The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, which means 'hummingbird on
the left,' was said to have been born at Coatepec (Serpent Hill)
The legend says that Coatlicue was sweeping the temple when
she discovered a ball of feathers. She placed this in her dress
and it disappeared. She then discovered that she had become
pregnant. When her daughter, Coyolxauhqui discovered this, she
conspired with her 400 brothers to kill her mother.
After Coatlicue was slain, Huitzilopochtli emerged, a warrior
fully armed. He immolated his sister Coyolxauhqui and slew his
400 brothers. Huitzilopochtli became the sun god, his sister
the moon goddess, and the 400 brothers the stars, which disappear
every morning in the bright sunlight.
BLOOD AND WARFARE
The Aztecs identified with the sun, which had to defeat the
powers of darkness in the underworld each night before it could
rise again on the eastern horizon. The Aztecs believed in the
concept of sacrifice and warfare, both were means of shedding
blood to ensure the sun's return.
Consequently, the ruler was obliged to spill a requisite amount
of human blood to propitiate the gods. Instead of killing their
enemies, Aztec warriors were required to bring their victims
home alive, to be sacrificed in ritual ceremonies.
When they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs moved
from place to place until they came upon a series of promising
omens: a juniper tree with a spring gushing underneath it, a
group of white willows without a single green leaf, and white
water snakes. The priests believed they had discovered the promised
Huitzilopochtli appeared to one of the priests in a dream,
saying, "You will find the eagle at all times on this tree.
The place of the cactus and the eagle I now name Tenochtitlán,
'place near the hard prickly pear cactus'."
Inspired by the vision, the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlán,
today's Mexico City.
During the reign of the first Aztec rulers, the city paid tribute
to the wealthier nearby cities. But soon the Aztecs' vision
of cosmic superiority led to the expansion of the empire.
One of the earliest towns it conquered was Xochimilco,
renowned for its architects, who were ordered to construct a
causeway between Tenochtitlán and the mainland. Xochimilco's
raised gardens provided the food for the fast-growing empire.
Meanwhile, the humble temple was expanded in order to honor
In 1502 the last emperor, Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin, became king.
He was not a warrior like his predecessor, but a superstitious
priest. Leaders were believed to have communication with the
gods, and thus needed to contemplate the divine order.
After a series of omens that included a comet in the eastern
sky (later believed to be Halley's Comet) and old people's dreams
of the Templo Mayor in flames, Moctezuma was visited by a magician
from the east who claimed he had seen 'a round hill moving upon
the waters.' Moctezuma sent his emissaries to greet the visitors,
and in 1519 he took Hernán Cortés by the hand
to see the view of Tenochtitlán from the Tlatelolco pyramid
(now the site of the Foreign Relations complex).
Within a decade the Spaniards had carried out some of their
most violent acts in the subjugation of the Aztec empire, including
imprisoning, and later killing, Moctezuma himself.