February 21, 1978 was a
landmark day in Mexico
A ditch digger struck something with his shovel. Scraping the dirt
away, construction workers noticed it was an unusual sculpture.
Work stopped at the corner of Guatemala and Argentina.
Archaeologists were summoned. The carved stone disk had been uncovered
that depicted the dismembered body of the moon goddess Coyolxauqhui,
sister of Huitzilopochtli (sun god) and daughter of Coatlicue (the
There was no mistake. After nearly 500 years, Mexico was about
to uncover the great Templo Mayor, the focal point of the Aztec
Empire. In the first five years archaeologists recovered more
than 6,000 pieces from the site -- the best of which are now on
display at the museum.
The Templo Mayor is located at the site where the Aztecs received
their prophetic vision -- promised by their god Huitzilopochtli
-- of an eagle perched upon a nopal (prickly pear) cactus devouring
a snake. Upon the site the Aztecs erected a pyramid with two temples,
one to Huitzilopochtli and one to the agricultural rain god Tlaloc.
Another legend suggests that the temple is constructed on top
of two caves that are filled with a primordial water, home to Huehueteotl,
the ancient god of fire and lord of time who occupied the center
of the earth. In building their pyramid on this visionary site,
the Aztecs honored sacred space.
The Templo Mayor was the sacred mountain and sacrificial altar
for the Aztecs. Diverse offerings were brought to this sacred place
as a result of conquests and tributes. Many of the caches were water-related.
The temple integrates symbols of water, earth, sun, and sky -- natural
elements honored by all Mesoamerican civilizations.
The Aztecs constructed the temple to be not simply a man-made structure,
but an equal partner in the natural order of things. The temple
was believed to provide the greatest source of all, the energy of
creation. Because of its cultural and religious value, the temple
was destroyed by Cortés after the Spanish defeated the Aztecs.
At its height, the capital of the Aztec empire had a population
of 250,000 -- one of the largest cities of the world at the time.