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A Guide to the Temples of the Aztec

Maya Pillai Mar 6, 2020
The Aztecs were prolific builders. They erected some of the most imposing and magnificent temples of their time. Here's a peek into what went in the creation of such marvelous edifices.


In 2012, archaeologists uncovered about 50 skulls buried under a sacrificial stone in the Templo Mayor in Mexico city. These probably belong to the people who were sacrificed there.
Inhabiting the Mesoamerican fertile valley (present-day Mexico), the Aztecs were one of the mightiest native civilizations of South America. They were primarily desert people, who migrated to the central parts of Mexico in about 1325 A.D., where they established their capital city, Tenochtitlan.
In about a century since then, the Aztecs became very strong, both militarily as well as economically. By about the 1420s, they were one of the strongest indigenous groups in the Valley of Mexico. And. by the 1500s, they held their sway over a large territory of Central America.
However, in 1521, the Spaniards attacked the Aztec centers of power and defeated the mighty people. The new settlement of Mexico city was then founded by the Spanish, on the ruins of the Aztec capital. Thus, the 200-year-long civilization virtually came to an end.
The Aztecs are known for their deeply religious nature. At its peak, the Aztec civilization boasted of extremely rich and complex religious traditions. Their religion was essentially polytheistic in nature, meaning that they believed in and worshiped a large pantheon of gods and goddesses.
They built extraordinarily beautiful temples called Teocalli, literally meaning 'houses of the Gods', to shelter the idols of their gods and goddesses. Their architecture, essentially reflects their values and beliefs, and hence, it becomes very important to understand it, in order to be able to interpret their history.

Aztec Cosmology

Religion was the vital component of the Aztec way of life. So, adhering to their varied and extremely strong religious beliefs, they built a lot of temples, all across their empire.
We have archaeological evidences of a large number of these imposing structures, which not only shed light on the religious ideologies of the ancient Aztecs, but also boast of their military might and power.
It is quite evident from the structure and design of their temples and shrines that, apart from functioning as shelters for their gods and goddesses, their purpose was also to manifest power. Symbolism played a very important part in Aztec temple architecture. For them, the four cardinal directions were of utmost importance. Each cardinal direction had its own designated set of divine patrons, colors, and symbols.
North (Mictlampa) was a place of death, and was ruled by Tezcatlipoca, the god of destiny, fate, and night.

South (Huitztlampa) was a region of thorns, and was ruled by Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, who also presided over warfare.
East (Tlapallan or Tlapcopa) was the region of light, and was ruled by three patrons viz., Tonatiuh, the solar deity; Camaxtli-Mixcoatl, the lord of hunting; and Xipec Totec, a fertility deity and god of vegetation.
West (Cihuatlampa), was the place of the women, and was governed by the Cihuateteo, those women who has died during childbirth and had thus, acquired the divine status.
The divine patrons of the four cardinal directions were responsible for maintaining the equilibrium of the universe, and for the five vital elements of nature and life. The four cardinal directions and their significance were very vital to the Aztec religious belief, and so we see that their structures and especially, their temples were designed in accordance to this cosmological pattern.

The Temples

The pyramidal shape held special significance in the Aztec religion. Pyramids, for them, symbolized mountains, which were the sources of water and fertility. They also believed that the mountains housed their ancestral spirits, and so sometimes, important people were buried inside them.
Owing to this, mountain, as a landform, was very close to their hearts, and so, a pyramid that in some way resembled a mountain, acquired an important position in their religious beliefs.
Owing to the fertility factor, the pyramids also symbolized the heart of the city that had abundant fertilizing water (altepetl). Most pyramid temples had a fixed architectural design.
- They had a big platform forming the base, the sides of which went tapering upwards. From the center of the platform, rose a long and a steep staircase (double staircase in many cases), which was flanked by balustrades on the both the sides.
- The tops of these pyramids were kept flat, so that the shrines or the sacrificial platforms could be constructed in them.
- Each temple had a sanctum where the idol of the god was housed, and towards its back, was a small antechamber, meant to be used by the temple priest.
- In keeping with the cosmology of the cardinal directions, the pyramid temples were located on the eastern side of the city center, but always faced west. The staircase also faced west.
- Archaeological finds have shown that the interiors of the pyramid temples were almost always sculpted or painted.
- Sometimes, embellishments also included blocks of dressed stones, arranged to form geometric motifs.
- Eagle seemed to have been an important motif. According to some of the Aztec codices, which have been recovered, an eagle was believed to be a form of Huitzilopochtli -
Tonatiuh, a solar deity associated with sunrise.
There were essentially three types of pyramids on which the Aztec temples were built viz.,

△ Pyramids with a single flight of steps
△ Twin stair pyramids
△ Round pyramids
It is very interesting to note that since the Aztec religion was polytheistic in nature, each of their temples was dedicated to a specific deity. Owing to this, the structures and designs of the temples differed significantly from each other. The point to be noted, however, is that in spite of the obvious structural differences on the exterior of the temples, the interiors seem to be relatively similar.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the pyramidal Aztec temples is the fact that they were basically built, so that different kinds of offerings could be made to the gods, which they sheltered.
However, considering the number and quantity of items that were offered to the gods each day, it has been found that the temples might not have had enough room to occupy all of them. In order to solve this problem, other independent rectangular structures were built around the base of the temple, so that all the offerings could be stored.
Many such structures have been uncovered in the archaeological excavations, and in some cases, small chambers (possibly serving the same purpose) under the base of the pyramid have also been uncovered.
The Aztecs built so many temples atop pyramids, and they are so widespread all across the ancient Aztec empire, that it is hard to think of the construction of other, smaller free-standing shrines, belonging to that period.
However, there are exceptions, as ruins of several free-standing shrines have been found at locations, which were most probably, city centers. However, the temple pyramids were obviously more common, and owing to their beliefs with respect to the pyramid, the Aztecs considered it to be their foremost duty to construct them.

The Temple and the State

The imposing Aztec temples necessarily stood for the power, might, and prosperity of the empire. Almost all of these temples were patronized by the state. Moreover, most of the royal ceremonies were held inside the temples, wherein even the common people seemed to have taken an active part.
So, the Aztec state and the temple cannot be viewed independently of each other. In other words, there was a definite correlation between the state and the temple.
This deep interconnection between religion and politics resulted in the elevation in the authority of the king. This was mainly because most of the funds that went to the temples annually, were from the royal treasury. Naturally, if a particular king had to patronize or fund a temple, he would want it to be dedicated to the god he worshiped.
This, kind of legitimized or popularized certain gods, as the number of temples dedicated to them increased. Moreover, large sanctuaries dedicated to the 'royal' divinities began to be erected everywhere - beside residential precincts, schools, near marketplaces and travelers' inns, and so on.
- The political and religious ideals of the Aztec empire were proclaimed by constructing colossal temples. It was made absolutely sure that the location of the temple was such that it was in accordance to their cosmological beliefs.
- Ideally, an Aztec temple was located right in the center of the four cardinal directions. This was a place where heaven and the underworld were believed to be connected by means of a vertical axis.

- A place where both the heaven and the underworld were located along a straight, vertical axis was very necessary. This is because, most religious offerings (through which the Aztec gods were nourished) involved human sacrifices.
- It was deemed easier for the travel of the souls of the sacrificed people, if both, the heaven and the underworld lay on the same axis.

- Furthermore, temples were considered to be the symbols of hope for the empire. So, in case a new temple was built in order to replace an existing one, the older structure was not demolished or destroyed. The builders would add the new temple to the already existing structure, thus making the edifice, even more imposing.

Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor was one of the most important temple of the Aztecs. Its construction began in 1325, and it had to be rebuilt and repaired several times, before it was completely destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.
It housed the gods Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and Tlaloc, the god of rain. It was built of stones, which were covered with stucco. The temple has painted interiors. Templo Mayor was located in the city of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. During the rainy season, the temple would often sink, and so, needed to be repaired very often.
Human sacrifice was the main ritual of this Aztec temple. According to the archaeological evidences, thousands of human beings were sacrificed at the time of completion of the temple. Evidences also show that Templo Mayor possibly represented the Hill of Coatepec, the sacred hill, where Huitzilopochtli was born.

Other Aztec Temples

There are many Aztec temples that are known for their architectural magnificence.
The temple of Cholula, also known as the Great Pyramid of Cholula, is the largest archaeological site of a temple pyramid in the world. It is also one of the largest monuments ever constructed in the Old World.
The temples that were discovered in the city of Teotenango are known as 'mountain temples'. The reason is that they were carved on the side of the mountains. There are archaeological evidences to prove that human sacrifice was one of the major rituals followed in these temples.
The other Aztec temples that are worth mentioning and known for their architectural grandeur are Teopanzolco and Xochicalco. Spanish churches replaced many Aztec temples, when Mexico was conquered by Spain in the 16th century.