Discovering the Ancient History of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

Discovering the Ancient History of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

One of the very first things I had set out to do on my second visit to Mexico City was to finally make it to the ancient ruins of Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán.  I don’t know how or why I spent five months in Mexico City previously without ever making it to this historic wonder.  But, I am infinitely grateful that I made it back to discover this intriguing place.

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Templo Mayor is by-far one of Mexico City’s most well-known attractions, but still doesn’t receive quite as many glamorous reviews and hype as a visit to the ruins of Teotihuican, which lie an hour outside the city.  Sure, it’s not as massively impressive in its size.  But I’d argue it’s a must-visit attraction if you’re seeking to understand Mexico City’s past.

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Ancient aqueduct

A Little History…

Modern Mexico City, as many people know, was built upon the ancient lake bed of what was known as Lake Texcoco.  Here, the Aztecs created the great capital city of Tenochtitlán upon an island.  Once the biggest city in Pre-Colombian America, it’s no surprised that today Mexico City has followed its destiny to become one of the largest cities in the modern world.

Templo Mayor, meaning “Main Temple,” was as the name says…the main temple for Tenochtitlán.  It’s name, Templo Mayor. comes from the Spanish, who conquered Tenochtitlán in 1521.  The original name, Huēyi Teōcalli, is from Nahuatl–the indigenous language of the region.  The temple is dedicated to two of the Aztecs most important gods, Huitzilpochtli and Tlaloc, god of war and god of rain and agriculture respectively.

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The seven phases of construction excavated

What to see…

There are many ruins in Mexico where you can see with your own eyes, the passing of time.  But here, it’s really like nowhere else.  For one, seven layers of construction are visible due to excavation. Each corresponds to the rebuilding of the temple by different rulers who rose to power over the years.

Templo Mayor Sacred Tree
Remains of the sacred tree

Furthermore, you’ll also bare witness to fascinating tales as you come into contact with wonders.  Discover the sacred tree, whose roots and branches were thought to hold celestial powers.  Next, appreciate the original color of the statue of Tlaloc, rain of God.

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Tlaloc overlooks the temple grounds with impressive reds and blues still preserved

Visiting the museum…

Inside the Templo Mayor’s onsite museum, you’ll find an endless array of treasures found at the site and around Mexico City.  This starts with the 1978 discovery of the large carved stone depicting the Aztec goddess, Coyolxauhqui.

The story of Coyolxauhqui was perhaps the most interesting to me…and the 3.5 meter circular stone relic was astonishingly beautiful.  The stone, now housed in the museum, portrays the decapitated and dismembered goddess, Coyolxauhqui. She was either the sister or mother of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of war and patron, who is said to have murdered her after she refused to resettle to Tenochtitlan from their previous home at the sacred site of Coatepec.

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Stone of Coyoxauhqui was the first relic found at Templo Mayor, in 1978 by electrical workers

Excavation continues today with frequent new discoveries made at this site and all over Mexico City by archaeologists and students in training.  Just in 2012, excavations revealed a massive burial site with over 1,500 human bones at the foot of the pyramid.  And from 2015 to 2017, a Tzompantli, or skull rack, was unearthed consisting of over 650 skulls of men, women, and children.

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The Tzompantli, now housed in the Museo de Templo Mayor

The surrounding city…

Beyond the ruins themselves, there is an astounding juxtaposition of a colonial city surrounding the site.  And just beyond that, booming numbers of contemporary buildings continue to rise.  It’s simply astounding.

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Incredibly preserved color on the serpent heads.

TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT:

To get there, make your way to Mexico City’s historic center.  Templo Mayor is tucked just behind the Zócalo, or main square.  The entrance is in the northeast corner of the plaza.

The Metro bus and subway both stop at the zócalo.  As always, keep your valuables secure and stay aware of your surroundings.  These stops are usually bustling and very skillful groups of pickpocketers frequently snag wallets and phones from pockets.  Alternatively, Uber is a great and inexpensive option to get around town.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 9am-5pm and costs 70 pesos.  Admission is free on Sundays for Mexican nationals and foreign residents (with proof of formal residency).

Next, explore my favorite spots for eats and drinks around Templo Mayor and the Zócalo.