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Templo Mayor, Mexico City

Templo Mayor

Ruins of the Aztec capital

Archaeological Site

Centro Historico
Mexico City


Ruins of the Aztec Capital

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (a pre-Hispanic culture also known as the Mexicas), was one of the world’s great metropolises, a place of wonder for the Spanish conquistadors when they first arrived in 1519.

The 45-meter high pyramid of the Templo Mayor marked the center of the city as well as the central axis of the Aztec religion.

The Spanish conquest wrought vast destruction on Tenochtitlan. The Templo Mayor was leveled to the ground, with stone from the pyramid used to construct the first buildings of the new colonial capital above the ruins of the Aztec city.

But in recent decades, painstaking archaeological excavations below the center of Mexico City have uncovered the remnants of the Templo Mayor. These reveal a glimpse of the great Aztec city that once stood on the very same ground that the Centro Historico occupies today.

Templo Mayor ruins, Mexico City
Archeologists discovered the ruins of the Templo Mayor buried below the Spanish colonial city

The Museum

The Aztecs were dedicated collectors of art.

As their armies conquered vast swathes of territory across Mexico, they brought back to Tenochtitlan a remarkable collection of works produced by the communities that they conquered.

And the Aztecs were themselves great archaeologists who were fascinated by the indigenous cultures that preceded them. They collected relics dating as far back as the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Toltec eras.

Many thousands of these artifacts were taken to the Templo Mayor to be presented as offerings to the gods. The quality of these offerings is so immense that Tenochtitlan could well be considered the global art capital of its time.

Buried below the Centro Historico, archaeologists have in recent decades discovered a wealth of art and artifacts. Many of these are now on display in the expansive Templo Mayor Museum, which offers a fascinating insight into Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations.

Olmec mask, on display in the Templo Mayor Museum
A mask produced around 3,000 years ago by the Olmecs, taken to the Templo Mayor by the Aztecs over two millennia later


The Sacred Heart of Tenochtitlan

Standing in the Centro Historico today, it is hard to imagine the city that once stood on this ground over 500 years ago. Tenochtitlan amazed the conquistadors: a bustling metropolis that was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. With pyramids and royal houses built up on the shores of Lake Texcoco, the city was undoubtedly as beautiful as any they would have known from Europe.

The Aztecs, the pre-Hispanic people also referred to as the Mexicas, first settled in the Valley of Mexico in 1325, where they grew into a commanding force. They built Tenochtitlan for 200 years, whilst extracting tribute and riches from over 350 subjugated populations across a vast territory, stretching from coast to coast across central Mexico.

Tenochtitlan was the political and economic center of this empire. Situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, it was accessed by canoe or across a network of bridges and causeways. (The lake no longer exists as it was drained during the colonial period in an effort to control flooding).

With a layout based on cosmology, four roadways heading from each cardinal point led to the Ceremonial Center, where the giant pyramid of the Templo Mayor marked the city’s central point and the center of the Aztec world.

The Gods of Rain and War

The site of the Templo Mayor is of special significance to Aztec spirituality.

According to myth, the Aztecs first arrived in the Valley of Mexico following a divine vision delivered through a shaman priest. Their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, ordered his followers to depart their homeland further north and migrate to a new settlement. The location of this new homeland would be revealed by the sight of a giant eagle perched on a cactus.

After witnessing what they believed to be Huitzilopochtli in the form of an eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco, the followers decided that this was the site they were searching for. Here, they constructed the first temple to their patron god, and the city of Tenochtitlan was born.

A further legend describes how a priest dived into the lake, where he met Tlaloc, the rain god. Tlaloc confirmed to the priest permission to build their settlement on this sacred island.

Thus, the Templo Mayor was built to honor two gods: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, and Tlaloc, the god of rain, water and fertility.

These gods symbolize fundamental values of the Aztec civilization. Conquest and extracting tribute was represented through the god of war, Huitzilopochtli. Their reliance on agriculture was depicted through the rain god, Tlaloc.

Brazier of Tlaloc, god of rain, water and fertility
Fragments of a brazier depicting Tlaloc, the god of rain, water and fertility honored by one of the Templo Mayor's dual shrines

Destruction by the Conquistadors

The conquistadors were in awe of Tenochtitlan. Their accounts reveal how they met the Emperor Moctezuma on the summit of the Templo Mayor, from where they admired its sweeping beauty and architecture, situated along a lakeshore beneath snow-capped volcanoes.

Yet the conquistadors military struggle to defeat the Aztec Empire would inflict rampant destruction on the city. Temples and sculptures of gods were brought to the ground, with the rubble used to build the first houses and convents of the new colonial capital.

The conquistadors asserted their dominance through the destruction of symbols of the Aztec religion. The Templo Mayor, given its centrality to Aztec cosmology, was destroyed.

The land above the temple was used to build homes for the conquistador captains and government buildings for the colonial administration. And in a bid to instill Roman Catholicism in the new colony, much of the land formerly occupied by the Templo Mayor was set aside for the construction of a church that would later become the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Discovery in the 20th Century

In the centuries that followed the Spanish defeat of the Aztec Empire, Mexico City grew into a modern metropolis above the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Despite a number of remarkable archeological discoveries in the Zocalo area, most notably the 24-tonne Piedra del Sol (Sun Stone), uncovered in 1790 and now on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, the difficulty of exploring below ground in Mexico City’s center meant that a full excavation was not attempted until 1978.

When electrical workers installing an underground cable uncovered a hard stone about two meters below the concrete, archaeologists were called in. They discovered that the stone was, in fact, a 3 meter wide monolith of the Aztec god Coyolxauhqui (the moon goddess and sister of Huitzilopochtli).

Recognizing the significance of this find so close to the Zocalo, Mexico’s president initiated a multi-year project to excavate the area and reveal the ruins of the Templo Mayor. The project faced a number of challenges to excavate such a large site in the center of Mexico’s capital, including the controversial demolition of 13 buildings.

But the spectacular revealing of the temple garnered worldwide attention. The presidents of the USA and France, numerous celebrities and visitors from across the world descended on the Centro Historico to bear witness to the last remnants of the Aztec Empire.

Guided Tour

The Ruins

After passing through the entrance turnstiles, a model illustrates the 45-meter high pyramid that once formed the Templo Mayor. Dual shrines to the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc are visible on top.

This model shows the seventh and final stage of the temple’s construction. Sadly, excavations revealed little of this final era, as the temple was razed to the ground by the conquistadors with the stone taken for the construction of colonial buildings.

The following walk through the ruins therefore reveals earlier stages of the temple’s construction, as well as some of the surrounding buildings.

Some of the best preserved elements include remarkable stone sculptures of snakes, a frequent symbol of Huitzilopochtli; frogs sculptures likely dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc; a wall of over 200 stucco-covered skulls, placed on the temple’s north side in reference to the region of the dead, Mictlampa; and finally, the House of the Eagles, a separate building where the elite Eagle Warriors would come to perform rituals.

Ruins of the Templo Mayor
Excavations have uncovered the early construction stages of the vast temple that stood here prior to the Spanish conquest

Room 1: Archaeological Background

The path through the ruins leads into the museum, which houses a remarkable collection of over 7,000 artifacts collected from the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

The first room, Archaeological Background, charts the many excavations that took place. These began in the latter years of the colonial period, but intensified after 1978 with the launch of the Templo Mayor Project.

A map at the room’s entrance illustrates the scope of these archaeological discoveries, which were spread across the Zocalo over the course of two centuries.

Some of these findings are on display in the room. These include a sculpture of a golden eagle that was used as a cuauhxicalli, a large bowl where offerings were placed during religious ceremonies. Another highlight is a stone statue of Xolotl, the god of fire and lightning, depicted with the head of a dog.

Room 2: Ritual and Sacrifice

Aztec society was constructed around an ideological and religious system that encouraged war and sacrifice.

This was motivated, in part, by religion: warriors believed that by dying through war or sacrifice they could repay the gods for their own mythical sacrifice that was the origin of life in the Aztec universe. It was also an economic necessity: Tenochtitlan depended on the expansion of territory to collect tributes from conquered lands.

This room showcases a range of objects recovered from the Templo Mayor site that were used by the Aztecs for warfare and religious rituals, including sacrificial ceremonies.

Artists and musicians brought beauty and spectacle to rituals and ceremonies. This can be seen in a set of funeral urns, where exemplary artistry can be seen in the design. And there is a wide range of musical instruments that evidently were performed at ceremonies, including flutes, conch shells and drums.

Rituals at times involved self and human sacrifice. On display on this room are several tecpatl face knives used for human sacrifice, as well as awls used for extracting blood that was offered to the gods in self-sacrifice rituals.

Skull mask, on display in the Templo Mayor Museum
A skull mask, likely from an enemy warrior captured in conflict and sacrificed, decorated with flint knives and placed as an offering in the Templo Mayor

Room 3: Tribute and Trade

As the Aztec Empire grew, it became adept at establishing trading routes and extracting tribute from subjugated populations. Tribute and trade powered the economy of Tenochtitlan and provided the riches found in the Templo Mayor.

This room is filled with artifacts whose origins have been traced to the empire’s far reaches, that were taken to Tenochtitlan through either trade or tribute. There are several fine pieces made from obsidian and tecalli stone, sourced in deposits across the central highlands, as well as artifacts showcasing the differing styles of the Gulf and Pacific coasts, the Mixtec style of Oaxaca and the Mezcala style of Guerrero.

The Aztecs held great reverence for the indigenous cultures that preceded them, collecting historic artifacts from conquered territories to display in the Templo Mayor. The oldest item on display is a mask from the Olmecs: around 3,000 years old today, it predates the Templo Mayor by over two millennia.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan was considered sacred by the Aztecs. This room showcases many artifacts influenced by the style of Teotihuacan, as well as an elegant green stone mask produced by the people of Teotihuacan over 600 years before the Aztec’s rule, who recovered and preserved it in the Templo Mayor.

Teotihuacan mask, on display in the Templo Mayor Museum
A mask produced in Teotihuacán, the ancient city considered sacred by the Aztecs as the site of the creation of the Fifth Sun

Room 4: Huitzilopochtli

On top of the Templo Mayor stood two main shrines, one of which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Aztecs.

According to myth, a divine vision from Huitzilopochtli revealed the location where Tenochtitlan would be founded by a group of his followers migrating to a new homeland. And as the god of war and the sun, Huitzilopochtli’s symbolism was highly relevant to a society built upon conquest, with an economy reliant on extracting tribute.

Although Huitzilopochtli is not depicted himself, the Templo Mayor was filled with objects which honor the god by representing war. These include in an impressive stone statue of an Eagle Warrior, an elite and feared league of soldier, as well as a xiuhcoatl sculpture, a fire serpent believed to be Huitzilopochtli’s weapon.

Other deity closely related to Huitzilopochtli also feature in this room. The most impressive artifact is a giant circular monolith of Coyolxauhqui, a discovery that in 1978 prompted the multi-year excavation of the Templo Mayor site.

Coyolxauhqui was the goddess of the moon who, according to myth, was slayed by Huitzilopochtli during the Aztec’s migration to Tenochtitlan. The monolith depicts the body of the goddess in pieces having been thrown down a hillside after losing this battle. Due to its size, the monolith is viewed from a balcony which overlooks it on the floor below.

Eagle warrior statue, on display in the Templo Mayor Museum
Life-sized statue of an Eagle Warrior, an elite band of troops in the Aztec army, honoring Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the sun

Room 5: Tlaloc

The second shrine of the Templo Mayor was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, water and fertility.

Tlaloc was a particularly significant god because of the importance of agriculture to the Aztec economy. He was believed to bring the rains that harvests depend on.

Many of the findings in the Templo Mayor depict the face of Tlaloc. The most impressive artistry can be seen in a large blue pot, with a carving of the god’s face. Tlaloc was believed to store water in pots high up on hills. The pot represents the belief that rain was spread over the earth by tlaloques, assistants of Tlaloc, breaking pots of water with sticks.

There is also a remarkable brazier carved in the shape of Tlaloc, which once formed part of the temple’s base.

Many of the offerings to Tlaloc in the Templo Mayor are designs linked to water or the sea. These include a large sculpture of a conch shell, smaller carvings of fish, as well as stone frogs linked to Tlaloc because their croaking was considered an announcement of the coming of the rains.

Pot depicting Tlaloc, god of rain, water and fertility
Large pot depicting Tlaloc, with carvings illustrating the mountains where tlaloques were believed to break open pots of water to bring rain

Room 6: Flora and Fauna

Nature and wildlife was of special significance to Aztec religion. Many Aztec images of animals present them as close to the gods and, in some cases, the gods were depicted with animal traits or could appear in the form of an animal.

This spiritual significance meant that the bodies of animals were frequently used as offerings to the gods in the Templo Mayor. This room displays the variety of animal and plant species discovered in archeological excavations. With the help of biologists, these demonstrate the Aztec Empire’s geographical range and the extent of their interactions with nature.

Wildlife was brought to the Templo Mayor from nearby in the central highlands. Among these offerings are an eagle, mountain lion, wolf, snake and hummingbird.

Many species were brought to Tenochtitlan from further afield. Marine life was taken from the coasts, including a stingray and sharks’ teeth. Remains of rainforest animals were also discovered, which is remarkable given the challenges of capturing and transporting wildlife across this terrain. Crocodile, jaguar and toucan bones are on display in this room.

Room 7: Agriculture

Given the importance of the harvests for their survival, the Aztecs worshipped many gods related to agriculture. The rain god Tlaloc was the most important, but it was believed that several other figures also helped to bring about a strong harvest.

This room contains statues and artifacts related to these gods. There are many more pots and sculptures of Tlaloc, a vase of Chicomecoatl, the goddess of ripe maize, and a carving of the face of Xipe Totec, a god also linked to maize as well as war.

The Aztecs were a sophisticated agricultural society, and farming around Tenochtitlan was highly developed. This room displays some of the tools used for agriculture and explains their advances.

There is a look at chinampas, an intensive system of agriculture that fed Tenochtitlan’s large population by enabling year-round cultivation on a series of shallow, manmade islands. The room also features a reproduction of the vast Tlatelolco market where agricultural goods were traded, the scale of which left the conquistadors in awe.

Ceramic vase depicting Chicomecoatl, god of maize and maintenance
Vase of Chicomecoatl, goddess of ripe maize, one of many gods worshipped to help bring about a strong harvest

Room 8: Historical Archaeology

The museum’s final room traces archaeology through Mexico’s modern history, from the defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish conquistadors in 1521 up to the 20th century.

This room explores how the introduction of European culture, architecture, and materials began to influence Mexico over time.

Various displays chronicle the introduction of European materials, such as glass and plastic. Influences also came from further afield. Tiles originally came to Spain during the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. China porcelain was brought to Mexico across a Pacific trade route with the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The introduction of the Roman Catholic religion had a vast impact on Mexico. Many artifacts feature Christian iconography, such as the cross, or religious ceremonies including the Christmas nativity.

Yet, despite the destruction wrought by the invading Spanish army on the Aztec Empire, it is emphasized that the Aztec culture did not disappear with the fall of Tenochtitlan. Rather, the mestizo nation was born, and the dual legacies of both pre-Hispanic and Spanish culture have shaped Mexico ever since.


Planning your Visit

Like many museums and public buildings in Mexico City, the Templo Mayor is closed on Mondays. On other days, the archaeological site is open from 9am until 5pm. It is busiest on Sundays when Mexican nationals and residents benefit from free admission.

If you happen to be in the Centro Historico when the site is closed, note that it is possible to get a reasonably good view of the ruins from the street above.

The initial walk around the ruins is relatively short, lasting around 30 minutes. However, to allow enough time to properly explore the museum, it is worth planning to spend 2-3 hours at the Templo Mayor.

Located in the heart of the Centro Historico, it is easy to combine a visit with the many world-class historical sites from the Spanish colonial era nearby. The Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace and Colegio de San Ildefonso are all just steps away from the Templo Mayor.

Last Updated: January 29, 2024
First Published: November 1, 2023