|cleansing ritual from an indigenous healer|
When the Spaniards came in 1519, they saw not a jungle but a thriving civilization. It was called Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. About 200,000 people lived here. The city was built on a small island on what was then Lake Texcoco. At its heart was the religious center of Templo Mayor. Today, the lake is long gone and the island has grown into what we know now as Mexico City.
Templo Mayor - or what remains of it - lay hidden beneath buildings built over the centuries until it resurfaced in 1978. This, along with everything within Mexico City's "Centro Histórico" area (where our hostel is also located) is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
|Catedral Metropolitana lords it over the Zocalo|
We walked towards Templo Mayor and passed by Zocalo, the city's main plaza and considered one of the world's biggest public squares. It almost covers 4 hectares. The Plaza de la Constitucion, as it is officially called, was already an open space during the time of the Aztecs. Today, the plaza is as much a gathering place as it is part of the ancient womb of this very populous city.
|Palacio Nacional - on this site was once the palace of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II|
When the conquistador Hernán Cortés decided to build a Spanish colonial city on Tenochtitlan, he razed the Templo Mayor and its surrounding temples. The stones that made up the temple ended up being used to pave the plaza and also to build the Catedral Metropolitana, one of North America's biggest churches. For Cortés, no conquest can be much sweeter than building a Catholic church on a ground held sacred by the conquered Aztecs.
|entrance to Palacio Nacional|
With all the European-inspired architecture all around Zocalo, we couldn't help but feel like we're in Europe. The scale is immediately grand and appropriately so in such a vast space. Of course, it didn't escape me how the Spanish colonizers laid out their urban planning in a very predictable way - a plaza surrounded by a church, government building and military headquarters - very similar to what I've seen in South American countries (and the Philippines).
We dodged past vendors just below the shadow of the mammoth cathedral and followed the sidewalk into the entrance to the Templo Mayor archaeological site. This was where in February 1978, workers digging for an electric company accidentally found a pre-Hispanic monolith. This turns out to be the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. It was such a big event right in the middle of a city. In order to dig further, thirteen old buildings had to be demolished. From then on, more and more were unearthed.
|ruins of Templo Mayor with a tzompantli or 'wall of skulls'|
Entrance to the site (and the museum) is 57 pesos. Visitors go through elevated walkways around the ruins. Alas, the Spaniards did a great job with demolition as pretty much everything is up to the visitor's imagination now. Sections of what was once part of the great pyramid can still be gleaned. If one doesn't have a guide, it's better to read the bilingual descriptions at certain spots.
|the monolith of Coyolxauhqui|
The Museo del Templo Mayor, just at the end of the walkway, is an incredible repository of anything and everything related to the Aztecs. All 6,000 pieces on display came from the excavated ruins just in front. It is well organized that going through the various displays of figurines, jewelry, tools and other artifacts doesn't induce fatigue. The piece de resistance is the monolith of Coyolxauhqui.
|the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli|
In 2006, the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli was discovered just a few feet on the northern side of the Templo Mayor. Known as the "Lord/Lady of the Earth", this is the Aztec deity with both male and female forms depicting a generative (giving birth) and destructive (human sacrifice) function. Looking at this stone with its protruding tongue is actually creepy (reminds me of Gene Simmons onstage!).
|view of Templo Mayor, the Cathedral & Zocalo from the restaurant|
We end up our day at El Mayor restaurant where dinner and Mexican beer joined us for a vantage view of the ruins down below. Archaeologists are not yet done with their work. Who knows what they might discover tomorrow?