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Inside Templo Mayor: The Aztec Temple of Skulls That Terrified the Spanish Conquistadors

Inside Templo Mayor: The Aztec Temple of Skulls That Terrified the Spanish Conquistadors

For years, experts doubted Hernán Cortés’ stories about an Aztec temple with a wall of 130,000 human skulls, thinking it was anti-Aztec propaganda. However, a 2017 excavation revealed the chilling truth that confirmed Cortés’ accounts.

Unveiling the Hidden History

Beneath the busy streets of Mexico City lies Templo Mayor, considered the center of the universe by the Aztecs. In 1521, Spanish invaders destroyed this iconic temple, hiding its secrets for centuries. Recently, historians have begun to uncover Templo Mayor’s hidden history and its infamous wall of skulls.

The First Glimpses of Templo Mayor

In 1913, Mexican archaeologist Manuel Gamio made an incredible discovery. He found Templo Mayor’s southwest corner under the ruins of a house once owned by Spanish conqueror Alonso de Ávila. This discovery led to more excavations, revealing stone serpents and confirming the historical accounts of Templo Mayor.

Over the years, more discoveries followed. In 1933, a staircase was uncovered, and in 1948, additional stone serpents were found. The expansion of Mexico City’s subway system in the 1960s uncovered a treasure trove of Aztec artifacts. Yet, the full extent of the grand Aztec temple remained a mystery. Spanish conquerors had described massive pyramids and walls adorned with human skulls. Were these claims true, or just exaggerations?

Finally, in 1978, the truth began to emerge. During excavations, a ditch-digger found a large stone blocking his path. As he cleared away the soil, he uncovered a carved figure of a dismembered woman – Coyolxāuhqui, the Aztec moon goddess. This confirmed Templo Mayor’s significance and renewed the search for the elusive wall of skulls.

The Human Sacrifices at Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor, also known as the “Main Temple,” was crucial in Aztec life and religious ceremonies. Built in 1325, it was reconstructed and enlarged multiple times over the next two centuries. Templo Mayor was a central gathering place and witnessed numerous ritual sacrifices.

During these ceremonies, prisoners were painted and dressed in vibrant colors before being taken to the top of the temple’s pyramids. There, a priest would extract their still-beating hearts in front of crowds, offering them as sacrifices to the sun god, Huītzilōpōchtli. Women sacrifices were decapitated and dismembered, echoing the myth of Coyolxāuhqui.

The Aztecs conducted thousands of sacrifices, believing that without them, their civilization would face calamity. These sacrifices were seen as essential acts to ensure the sun’s rise and the prosperity of their society.

Though carried out with great violence, the Aztecs saw beauty and grace in these sacrifices. Botanical remains found on the skulls at Templo Mayor indicated that they were adorned with flowers, suggesting the Aztecs viewed these acts as more than mere savagery.

Recent studies of the skull racks at Templo Mayor have revealed a surprising number of women and children. Initially thought to be captives and slaves, some victims were found to have integrated into Aztec society. These findings challenge previous assumptions about the sacrifices and shed new light on the complexity of these rituals.

The Spanish Arrival in Tenochtitlan

When Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, he was amazed by the grandeur of Templo Mayor. Located in the center of the massive city, the temple’s twin pyramids stood 90 feet tall. One pyramid honored Tlāloc, the god of rain, while the other was dedicated to Huītzilōpōchtli, the god of sun and war.

Tenochtitlan itself left a significant impression on the Spanish conquistadors. Its size and busy streets made European cities seem small in comparison. In a letter to the Spanish king, Cortés described Tenochtitlan as a bustling metropolis where tens of thousands gathered daily for trade.

The Destruction of Tenochtitlan

In 1521, Cortés inflicted a devastating blow on Tenochtitlan. With smallpox decimating the indigenous population and their superior weaponry, the Spanish conquistadors destroyed Templo Mayor and the city. Spanish chroniclers described a horrifying scene within the temple: a chamber filled with human skulls from wall to ceiling.

For centuries, these grim accounts were considered propaganda to justify the Spanish conquest. However, the 2017 excavation confirmed the existence of the infamous wall of skulls, changing our understanding of Aztec sacrifices.

Huey Tzompantli: The Wall of Skulls

Spanish soldiers had described a massive wall adorned with tens of thousands of skulls. This was long seen as an exaggeration until the 2017 discovery. Archaeologists uncovered nearly 700 skulls in what is now called Huey Tzompantli, or “The Great Wall of Skulls.” Surprisingly, many of these skulls belonged to women and children.

Templo Mayor Today

Though the Spanish built their own city on top of Tenochtitlan’s ruins, echoes of the Aztec civilization remain in Mexico City. Centro Historico, the heart of the city, holds the same importance as the Aztecs’ sacred center. The Metropolitan Cathedral, built with stones from Templo Mayor, stands as a testament to the Spanish conquest.

The Templo Mayor Museum lets visitors explore uncovered artifacts, offering a glimpse into the grandeur and brutality of Aztec civilization. As Mexico City slowly sinks, Templo Mayor remains steadfast, preserving its rich and complex history.

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