Tenochitlan

The Mexica, later to be called the Aztecs by the Spanish, were a bellicose tribe who, impelled to migrate from the north for unclear reasons, settled in the rather inhospitable area of Lake Texcoco, in central Mexico, in around 1300 (Townsend 1999). The birth of the Mexica state was recounted by the people themselves; it can be read (though in somewhat novelistic form) in the chronicles, the manuscripts edited immediately after the Spanish conquest. When they reached the valley of Mexico, the Mexica founded a city, Tenochitlan, in the place, as tradition has it, that the god of war, Huitzilpochtli, had indicated by means of an eagle perching on a cactus. The city was probably founded in 1325. The Mexica were evidently highly skilled in waging war and forging alliances. Indeed, Tenochitlan, ruled over by a sacerdotal monarchy, quickly began to expand its domination throughout central Mexico. The chronicles mention a "threefold alliance" with the Chichimec cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, on the basis of which a full-fledged empire was built. Around 1440, the Mexica empire managed also to take over extensive areas populated by Mayas. The splendid empire that Cortes conquered in 1521 with a handful of men had only existed, therefore, for less than 100 years.

The Mexica state was based on clans, or families, that had their own chiefs, protective deities, temples, and lands. There were 20 clans joined in four "confraternities"; each clan had a representative in a council that, at least theoretically, elected its supreme chief, who was practically a hereditary monarch. The economy was grounded in agriculture, using extremely sophisticated techniques, and trade; very few species of domestic animals lived there, virtually only dogs (bred as comestible animals) and turkeys. Therefore, there were no animals suitable for pulling carts in Mexico, and the lack of such animals is the obvious explanation for the fact that no wheeled vehicles have ever been found. However, it is still possible to read or hear about (now, in the third millennium) nonsense statements like ""the Mexica had no knowledge of the wheel". Whatever would those Mexica children who played with their little toy dogs on wheels—today on display in the Archaeological Museum of Oxaca—think of we, the people of the third millennium, nobody knows.

The capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochitlan, now Mexico City, grew rapidly in parallel with the Mexica state, eventually becoming a splendid metropolis. The monumental center of Tenochitlan was located exactly where the center of the modern city is today. As a result, accidental finds of important Aztec monuments have been made over the years. On December 17, 1760, for example, the so-called Stone of the Sun, an enormous stone disk 4 meters in diameter and weighing 4 tons, was discovered. Now housed in the National Anthropology Museum, the stone's center contains a depiction of the sun god in the act of devouring human hearts, and it is steeped in complex, though still fairly obscure, symbolism (see, for example, Krupp 1983).

On February 21, 1978, workers on the electricity network came across another enormous stone disk, on which the moon goddess is depicted, dismembered, with two snakes coiled around her. At that point it was finally decided to try to unearth at least a few of the ancient structures buried there. Thus it was that, almost miraculously, the main temple of Tenochitlan— today called the Templo Major—emerged from the ground right in the heart of Mexico City, between the cathedral and the president's palace. Today it is an exciting experience to visit the temple, which is almost intact, using the chronicles of the conquest as a "tour guide''.

The building was reconstructed several times, adding an outer "coat" and enclosing the preexisting temple in masonry work. This was really a renewal operation that had ritual-fetishistic significance. The temple, the true center of the Mexica universe, was left intact in its previous incarnation, which thus became the foundation (symbolic and physical) of the next stage. Each time the operation was carried out, offerings were left, and these were subsequently found and have allowed us to broaden considerably our knowledge of Aztec religious customs. It appears that the Mexica filtered autochthonous elements of the religions of those they conquered into their own religion with great ease. They clearly nurtured veneration and respect o

! Templo Mayor

Figure 8.10: The astronomical alignment of Templo Major (from Aveni 2001, under kind permission)

for the past, as is testified to by the discovery of offerings of Teotihuacan and even Olmec masks, which were already 1500 years old when they were put in place.

The Aztec religion was steeped in Toltec elements and, like the latter, deeply rooted in human sacrifice: killings (of prisoners of war, slaves, or children) had the aim of actually "feeding" the gods in an exchange between the existence of humans and the survival of the gods themselves. Evidence of such customs can be seen clearly in the Templo Major. The temple is dedicated to the two main gods of the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war of tribal origin, and Tlaloc, the rain god. Two chapels devoted to them are found on top of the pyramid. Sacrifices were performed on a huge sacrificial stone, and the hearts of the victims were subsequently placed on the Chack Mool (the statue of a semireclining man, of Toltec origin), which is still in its place today on top of the temple.

One of the chroniclers, Motolinia, writes that the temple acted as an indicator for marking the beginning of the festivity known as Tlacaxipeua-liztli, which took place during the equinox (and included some cruel aspects). The beginning of the feast was supposed to coincide with the rising of the sun in the middle of the temple, but, due to a planning error, this did not occur at the right moment. Montezuma, the last Mexica sovereign prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors (again according to Motolinia) was furious and wished to have the building demolished and rebuilt from scratch.

Following this account, one might expect to find the Templo Major directed toward the cardinal points, possibly with a slight error. However, the temple is oriented 7.5 degrees south of east, far too large a deviation to be the result of an error. A likely reason is that the equinoctial sun was not intended to be viewed in alignment with the upper platform itself but from the adjacent square. Consequently, the rising of the star was not observed on the horizon (obscured by the presence of the temple), but at a certain height, on top of the temple itself, between the two chapels. This orientation is somewhat difficult to determine since one has to take account of the trajectory that the sun completes after rising in the east, and besides, the alignment depends crucially on the height of the building (Aveni et al. 1988, Sprajc 2000a,b). Perhaps when the temple was refurbished under Montezuma it was also raised by a few meters, and this caused the error that put the monarch in such a rage (we can only guess what consequences ensued).

The Templo Major, then, is one of numerous instances where an astronomical analysis of monuments of the past can surprise us, and Mexico City still has some surprises in store for us. The temple was just one of the elements of a complex, sacred landscape, astronomically related, which is in some ways analogous to the complicated and fascinating ceque system of the Incas (which we shall discuss in Chapter 10). The Tenochitlan plan was articulated according to radial directions that, starting from the Templo Major, pointed toward mountains deemed to be sacred. In particular, the chapel of the god of war on top of the Templo Major was the ideal center of the city and hence of the world, from which two main axes branched out. The most important alignment was the one obtained by prolonging the main axis of the temple eastward. The line passed at the horizon, 44 kilometers away, between two mountains. One of them, dedicated to Tlaloc, was considered the home of the god of the rain and an annual feast was held there (again with some gory aspects). On its peak, at a height of over 4000 meters, there is a rectangular construction whose long access corridor points toward the Templo Major (today it is impossible to view one building from the other owing to pollution). The walls of the corridor were originally over 3 meters high, and so, on entering, one passed along a tunnel (""processional way") and could not see up to the end of the corridor and the splendid view of the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl that dominate the Valley of Mexico.

Coming out of the tunnel into the courtyard on the top, the visitor probably was in front of a building (with walls made of perishable materials and no longer extant) in which rites associated with the end of the dry season took place. The structure of the enclosure on the mountaintop was quadripartite, like the city itself, with piles of rocks marking the four cardinal points, while on the eastern side there was a deep well, a ""navel,'' a communication passage with the earth (Iwaniszewski 1994).

Just as rain, with its connotations of fertility, was linked with the male deity Tlaloc, so also water, flowing over the earth, in rivers and lakes, was associated with the female deity Chalchiuhtlicue.

Just as Tlaloc was linked with Mount Tlaloc, so Chalchiuhtlicue was associated with Mount Tetzcotzingo. The monuments at Tetzcotzingo were built by the sovereign of Tetzcoco (one of the great cities of the Tenochitlan league) around 1450 AD. The summit was encircled by a processional pathway that wound around its base along the entire perimeter. There were also four basins, each corresponding to a cardinal point, supplied with water from an aqueduct. The east-west axis, which followed the crest the mountain up to its peak and then sloped down again as far as this path, was marked with stations symbolizing or replicating the path of the sun on its daily trajectory. On the top there was a stone temple, ofwhich the foundations and a number of carved images of Tlaloc remain, while other sculptures are to be found in a cave located inside the base of the hill in order to symbolize the relationship with the mountain and earth.

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