City Atop a City: Tenochtitlan, Then Cuidad de Mexico

My in-laws were understandably kerfluffled when we took them to the ruins of Tenochtitlan. “This can’t be real,” mi suegro said. But it is. Before Mexico City, there was Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs. When the Spaniards invaded (and infected the Aztecs with smallpox — perhaps the New World’s strongest weapon at the time), they began to tear down Tenochtitlan and build a colonial city directly on top. The most symbolic and dramatic gesture was the construction of the Catedral Metropolitana over the Templo Mayor, the geographic center of Tenochtitlan, where the tallest temple stood.

What it looked like before (with a little artistic license taken by Diego Rivera). And what it looks like now: A layer on top of a layer. These layers are still being discovered, as new construction always seems to unearth yet another hidden Aztec structure, or even sometimes one of the many cultures that existed before the Aztecs.


(Ruins in front, church in back. By Bob Walsh)

While Templo Mayor is not as dramatic as other ruins I’ve visited, it still has some nice touches to it. Snake heads and skulls, for one thing. And still-visible paint. And it is definitely the most urban, since it is located at the very center of the world’s second largest city.


Kids admiring a serpent head sculpture.


Another serpent. By Bob Walsh.


At first, these skull-rack walls were adorned with real human skulls. As they wore away, the artisans of the time would replace them with terra cotta replicas. On last year’s Day of the Dead festival in the Zocalo, they had a modern version of what this probably looked like before time wore away the vividness, and ceramics replaced bone.

Several years ago, when I traveled to the Yucatan, I loved visiting the numerous Mayan ruins, which dot the landscape throughout the peninsula. It was a very different culture and language than the Aztecs (there the pyramids are made of limestone; here, volcanic rock and a cement-like goop). Of course, actually living here means I am learning more than I ever expected to about pre-Hispanic Mexico.

I can’t explain why, but I find all the ancient cultures here fascinating. Perhaps because in school, you are only taught Egyptian history as “ancient history,” or perhaps because the native people I did learn about — those that lived in South Texas — were nomadic, never putting down roots, and certainly never building a vast city. Here, though, a gigantic city was built, and one that had plenty of colorful lore: ritualistic sacrifice, rampant cannibalism and fantastic outfits.

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