The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

The majority of the Mayan cities, including those of the Classical period (roughly 250–900 CE) were rather dispersed settlements, adapted to a lowland tropical environment that allowed food production amidst man-made structures; lacking urban character, they loosely developed around religious, political, and ritual centers. In contrast, the Aztec citystate of Tenochtitlan was densely populated. It was founded in 1325 on a small island in Lake Texcoco.

One-and-a-half centuries later, its population had grown to over 200,000 people. It was surrounded by a wall with gates at the four cardinal points, and was connected with the coast by causeways. Designed on the basis of astronomical calculations, its religious and political center occupied a 300-meter square and was dominated by the great temple; it was walled with four gates at the cardinal points. The city was divided into four zones, each with its own local center, and each zone was then subdivided into twenty districts. The poorest houses had only one floor; the houses of the rich had two, each of which with a garden and courtyard. All of them were whitewashed, unlike the temples, which were painted red, blue, and ochre.

The Aztecs settled in the highlands of central Mexico sometime in the twelfth century and offered their services as soldiers to the Tepanec of Azcapotzalco, one of the regional powers. Soon, they were able to establish themselves as an independent power and—allying with the city-states Texcoco and Tlacopan—founded an empire controlling an area extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. They seem to have had a policy of extracting a rather mild tribute from the conquered peoples, which allowed them to enjoy relative prosperity. They also imposed restrictions in the trade and exchanges between subject cities, making them directly dependent on Tenochtitlan.

Astronomy was significant in Mesoamerican cultures. Being especially skillful in astronomical observations, the elite appeared to be capable of reading the supposed “signs” of the sky. Drawing on such readings, extremely complex and imaginative myths were constructed to justify the strict social and political hierarchy, as well as the value systems that supported it. The worldview of the Aztecs was deeply influenced, as was their art and architecture, by that of people who had flourished in the region in earlier periods. They believed that death was essential for the perpetuation of life, and that people had to offer their blood constantly as a payment to the gods in order to maintain the world order. These beliefs may have helped keep population growth at bay, so that the natural environment’s capacity was not exceeded; a dubious way to achieve sustainability even at times of limited family planning methods. Neither the nobility nor the priests were excluded from the blood toll, participating regularly in selfwounding and self-mutilating rituals. However, the toll was clearly heavier for ordinary citizens and much heavier for the subjects of enemy cities.

The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

Aztecs conducted highly ritualized warfare. The battles with tribes who shared the Nahuatl language were prearranged. An equal number of warriors from both sides participated. The purpose was not to exterminate the enemy but to capture as many prisoners as possible for sacrifice. This type of warfare may have had a practical advantage for the Aztecs: being more numerous than their opponents, they could eventually wear them out and subjugate them.

Social hierarchy depended heavily on martial virtue. Young warriors from lower social classes went into battle knowing that if they repeatedly failed to capture a prisoner, they would be reduced to porters, which were considered to be the lowest social class. Indeed, the work of the porters must have been especially hard, as Mesoamericans had not invented the wheel, nor did they use draft animals; consequently, the roads of the empire were suitable only for traveling on foot. In contrast, if the young warriors captured an enemy, they enjoyed prominence and honors, and were eventually even allowed to enter the noble class, whose members were trained from an early age in the art of combat, administration, astronomy, history, mythology, and poetry. Their prestige and power grew with the number of the captured enemies—particularly if it included prominent warriors. Their ascent up the social ladder was made clear for anyone to see in their costumes, which became accordingly more and more impressive.

During the festivals, prisoners were led one by one to the shrines at the top of the pyramid-like temple to be sacrificed. The executions were conducted not only in Huey Teocalli, Tenochtitlan’s great temple, but also in every district of the city. All residents were involved in some way—either by preparing the ceremony, by taking care of the severed head, or by taking part in the dismemberment and sharing of the corpse.

Executions followed a strict ritual. Four priests restrained the prisoner, while a fifth—or the king himself—made an incision from the abdomen to the diaphragm with a blade and cut out his heart, while it was still beating. He placed the trophy in a basin at the statue of the god, while the body was left to slide down the pyramid’s stairs to its bottom, where it was then decapitated.

One in about 400 prisoners suffered a somewhat different, but even more terrifying ordeal. In the period prior the execution, he enjoyed rich hospitality. His captor visited him regularly and looked after him, calling him “my beloved son”—the reply was “my dear father.”1 On the feast day, a priest escort led the prisoner to an elevated platform, where the large execution stone was situated. He was tied with a rope and given his weapons: four throwing clubs and a warrior sword with feathers instead of a sharp flint; iron was unknown in this part of the world.

“The victim,” writes Inge Clendinnen, “elevated above his opponent and released from the inhibition against killing, which prevailed on the battle field, could whirl at him heavy clubs and strike at the head of his antagonists with unfamiliar freedom. The [Aztec] champions were also presented with a temptingly easy target. The victim could be disabled and brought down with one good blow to the knee or ankle, as on the battlefield. But such a blow would simultaneously abort the spectacle and end their glory, so the temptation had to be resisted. Instead, their concern under these most taxing and public circumstances was to give a display of the high art of weapon handling: in an exquisitely prolonged performance to cut the victim delicately, tenderly with those narrow blades, to lace the living skin with blood. Finally the victim … exhausted by exertion and lack of blood, would falter and fall.”

John Keegan adds:

“He was finished off by the ritual opening of his chest and the tearing of his still-beating heart from its seat. His captor took no part in this lethal mutilation but watched from below the execution stone. As soon as the body was decapitated, however, so that the skull could be displayed at the temple, he drank the dead man’s blood and carried the body back to his home. There he dismembered the limbs, to be distributed as sacrifice required, flayed the body of its skin, and watched while his family ate a small ritual meal of maize stew topped by a fragment of the dead warrior’s flesh … Later, however, the captor … changed his garb again. He took to wearing the flayed skin of the dead man and lending it out to those who begged the privilege, until it and its scarps of attached flesh rotted into deliquescence.”

A formal architectural analysis of the execution setting should take into account the worldview and value system of the people who built it, in order to avoid the grave mistake of projecting our own onto a building of the past—so goes the theory. Or maybe not?

In addition, we should see if there are timeless virtues in it, since this is what separates the great from the good but otherwise ordinary architecture. We would have to consider whether the stone, on which the ritual battle with the foretold outcome took place, corresponded to the functions that it was expected to serve: whether it provided enough space for the prisoner, without allowing him to escape his attackers; whether it was situated at a height suitable for the gathered crowd to watch the spectacle comfortably; whether its overall configuration corresponded to the importance attached to the blood-shedding and the symbolisms incorporated in it.

Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1487 phase; model in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1487 phase; model in the
National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

This is also how we should proceed with the critical analysis of the Huey Teocalli. The Templo Mayor—the great temple—of Technotitlan, which impressed Hernán Cortés—the Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec Empire—with its grandeur and art,4 was modeled after the temples of the Maya, as a stepped pyramid, crowned with twin shrines, not unusual for the Aztecs; one was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility, and the other to Huitzilopochtli, god of sun and war. It is estimated that there were 62,000 skulls attached to the walls and ramparts of the great temple, which had been removed from the victims of human sacrifice. They had a primarily symbolic function, denoting the human toll needed to be paid for the sun’s daily return to our world. Nevertheless, they probably also fulfilled an aesthetic function, by literally providing vivid manifestations of what we call “the human scale”—thus highlighting the temple’s size—and by adding variety to the large stone surfaces; similar to Angkor-Wat’s sculptures or to the decoration of the Doric architrave with triglyphs and metopes.

The temple was built on the exact spot where the gods supposedly revealed the signs that this was the Aztec Promised Land. It represented Mount Coatepec, the birthplace of Huitzilopochtli. The god killed his sister Coyolxauhqui there because she conspired against their mother; he dismembered and decapitated her body—a tale reenacted repeatedly by real people and with real people. The great temple also symbolized the world axis, where the thirteen levels of heaven and the nine steps to the underworld come together. Additionally, the gap between the two shrines at its top could be understood as the cosmic crack leading to the underworld— which in a way was the source of life. Since the temple was oriented with precision to the four cardinal points, during the vernal and autumnal equinox, the sun appeared to those who were standing in front of it, to rise between the two shrines.

The temple was founded and refounded repeatedly between 1325 and 1521, when the Spaniards demolished it. In the first phase, it was constructed from earth and wood, but around 1400, it was refounded in stone, with relatively small dimensions. After the Aztec victory over Azcapotzalco in 1428, it was extended five more times with additions to the existing bulk, a grotesque repetition of the (obviously independent) pursuit of the ideal form of Djoser’s pyramid by Imhotep 4,000 years before. By expanding and rededicating the temple, powerful kings—who at their ascension to the throne were recognized by their subjects as “our lord, our executioner, our enemy”5—propitiated the gods and conveyed to their subjects the idea of their unwavering authority. With each new addition, the human sacrifices were made even more spectacular than they already were; the perpetuation of the blood-tainted ritual was made more attractive by means of architecture. Probably exaggerating his feat, king Ahuizotl boasted to have sacrificed 80,400 prisoners within a few days, during the sixth dedication of the temple in 1487.

At its base, the pyramid measured approximately eighty by one hundred meters, and its height possibly reached sixty meters. Two exceptionally steep parallel stairways led to the twin shrines on the top—an architectural virtue if their main purpose was to allow the corpses and the blood of the victims to roll to the temple’s base after the removal of the hearts. During the days of mass human sacrifices, as in the dedication of the temple in 1487, the blood of thousands of victims per day seems to have flown unceasingly, proving firmly that the gradient of the stairways was the appropriate one. The pavement of the Great Plaza in front of the temple enhanced the dramatic effect of the blood flowing down the steps since it did not absorb it rapidly, which would have been the case if it was simply set with dirt, as adjacent public spaces were—obviously the right architectural choice.

The house of Eagle Warriors, one of the most prestigious military orders, was located a short distance from the great temple. Constructed around 1469, it was decorated among other things with images of the warriors heading toward a zacatapayolli, a grass ball where Aztecs plunged their bloody blades during the self-sacrifice rituals.

The ballcourt of Monte Albán, south Mexico, circa 800 CE
The ballcourt of Monte Albán, south Mexico, circa 800 CE

In the axis of the great temple stood the ballcourt, a common feature in Mesoamerican cities. Typically, it was an oblong square with transverse flanges at its ends in the shape of an I-beam. The ballcourt was flanked by sloping or stepped walls, so that its floor would symbolize the cosmic crack. The ballcourt was painted in blood as well. The rules of the game are not known, but its outcome was again human sacrifice, although it is not absolutely certain whether the victims were the losers or the winners. In these facilities, women had the dubious privilege of enjoying relative equality with men, in contrast with other aspects of their daily lives. The priests of the temples dedicated to Mixcoatl, the god of hunting, demanded women as well as men for their sacrifices. After hitting them in the head with a stone axe, they cut their throats and decapitated them. After dedicating the head to the god, they dragged the body in order to bathe the ballcourt floor in human blood.

The largest of the seven tzompantli, which were erected in Tenochtitlan’s religious and political center, was located on a raised platform next to the ballcourt. As we can deduce from a 1524 drawing made by Cortés himself, it consisted of a three-dimensional grid of posts and crossbeams, unlike other tzompantlis, which were usually two-dimensional. It was sixty meters long, thirty meters wide, and thirty meters high (i.e., as tall as an eight-floor building). Attached to the crossbeams were specially processed human skulls—about 136,000 of them. Those worn out by time were replaced by others; rarely, though, was the renewal as profound as on the eve of the ceremonies for the 1487 dedication of the temple, when the order was given to remove tens of thousands of skulls in order to replace them with the severed heads of the new victims.

The great tzompantli was located immediately to the west of the great temple and in the continuation of the ballcourt axis. The equinox sun appeared to rise from the holy mountain Coatepec, from the gap between the two shrines, to descend to the underworld and be reborn from the crack of creation—the ballcourt floor—and to ascend to the heavens and the Galaxy, which was substantiated by the tens of thousands of severed heads of the great tzompantli.

I expect the reader who has reached this section of the chapter to ask: how can we still talk about architecture?

Furthermore, how can millions of tourists admire the Colosseum unobstructed by its history, which they know only too well? What is it about this and every other similar building, which has had the power to inspire Lord Byron and Charles Dickens?6 It is hard to believe that anybody would feel particularly comfortable smelling the gladiators’ sweat and blood, if a magical power transported him/her back in time to basement’s maze of corridors during a day of games. Why does the other, less visible, blood associated with architecture have such a small role in its evaluation: the lives of those who died for the erection of the Qin Shi Huang wall, as we shall see in Chapter 17; or the lives of the slaves who died in the silver mines of Laurium, which financed the large building program of classical Athens, the erection of Parthenon being its most prominent product?

The part of the question concerning human nature in general— what one can feel regarding the pain of others—is the responsibility of other disciplines to answer. However, the other part of the question specifically concerns architecture.

Buildings are all too easily disconnected in our minds from the events associated with them. People not only use buildings in any way they think appropriate—which absolves our peers who did not knowingly design buildings serving morally unacceptable practices of any wrongdoing—but they also project on them whatever they wish. More than merely keeping memories alive, buildings allow for a constant rewriting of history. The Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon although they pondered leaving the remains of the temple burned by the Persians as an eternal reminder of their past; and New Yorkers, despite initial hesitations, had a new World Trade Center built ten years after 9/11. The Athenians and New Yorkers probably knew that the burned-down Parthenon and the absent World Trade Center would lose their power to convey specific messages and would eventually be opened to an infinite variety of interpretations and experiences. But if memory is important, so is oblivion. “It is more important to lose than to acquire. If the seed does not die, it does not produce fruit. We must live drawing from the life reserves created not only by memories, but also from oblivion,” Boris Pasternak writes in his autobiography.

The products of architecture are durable in time as physical objects, but vulnerable as cultural ones. Their preservation beyond the human life span creates on its own the conditions of continuous revaluation. And thus, subsequent generations end up regarding buildings in which people were tortured and executed as picturesque. We focus our attention on the timeworn stones or on the small details of a relief or on the size of the building blocks, and we ignore the blood of people we never met—blood, which after all has been washed away by centuries of rain. The “here and now” is the strongest foundation of architectural experience.