dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Pyramids in the City

Because the Spanish razed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, and built Mexico City upon its ruins, there is very little left today of Aztec architecture.  However, in the northwestern suburb of Tlalnepantla two Aztec pyramids have survived.  Many years ago I visited these sites with a teaching colleague.  Last Sunday Alejandro and I drove out to Tlalnepantla so that I could revisit them.

First we visited the pyramid of Tenayuca.

Tenayuca was an important settlement in the Valley of Mexico long before the Aztecs arrived in the region.  Its temple pyramid was probably begun around 1300.  Typical of pre-Hispanic Mexico, later pyramids were built on top of it.  Archaeologists have tunneled into the structure and have found that there are six successive layers.  By the time that the third pyramid was built, the Aztecs were in control of the region, and the architecture shows strong Aztec influence.  The subsequent pyramids built on top were all purely Aztec in style.  The latest layer, which is what we see today, was built in 1507.

In the small museum next to the pyramid, there is a model of the pyramid as it may have appeared before the Spanish conquest.  The double staircase leads archaeologists to believe that, like the Templo Mayor in the center of Tenochtitlán, the Tenayuca pyramid was crowned with twin temples.  One would have been dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain god, and the other to Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and of war.

On three sides of the pyramid are 138 carvings of serpents.  These carvings would have originally been covered with plaster and painted.

Just a mile or two from Tenayuca was the pre-Hispanic town of Acatitlán... today the parish of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán.  Behind the parish church is an amazing sight, a small, but beautifully intact Aztec pyramid.  In truth, the pyramid was reconstructed in 1962, and the temple on top was rebuilt based on what is known of Aztec architecture.  Still, it is marvelous to come upon this pyramid which transports us back to the days before the Conquest.

Visitors are allowed to climb the steep steps of the pyramid.

At the top of the pyramid human sacrifices were performed.  To the left of Alejandro is a sacrificial stone.  (I'm not sure if it is original or a replica.)  The victim would be held by his arms and legs over the stone.  The victim's chest would thus be elevated by the stone, and the priest could cut under the rib cage and remove the heart.   To the right of Alejandro is a figure known as a "chac mool".  (Due to its deteriorated condition, I suspect that it is an original.)  The human heart would have been placed in the bowl of "chac mool" as an offering to the gods.  The carving at the edge of the staircase was a brazier upon which incense would have been burned.

These two sites within the urban sprawl of Mexico City are rarely visited by foreign visitors, but they offer a glimpse into the world of the Aztecs.


  1. Never have read or heard of them before.......very interesting.

    1. Many years ago, a teacher friend, who is an archaeology buff, and I did an archaeological tour of Mexico, going from D.F. all the way to Yucatán and back. One of us had read about these two sites, and while we were in Mexico City we hired a taxi to take us to them. They are definitely not on the typical tourist track.