Aztec Temples

Rites and Rituals at Aztec Temples and Pyramids

Aztec temples were often part of a step-pyramid, and they often faced west. A flight of steps led up to the sanctuary and there was a sacrificial altar at the top of the steps.

They used this sacrificial altar for ritual sacrifices, including human sacrifice, in honor of the numerous gods that the Aztecs worshipped.

Members of the Aztec priesthood killed the victim (sometimes children) on the alter. They then tossed the dead body down the steps and presented the victim's heart at the god's sanctuary.

Builders constructed Aztec temples using bricks and covered them with stone and plaster.

Chronicles describe them as white buildings painted with bright colors. Excavations at some temples confirms these descriptions.

While the Aztecs dedicated most of their temples to a single deity, they dedicated some temples to two separate gods. Some of the Aztec's primary worship centers are at Teotihuacán, Cholula and Tenochtitlán.


Teotihuacán

teotihuacan

Teotihuacán Mexico © Laura Rush

The temples at Teotihuacán served as an inspiration for the Aztec's temples. By the time the Aztecs came to power, Teotihuacán was a ruin.

The Aztecs named the city "Teotihuacán", which means “Place of the Gods”. Aztec nobles made pilgrimages to this city. Some of the other Aztec temples show similarities with this one.

Teotihuacán was a metropolis that might have had a population of 125,000 people. One of its main roads is called the "Avenue of the Dead". Many of the city's temples are on this road.

The three largest temples are the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.


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Aztec Pyramid Temple © Dennis Jarvis

 

1) Pyramid of the Moon

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Pyramid of the Moon © haRee

The Pyramid of the Moon is at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead. It is a step-pyramid with a staircase on its southern face. A sanctuary stood on the flat top of the pyramid.

The south side of the pyramid displays an open court, with a series of small temples around its edges. This pyramid is 151 feet (46m) high.

Archaeologists discovered a number of rooms inside the structure. These rooms are likely where worshippers placed their offerings.


2) Pyramid of the Sun

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Pyramid of the Sun © haRee

At 213 feet (65m) high, The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure at Teotihuacán.

It has a staircase and a courtyard on the western side. The Aztecs built an altar in this courtyard were they had ceremonies to honor their gods.

Archaeologists have found a large tunnel-like cave under the pyramid. Evidence suggests this was a religious site before the building of the pyramid. It could be the reason the builders constructed the pyramid on this particular site.


3) Temple of Quetzalcoatl

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Temple of Quetzalcoatl © Rocky A

The Temple of Quetzalcoatl, or the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, is a six-level step pyramid. It is situated at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead.

This structure has sculptural designs covering its surface. Many of these images represent Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. Archeological evidence shows that the artists painted these designs using bright colors.

The Aztecs adopted Quetzalcoatl into their group of gods.

Worshippers entered the temple through a stone archway, which was carved to resemble a snake's mouth.

Years later the Spaniards, who regarded the snakes as evil because they associated serpents with stories about the Garden of Eden, destroyed as many snake images as they could.


The Great Pyramid at Cholula

The Great Pyramid at Cholula

Great Pyramid at Cholula © Jay Galvin

Cholula was a city that the Aztecs conquered. The Great Pyramid already stood when the Aztecs arrived. It is an Aztec temple because the Aztecs continued to use it for their own religious ceremonies. They believed Cholula was a home of Quetzalcoatl. It was a pilgrimage site for the Aztecs.

Some books about the Aztecs do not include information about the pyramid at Cholula. Scholars have not done extensive studies of this pyramid. They have dug a series of tunnels inside the pyramid, some of which are open to the public.

However, the outside cannot be fully excavated because a colonial church stands on its summit.

This pyramid is the largest ever built on earth. Each side is more than 1300 feet (396m) long and it is over 180 feet (55m) high. Although the Great Pyramid at Giza is taller, it is not larger. The style of the Cholula pyramid is like those at Teotihuacán.

 

Tenochtitlán

Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, was the Aztec's capital city. Despite its foundation on marshland, its inhabitants led an extremely efficient life; they ulitized bridges, aqueducts, causeways and an elaborate farming system to produce enough food and produce to support the city's huge population.

The Aztecs expanded the original settlement area of Tenochtitlán - a cluster of small islands on the westen side of Lake Texcoco. Their main place of worship was the "Templo Mayor" in the center of the city.

Tlatelolco, a suburb of Tenochtitlán on the northern side of the lake, was an important commercial site in the area. It also had a temple at its center.


Templo Mayor (the Great Temple)

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The Aztec Templo Mayor © Sam Kelly

The Aztecs worshiped the same gods at the Templo Mayor as they did at the Tlatelolco temple. This Aztec temple had two flights of steep steps; the builders designed the steps to ensure that a body flung down them would fall straight to the bottom.

Archaeological excavations revealed seven distinct stages within the Templo Mayor.

Scholars found one of the early stages almost intact. This stage has two sanctuaries which conforms to the description of the Templo Mayor from Spanish sources.

The excavators found the remains of offerings at the base of the temple. Archaeologists also found the remains of human sacrifices in the area surrounding the Templo Mayor.

Excavations revealed clues about the decoration of Aztec temples. Statues described as standard bearers were on the steps of one temple stage. Excavation of the platform revealed statues of frogs and feathered serpents. Archaeologists found statues of other deities and a calendar stone at the base of the temple.

The sanctuaries of the intact stage have two rooms, side by side. Each room had wooden beams surrounding the entrance. Carvings on the wall depict the god worshiped in the sanctuary. Inside each sanctuary was an idol of the deity. The color of the paint on the walls reflected the attributes of the deity worshiped there.


Tlatelolco

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Tlatelolco Temple © Sam Kelly

Scholars have excavated this city's central temple. It is a step-pyramid with a double staircase topped by two sanctuaries.

The Aztecs worshiped Huitzilopochtli, their tribal god, in one sanctuary. They worshiped Tlaloc, a god honored throughout Mesoamerica, in the second sanctuary.

Tlatelolco eventually merged with Tenochtitlán and together the two cities grew to become the largest and most prosperous metropolis of Mesoamerica.


Facts About Aztec Temples

Aztec temples were a central part of their daily life. Today, the temples at Teotihuacán, Cholula and Tenochtitlán are monuments to their builders.

  • The temples at Teotihuacán influenced the Aztec temple builders.
  • Cholula served as a pilgrimage and worship site for the Aztecs.
  • Tenochtitlán was the capital city and religious center of the Aztecs.
  • Their main temple was the Templo Mayor.
  • Archaeologists and scholars continue to work at these sites.