One of the most fascinating aspects of Mexico City is its rich history. Unlike almost any other modern city in the western hemisphere, Mexico City was a large thriving city before the arrival of the European colonizers.
Although the infamous Italian Christopher Columbus never made it to Mexico, the infamous Spaniard Hernán Cortez sure did. When he finally made it to what is now called Mexico City, he found a “magnificent” city the likes of which his expedition had never seen before, filled with resplendent temples and pyramids painted in vivid colors, intricately carved sculptures, beautiful colored feather tapestries, etc. This was a far cry from the crude and "primitive" indigenous settlements that Columbus and his successors found on the Caribbean islands and in what is now the U.S. (Of course, since the people who built this city were non-Christian pagans, Cortez ultimately destroyed their city and enslaved them)
This city, then called Tenochtitlan, was in fact the capital city of the legendary Aztec empire, then called Mexíca by the Aztecs. As you can see from the artist's rendition above, it was surrounded by a large lake. (The lake has been almost completely dried up for several hundred years now, and all that remains today are some canals in one of the outer districts.)
According to the Aztec beliefs, the city was founded at the “center of the universe”, a place where the heavens and the underworld came together with the terrestrial world. It was also the location where the ancient Mexíca explorers reportedly first saw the legendary eagle with a serpent in its beak, perched on a prickly-pear cactus, that was a sign to them to build the city here, and is now the symbol of the Mexican nation and pictured on the Mexican flag.
In fact, the heart of modern day Mexico City was the heart of the ancient Aztec empire, and unlike in other countries of the western hemisphere, the history of the indigenous people prior to the arrival of the Europeans is still a vibrant part of the entire national identity.
All this history comes crashing down over you when you visit the Templo Mayor, right in the heart of Mexico City.
These ruins were once the Great Pyramid (shown in the picture at the top of this page) which dominated the center of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Reportedly, Cortez made the conquered Aztec slaves tear down their own temple and use the stones to build him a palace. Now the ruins lie about a block from the central plaza of modern day Mexico City, which you can see in the background (where the flag is in the photo directly above).
Needless to say, very little actually remains of the original structure. The ruins were actually buried for centuries under other more modern buildings. It was only within the last 80 years that it was discovered what an archeological treasure this city block contained, and finally the more recent buildings were torn down to excavate the site. Hundreds of valuable artifacts of all sizes have been recovered, and many of them are now housed in an excellent museum on the site.
Continue on through Mexico City