The Aztec Indians lived in the Mexican valley from the 12th to 16th centuries A.D. They were intensely religious and phenomenal architects. They built large step pyramids as a display of power as well as to symbolise that the gods were above all humans, both metaphorically and physically. Their largest pyramid was built in the capital of their empire, Tenochtitlan.
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The Aztec pyramids were in the form of step pyramids, which were built in numerous ancient cultures, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. Step pyramids are generally larger than their smooth-sided counterparts. They are made of layers of stone so the entire surface appears as steps. The corners face the four cardinal directions. The Aztec pyramids had two staircases, each going to a shrine or temple dedicated to a deity atop the structure. Often, smaller structures were built at the base of the pyramids.
Aztecs believed very strongly in human sacrifice. The sacrifice was necessary to repay the gods for their bounty and blessings bestowed upon humans. On occasion, even cannibalism was practised. The Aztecs built the pyramids as temples to their various gods and conducted their sacrifices within their walls. Priests performed the sacrifices.
The Aztecs placed serpent heads at the bottom of the staircases to ward off evil from the temples. They carved in bas-relief artwork that represented the gods of the temple. The balustrades are adorned with human skulls from ritual sacrifices, with stone blocks carved in varying geometric shapes.
History tells us that the Aztecs moved to modern-day Mexico from the north after being enslaved by another tribe. They walked looking for the Promised Land. In 1325 they saw their omen in the form of an eagle with a snake in its mouth sitting atop a prickly pear. This was to be the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan. This eagle became the deity Huitzilopochtli, for whom the great pyramid was erected. This site is modern-day Mexico City.
The Great Pyramid
The largest and most notable pyramid, Templo Mayor, was built in Tenochtitlan and dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. The pyramid towered 197 feet above the capital. Huitzilopochtli’s temple rose off of the right staircase and was painted red and white to symbolise war and sacrifice; at the summit of the left staircase was a temple painted blue and white to symbolise moisture and water dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility. Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes destroyed the great pyramid in 1521.
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