Aztec architecture from the monumental to the everyday communicated the empire's underlying belief systems and power through conquest. Their building styles evolved as this polytheistic people migrated across modern-day Mexico over the course of several hundred years. From the eventual capital of Tenochtitlán to outlying sites and cities, Aztec religious structures, infrastructure, and community spaces were built to evoke deep religious symbolism and ties to the central government.
Icons of Power
Aztec pyramid-temples simultaneously projected a sense of supreme imperial authority and a connection to the godly plane of existence. Built to resemble the mountain homes of ancestor spirits, the pyramid-temples embodied "altepetl," a concept meaning "the heart of the city is filled with fertilizing water." Common pyramid-temple designs feature a steep, double staircase sweeping up from a stone platform base, decorated with skulls and sculpted stone blocks. Aztec cosmology prescribed that pyramid temples were aligned on the eastern side of a town's central plaza and faced the setting sun.
Temples, the Gods' Axis
While temples typically crowned pyramids, they also sometimes existed as separate structures. In Aztec beliefs, temples acted as a channeling point where the underworld and heavens intersected. Town inhabitants gathered there for ceremonies and human sacrifice to nourish the gods -- although not all temples were used for that purpose. The Aztecs believed in several gods and each required different offerings. Carved statues of dangerous or venomous animals such as serpents sometimes stood at the end of temple staircases, protecting against evil spirits.
Supporting A Thriving Populace
Aztec markets were simple plazas, strategically located next to the central temples. Early Spanish observers reported that the market god would punish anyone who sold goods on the way to market, and that the Aztecs enacted laws forbidding such activity. This further demonstrates how the deep connection between state power and religion within the Aztec culture served to keep town centers thriving and essential to the populace. Aztecs also developed sophisticated engineering feats in the form of aqueducts to support the large populations of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco, which were built on the swampy islands of Lake Tetzcoco.
All Work, No Play? Not Quite
The Aztecs played a version of the Mesoamerican ballgame with a rubber ball, a public event that tied together sport, ritual and religion. The ballcourts -- called "tlachco" -- were built in an I-shape. These features are believed to be vital to Aztec city layout, although few examples have been excavated. After planning a new site, Aztec settlers' first priority was to build a shrine for Huitzilopochtli -- an Aztec god of the sun and war -- with a ballcourt beside it.
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