For about 95 years between 1428 and 1521, the Aztec civilization was a flourishing empire in central Mexico. It represented the last flowering of the Mesoamerican civilization. Aztecs were known as the Mexica people, so Mexico got its name from the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language, in which it means “place of the Mextli.” Although there are various theories, Mextli is one of the protective deities in Aztec mythology, and also goes by the name Huitzilopochtli, who is the god of the sun, war, and hunting. It is said that Huitzilopochtli prophesized that the Aztecs would build a city where they found an eagle perched on a cactus, which led to the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325, later to become Mexico City. The Mexican flag depicts this image.
The Sun Stone is always associated with the Aztecs. Though the name may not sound immediately familiar, you’re sure to recognize it once you see it. You can view the original in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The Aztec Sun Stone
Although it’s sometimes called the “Aztec Calendar Stone,” it’s not technically a calendar but more a representation of the Aztec cosmology. They had advanced astronomical knowledge based on a heliocentric theory, using eighteen 20-day months to create a 365-day year. People started thinking of the Sun Stone as a calendar because the Aztecs apparently used this 365-day solar calendar for farming. The Sun Stone is large, measuring 3.6 meters in diameter and weighing 24 tons. It is displayed in the center of the Aztec room at the National Museum of Anthropology, and is well-preserved with its intricate decorative elements intact—making it worthwhile to visit the museum, even if only to see this piece.
The National Museum of Anthropology is so vast that it takes several days to see it all
The Sun Stone originally sat atop the Temple of the Sun, but was hidden underground in the Zócalo to keep it from being destroyed by the Spanish. It was rediscovered in 1790.
Remains of Aztec culture like the Sun Stone are still buried underground in historical districts throughout Mexico City—particularly around the Zócalo. In the Zócalo, which is at the center of the capital, excavation work is not possible because the new city has been built by the Spanish conquerors, but you can see the archeological excavations that are progressing right next to the Zócalo at the Templo Mayor, which was a large temple site in the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. The site was discovered in 1978 during some electrical work on the northeast end of the cathedral, which led to the start of archeological research until the 1980s.
The Templo Mayor site
There are two shrines atop Templo Mayor. Every time a new king would take the throne, they would construct a new shrine on top of the old one that was dedicated to the previous king. A total of seven shrine layers have been discovered at the site. Because the site was destroyed, the foundations are the only thing that remains in most cases. This makes it a little hard to picture the originals, but there is also a museum on site that you can visit to understand it better.
Statue of an Aztec warrior in eagle costume
Statue of the rain god Tlaloc with its vibrant colors intact
In addition to these items, there is a massive carved stone of a female deity and a variety of other displays that are worth seeing.
Zócalo is packed with people on holidays and weekends, and you can sometimes see people in Aztec costume doing a dance performance there. Known as Concheros, it’s an ethnic dance that was once part of Aztec religious ceremonies.
You can take pictures with the people dressed in Aztec costume, but be aware that they’ll charge you for it. There are also people all over the Zócalo that will do incense purification rituals for you. Head out to the Zócalo on a holiday and get a taste of Aztec culture.