Standing here, in the Zócalo, the heart of Mexico City, I can see the city’s entire cultural history laid out. Layers of history spanning thousands of years. I can see it and I can touch it, all from this vantage point.
Physically, the Zócalo itself is nothing more than a large central plaza, a stone-paved platform for events, sacred and profane, bureaucratic and royal. It is the city’s place to protest or celebrate. It is the place where its people come to be seen and to be heard.
It is also the centre of the colonial-era city, a legacy best represented by the Cathedral Metropolitana, a vast heap of Baroque and Neo-Classical stonework dominating an entire side of the square. Construction started in 1524, just as the invading Spaniards began redefining Mexico City in their likeness.
Yet, just off to the right side of the Cathedral, tucked between it and a ring of Hispanic buildings, is the site of an earlier civilization, the one demolished in order to establish the Mexico City we see today.
Here lies Templo Mayor, the main temple of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. It was demolished, stones scavenged and built over in the early 1500s by the Spanish, remaining buried and largely lost to history until early 20th Century archaeologists rediscovered the temple’s approximate location. But it wasn’t until 1978, when electrical workers, digging on the site, came upon a late 15th Century stone disk depicting the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, that the archaeological excavation of the site started in earnest.
Today, the temple ruins are explorable by visitors, a remarkable subterranean link to the city’s pre-colonial underpinnings. The first iteration of the temple dates back to about 1325 but, over the the next two hundred years, it was expanded six more times, getting wider and taller each time. By 1519, it had reached 60 metres in height. Soon after, it would be reduced to rubble by the Spanish.
The Aztec city had its own urban order with north-south and east-west arteries reaching out along those cardinal coordinates to four neighbourhoods. The intersection of those roads was here, at Templo Mayor, the centre of Tenochtitlan. And just one level up is the centre of today’s Mexico City, with its own overlay of arteries, neighbourhoods stretching out, across the valley.
It is an intriguing thought: to walk the charming streets of Centro Histórico or to celebrate the Dia de Muerto in the Zócalo, knowing that another society once walked its own city paths just metres below.