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Introduction To The Aztec Cities

Lost Cities Of Ancient America: The Major Cultures
Subject Index: Aztec • Maya • Inca

Introduction To The Aztec Cities

Aztec Empire

The ancient Aztec people greatly valued superior work and craftsmanship.  This is reflected in their architecture and is most noticeable in their religious buildings.  The Aztecs’ main purpose for creating their products was to honor their gods.  In this section, we will  examine their city layout, their religious structures since they were of such great importance, and the materials they used.

Aztec Urban Planning and Layout

Early Aztec Capital Cities:

As a general rule, Aztecs’ capital cities were formally planned at the center and random at the outskirts.  There was a rectangular public plaza in the center of the city that was bordered with civic and religious buildings.  Outside this central area were schools, dwellings, markets, and a number of other types of buildings scattered randomly.

Aztec City-State Capitals:

The Aztec city-state capitals “played a more important role in the daily lives of most people than did the distant imperial metropolis.”  Because it was closer, peasants could easily come to town to take care of personal, religious , and administrative obligations.

They were normally planned in a similar manor to the capital cities.  They had a central area and the building in this location were arranged with cosmology in mind.  The major temple-pyramid was always placed on the eastern side of this center with the steps facing west along with the temple itself.  Other important buildings also had their own designated places in relation to the cardinal directions.



Tenochtitlan was an Aztec city that was arranged in a slightly different manor than other Aztec cities.  It was an urban island settlement that housed 200,000 inhabitants at its height.  It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time of the Spanish conquest.  The two largest cities in the world at this time were Paris and Constantinople with 300,000 people.  Needless to say, when the conquistadors encountered this miraculous city, they were in awe(Carrasco 66)!

Tenochtitlan was at first constructed like other city-state capitals with an organized central area and an unorganized region outside the center precincts.  When the Mexicas came to power and Tenochtitlan’s population began to grow explosively there was a need to organize.  The Mexicas’ decided that, since Tenochtitlan had become the capital of the Aztec civilization, it was time to renovate.  They wanted it to have a renewed splendor and to look prestigious and important.  They decided to renovate it along grid lines.  Not only the central region was renovated to match this grid, but also the outskirts to make the entire city more organized.  The people of Tenochtitlan borrowed a lot of stylistic designs from Teotihuacan and Tula to rebuild their city, including using a grid, certain architectural styles, and sculpture.  The entire city of Tenochtitlan was divided into five quadrants, if you count the center one.  Canals divided the city in the four cardinal directions.  The central plaza was not the only administrative and religious center in Tenochtitlan.  In the center of each of the four surrounding quadrants there was also a central plaza.  The Incas also chose to organize their city layouts along gridlines in their early empire.  (For more information about this see Inca grid pattern below.)

Outside of the city centers, were the houses of its people.  The houses of the lords and nobles normally surrounded the market places and civic centers.  On the outskirts of the city, there were gardens in the swamps.  By using their superior farming skills, these people made “chinampas” (rectangular patches of earth in the swamp, to cultivate plants for food and to build houses on).  They were able to have very productive planting areas because of this technology.

Aztec Pyramid Types

Aztec Twin Stair Pyramids

In the pyramids that the Aztecs built, the early Aztecs used a style very similar to that of earlier Mesoamerican people of the Classic and Post Classic periods, including the Maya.  There were some differences though.

An example of the twin stair pyramid is the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan.  At its summit, it had two temples and a double staircase.  Each temple was dedicated to a separate god.  The one on the left was dedicated to Tlaloc and was decorated with blue and white paint to signify water and moisture.  The Aztecs worshipped him because of his connection with the life giving and taking qualities of the rain.  The right temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochti and was painted in red and white to honor war and sacrifice.

This pyramid was so steep that one could not see the temple on top unless they had climbed the pyramid and their head had cleared the platform.  This signified that the gods were so much above the people and earthly things that one could not even come close to them if they were not at the top of the pyramids.  This was because the gods lived in the sky.

Aztec Round Pyramids

Calixtlahuaca Round Pyramid

There were also round pyramids constructed by the Aztecs.  These were dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl.  He was the god of wind and these pyramids were given a rounded shape so they would not act as a barrier and hinder the wind god’s entrance.  These types can be found in the Toluca Valley and in Calixtlahuaca.

Similarly, round structures sometimes appeared in Inca constructions.  For more information about the shapes of Inca buildings see Inca Structures.

Later Aztec Pyramids

Cholula Single Stair Pyramid

The later Aztec builders, deviated from their twin stair designs, and built pyramids with a single set of steps.

Aztec Building Materials

Materials Used In Building Tenochtitlan

Building materials were generally obtained the region where the Aztecs lived, but were also traded for.  In Tenochtitlan the Mexicas traded swamp delicacies such as frogs, algae, and fish for building materials.  Rocks and fill were also brought to Tenochtitlan from the shore to reclaim land for chinampas (gardens) and houses.

Materials Used In Building Other Aztec Cities

In most Aztec cities, the people used wood found in uninhabited regions (nearby vast forests).  Generally pine or oak would be used for making support beams and doorjambs. They also used plaster, adobes, and lime.  Obsidian (a volcanic glass like rock found in the foothills of Otumba and other regions), was also popular as an adornment.  They also used rubble and loose stone from coastal regions.

General Construction of Aztec Pyramid-Temples

The typical temple-pyramid consisted of a platform, a long, broad, steep double staircase (or single) going up the center, with balustrades going up the sides of the steps.  The Aztecs used sculpted stone blocks and skulls to decorate the platform and the ends of the balustrades.  At the the top was a sacrificial block where sacrifices would take place.  Behind this block the temple or temples would be built rising above the platform.  They would typically have a back room containing the idol of the temple and an antechamber for the priest.  The inside walls were typically ornamented with either sculpture or painted.  The roof would be thatched in poorer temples or would be make of wooden support beams used in a style like a corncrib built up so that it got smaller toward the top, and in some cases (such as Templo Mayor) the temple roof would be made of stone.  Frequently, blocks of stone, which they carved, were used to make a mosaic of intricate geometric design to decorate their temples.

Ancient Mayan pyramids and temples were designed similarly.


Through archaeological and anthropological research, today people are able to learn about what the ancient Aztec were like.  Because their history is a thing of the past, we are unable to be sure exactly how they lived in every detail, but scientists are able to understand much of their history based on ancient and historical writings, archaeological investigation, and by questioning decedents of the ancient Aztecs.  As far as we know, the Aztecs became great builders through centuries of learning and experimentation.  They were superior craftsmen and used their skills to honor their rulers and gods, creating magnificent structures, and using cosmic events as planning tools.  Most modern people make the mistake of believing that it was all done without engineering know-how, but, just as in Egypt, these were precise and sophisticated peoples.

Aztec Bibliography

  • Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs.  Cambridge:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996.
  • Townsend, Richard F.  THE AZTECS.  London:  Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992.
  • Vaillant, George C.  Aztecs of Mexico.  New York:  Doubleday & Company Inc., 1953.
Introduction To The Maya Cities

Mayan Culture

Long ago the pre-Columbian Mayans built highly complex cities and mammoth structures without the invention of the wheel or domesticated animals.  Their limited architectural and engineering knowledge enabled them to strengthen their civilization by creating wondrous religious centers.  The information that I found was so extensive that I decided to focus on their pyramids and temples.

Types of  Maya Religious Structures

Mayan Pyramids

The term “pyramid” is a geometric reference to the shape of these construction.  The Mayan version of the pyramid is truncated (like the Aztec, Toltec, and other American pyramids), with a flat platform, so that a temple could be built on the top.

The ancient Mayans built two types of pyramids, those that were meant to be climbed and those that were not.  The first type was used for holding sacrificial rituals (such as Chichen Itza).  The other type was not meant to be touched and was sacred (such as Tikal).  The steps on theses structures were too steep to climb and many times they had doorways leading to nowhere.  During their rituals, the priests would ascend the pyramid from the earth to the sky by means of staircases.  They believed that this brought them closer to the gods.

Very Steep Stair Pyramid AT Tikal

These staircases lead from ground level to the temple.  The number of staircases that the pyramids had varied, but there were typically two or four.  Many times there would be a platform connecting the steps somewhere near the middle of the pyramid so that the priest-king could stop and do a part of his ritual before continuing to the top.

Aside from having religious functions, Mayan pyramids also had other purposes.  The pyramids were built so high that their tops could be seen protruding out of the jungle.  Because of this, the Mayan people were able to use them as landmarks.  That was not the only significance of building them so high though.  They also served as a reminder that the gods were ever present. (they also allowed the elite to rise above the smell of rotting human flesh!)

Some pyramids even house burial chambers for high ranking officials.  Housed inside these mammoth structures were small burial rooms.  There were narrow corridors that led to these chambers.  These burial chambers often contained treasures such as jade or gold.

Aztec pyramids were comparatively similar to ones of the Maya.  One exception is that the Aztecs often built two or more temples at the top while the Mayan pyramids generally had one.  The similarity is, in part based upon the architecture of the Toltecs that came before them both.

Easier Stair Pyramid
Chichen Itza

The Mayan Temple

Like the Mayan pyramids, their temples were important because of their ritual value.  The temples were constructed in the same style as Mayan huts.  They had a relatively small interior compared to the mass of the structure as a whole.  The Mayans never did find a balance between the two.

Mayan temples, similar to those of the Aztecs, normally housed altars or stone platforms where the priests would perform their sacrificial rituals to their god.  On the wall behind the platform there would be a painted representation of the god of that city.  The people of each Mayan city paid homage to their own god.

Mayan Construction

Mayan Construction Labor

The pre-Columbian Mayans lacked the technology that we have today; so, they needed a lot of manpower to raise their magnificent structures.  The king-priests would supervise the labor of the common people.  These peasants would work on theses construction projects to pay homage to the king and state.  This normally took place during the time that they were unable to do their agricultural work (though many were slaves and captives).  The laborers had to carry loads of materials on their backs or roll them on logs to get them from the source, such as a nearby quarry, to the construction site.  There would be hundreds (or even thousands) of peasants working on these construction projects.

Aside from the general laborers and priests, the Mayans (like the Incas) also had specialized workers, such as architects who would also oversee the construction of these buildings.  The Mayans were not, however, credited for first creating the initial design of the pyramid.  There were other cultures, such as the Olmecs who were building a variation of the pyramid a thousand years before the Mayans (though the first pyramids were constructed in Caral in Peru).  The Mayans refined the art of pyramid building.  They made them more complex and intricate.

Mayan Building Materials

The materials used for building Mayan structures were normally types of stone found in the area surrounding the city.  Most commonly used was limestone.  Limestone was plentiful in most of the Mayan settlements.  There were usually quarries right outside the city where they would get their blocks for construction.  They would chisel away the stone around the block that they wanted and then undercut it.  The stones that they pulled from the quarry would be refined by chipping and flaking to a flat surface.

The Mayan people also used mortar on their construction projects.  They made the mortar by burning limestone in a very sophisticated process.  They layered the limestone with wood and put a cylinder or pipe up the middle of the stack (to feed air to the fire).  Next they burned the pile to make the mortar.  To the Mayans the outside appearance of their buildings was much or more important than the inside.  The temples were decorated with roof combs  which sat at the top  outside edge along the front side of the temple (at the top of the pyramid).  The mortar was also used to finish the outside of buildings, coat floors, and make sculptures.  The mortar also helped cement everything in place.  Unfortunately, in more humid areas the stucco deteriorated quickly due to the dampness (yet some remained).

Mayan Construction Tools

The ancient Mayas did not have metal tools, mainly because suitable metals were not common to the area that they inhabited (their most common metal was copper and gold).  The tools that they had to work with were very simple.  They used tools such as: fire (to burn) and basalt axes (to cut) wood.  Fire was very unpredictable so they switched to basalt axes for more precision.  On stone they used tools made of flint, obsidian, granite, limestone, and quartzite (more durable than the limestone).  They also used the technology of the “plumb bob” to judge vertical alignment accuracy.  A Plumb-Bob is a heavy weight that would hang on a string so that they could see true vertical.

The Incas built their structures without the help of the plumb bob, and also (apparently) did not roll heavy stones on logs as the Mayans did.

Mayan Building Style

The Mayan architects did not build in right angles as we do today.  They relied heavily on bilateral symmetry.  (This means if you cut a building right down the middle each half would look like a mirror image of the other side).  They would also build one temple over another (using the old as a foundation for the next).  There could be several temple mounds or pyramids under one pyramid.  Some of the pyramids became very large in this way, others were purpose built to size.

The general view of the Mayan construction process was that the peasants would build the platform first.  The temples and palaces were build on top.  The structures then refined with stones that they pulled from the quarry, and mortar to product flat surfaces and adornments.

The First Maya Temple At Cerros

Cerros Pyramid in Belize

The first Maya pyramid was constructed in Cerros.  First, the foundation was laid consisting of layer after layer of white earth.  This was done in the same way the peasants made the foundation for their own huts.  Then they shattered locally manufactured and imported pottery and put it into the earth where the temple was to be constructed, and also put flowers from fruit trees on the earth as an offering.  Next they would put flat, hard stones on top of the foundation to make a pavement.  The platform was built on top of this pavement.  Then they built internal walls and filled them with white earth and pottery mixed in with broken, course limestone from the quarry, to make the structure sturdy.  By stabilizing each layer, they did not have to worry about is collapsing with the addition of the next layer (per Linda Schele).

Mayan Astrological and Religious Connections

There was a strong religious and astrological connection to the building endeavors of the Mayans.  For example, they might build a temple in a specific location so that if you faced the front you would be looking south to see the path of the Jaguar.  The sun, rising in the east and setting in the west, would circle the temple.  The steps to the temple would be placed exactly in the middle so that the priest would be in alignment with the gods.  Some buildings also possessed daily and yearly time functions (sun dials and solar calendars).

Mayan buildings also have significant mythical importance.  The Mayans believed that the pyramids were representations of mountains:  temples represented caves to the underworld, doorways represented monster mouths and both were decorated accordingly.


The Maya were truly advanced in some areas, yet primitive in others.  They found their way to accomplish great tasks, yet their cities died at regular intervals.  All civilizations go through a phase of building on gigantic scale.  The Mayans took this to great heights by using bright, colorful, painted decorations throughout.  And they were constructed to last.

Mayan Bibliography

  • Benson, Elizabeth P.  The Maya World.   1967.
  • Hernandez, Xavier.  A Mayan Town Through History.  1992.
  • Neufeldt, Victoria.  Webster’s New World Dictionary.  1995.
  • Schele, Linda and Freidel, David.  A Forest of Kings:  The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya.  1990.
  • Sharer, Robert J.  Daily Life of Maya Civilization.  1996.
  • Stierlin, Henri.  Living Architecture:  Mayan.  1964.
  • Stuart, Gene S. and George E.  Lost Kingdoms of the Maya.  1993.
Introduction To The Inca Cities

The Inca Empire

About 600 years ago, the Inca were able to organize a vast empire through the conquest of neighboring peoples that ultimately stretched from the bottom of Chile, to northern Ecuador, along the western side of the Andes mountains.  During their reign, they developed their own architectural style, as well as, adapting the city structures of their conquered peoples in order to organize a more controllable empire.  Here we  briefly discuss their types of structures, their labor, the building materials and tools they used, the Inca construction process, and the manor in which they laid out their cities.

Inca City Layouts

Inca Grid Pattern City Layout

Like the Aztecs, the Incas sometimes used a grid pattern to lay out their inner cities.  Although it was not common in either societies, it was used occasionally.  In the grid pattern, the streets were designed to cross one another at 90 degree angles.  Some anthropologists believe that use of the grid method was adopted from previous cultures since it has been found elsewhere.  In the Inca city of Cuzco, the central sector was reengineered using such a grid patten.  Comparatively, the inner part of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was also reconstructed using a grid pattern.

Many cultures used the grid pattern to arrange their cities.  Many believe it was the obvious simplicity of it that led these cultures to choosing this arrangement, and the intrusion of ideas from other  trading cultures.  But clearly, the Inca had opportunity to integrate ideas from their conquests.

Inca Radial Pattern City Layout

The Incas used the radial pattern more often than the grid pattern for city arrangement.  Anthropologists believe that it was a later form of city arrangement because the best examples of this are found far from Cuzco.  Although, the area outside of the central region of Cuzco is arranged in a radial pattern.

The radial pattern spreads out from the center like the spokes of a wheel where all things radiate from a single point, this point is typically a Ushnu platform (temple) in the middle of a plaza.  Because this central point is typically occupied by a ritual structure, it is suggested that the point of origin is highly symbolic.

This pattern was used widely across the Inca Empire and was used as a formal model for settlements in conquered regions as well.

Inca Structures

Large or small, the typical Inca structure was a rectangular building with a single room.  There was usually one door in the middle of a long wall.  If it was a very long room, they sometimes used more than one door.  Most of these structures had only a single floor, but there are some exceptions to this.  For example, if the structure was built on a hill side a second floor might be added so that they would have a means to access the upper floor more easily.

The roofs on these buildings were mostly thatched.  In the highland areas, the roofs sloped steeply to allow rain to run off.

The Incas used other geometrical shapes at times, just as the Aztecs, and others did.  There were round and “u” shaped buildings, but just as it was for the Aztecs these shapes were not dominant.

Inca Construction

Inca Labor

Inca stone-working was tedious and slow.  Specialists and unskilled laborers worked together to construct buildings throughout the Inca Empire.  A vast number of people were necessary to be successful in building the many types of structures.  At the time that the fortress in Cuzco was being constructed, it is thought that there were probably more than 30,000 people working on it.

All of this labor and planning was directed by architects and master stone masons under the Inca’s (king’s) supervision.  These workers were highly skilled in their occupations.  They built fortresses, temples, and palaces for their Inca throughout the empire (such as Tambo Colorado).

The work of unskilled workers was of great importance also.  There was a lot of work that went into building each structure.  A large number of unskilled workers were needed to help quarry rocks, move them, and raise them into position.

Almost all structures that are considered to be Inca today were probably built after the year 1440 A.D.  The Inca used an abundant state workforce based on a system of rotational labor (a kind of taxation) to supply their workers.

The Mayans had a similar labor system to the Incas in a sense.  Their priest king would supervise the work, specialized workers such as architects worked on the design, and a large group of unskilled laborers did the brute force work.

Inca Building Materials

The Incas mostly used different forms of stone for their construction projects.  They used roughly shaped  stones, finely shaped stones, and in drier areas adobe.  They used mud or clay to smooth the appearance of rough walls.

Inca constructions were most often made of stones collected from fields and laid in mortar.  After covering rough walls with mud or clay, the Incas would paint them to refine the appearance.

Fine masonry was used for more important constructions.  The stones were carefully shaped and fit snugly against their neighbors.

The Coricancha in Lower Cuzco is well preserved today because the Conquistadors Spanish cathedral was built over sections of it, preserving those parts of it.  These walls are made up of two different types of stone.  The lower section of the walls were constructed of finely worked stone while adobe brick makes the upper section.  Between the two, a band of gold was used to hide the joint between the two materials.

Tools of the Inca

For use on fine masonry, the Incas had tools of harder stones and bronze chisels.  They also used earthen ramps to raise large stones if more than one row was needed (similar to what may have been used in Egypt).

Unlike the Mayans, the Incas did not use logs to roll their large stones or use the plumb bob for building their constructions.  One thing that they did have in common with the northern cultures, was that none had iron tools, rulers, or the square.   Though the Inca has a very precise record system in the Quipu.

Inca Construction Strength

Inca structures were very sturdy.  As a matter of fact, their ancient structures survived recent earthquakes in the Colca Valley, and in Paracas of Southern Peru while huge numbers of modern structures were destroyed.  Our culture’s architects could learn from construction techniques used by the Incas.  It is suspected, that the Incas may have known how to determine which ground was suitable and more likely to be stable during the numerous earthquakes that ravage the region.

The Incas are most famous for their amazingly precise method of fitting building stones together.  The fittings are so tight that a knife cannot be slipped into the cracks between them.  This was one of several techniques reserved for the most important Inca buildings such as temples, administrative structures, and the Inca’s residences.  Another technique used on important buildings was to shape stones into roughly square or rectangular forms and use them much like bricks.  They used more common (less labor intensive) techniques for other buildings.

Some stones were left in irregular shapes and only worked along the edges to fit tightly together.  This style was most commonly used for very large stones needed for terrace walls or riverbank constructions.

The most interesting thing about Inca construction methods was their use of models to plan cities.  They first assembled a clay model for the reconstruction of Cuzco after defeating the Chancas.  After this, whenever the Inca army would conquer a region, models were made of subjected zones and were presented to the Inca in charge for approval or for suggestions of changes that needed to be made (much like the Disney movie).  When the model was finally approved it would be given to those in charge of executing the orders of the Inca or local governor.  They would take them to the building site and give them to those doing the construction.  Thus, the Incas used this tool to plan the desired layout of their cities.


The Inca culture used a system in which the demands of building were shared throughout the empire.  By using this thoughtful system of labor and pre-planned models, they were able to construct magnificent structures throughout their vast empire.  Inca’s way of organizing labor, permitted massive structures to be built, while maintaining the regular infrastructure of the empire.

Inca Bibliography

  • Bauer, Brian S.  The Development of the Inca State 1992.
  • Bauer, Brian S.  The Sacred Landscapes of the Inca:  The Cusco Ceque System. 1998.
  • Cobo, Bernabe.  Inca Religion and Customs. 1990.
  • Malpass, Michael A.  Daily Life in The Inca Empire.  1996.
  • Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Maria.  HISTORY OF THE INCA REALM. 1999. 

Source: Christina Moore, The Pennsylvania State University

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