The Megalithic Temple of Malinalco: Could these Magnificent and Complex Rock-Cut Structures Actually Pre-Date the Aztecs?
The little town of Malinalco lies at the margins of the Valley of Tepoztlan, some 115 kilometers (71 miles) to the southwest of Mexico City. Since Prehispanic times, its name has been associated with magic and sorcery: Malinalxochitl, goddess of snakes was worshipped on the Cerro de los Idolos , a hill overlooking the entire valley and the town below. In 1470, a temple was built on the hill as a sanctuary and a center of initiation for the military elite of the Aztec empire, the Eagle and Jaguar warriors. The origins of the site may, however, date back hundreds or even thousands of years earlier.
The temple of the Eagle Warriors, known locally as Cuauhtinchan, is a unique monolithic structure that has no equal in all of Mesoamerica. It consists of a number of chambers dug out of the living rock and a monumental stepped pyramid also carved out of the cliff face. The main temple is perched on a ledge, which rises 125 meters (410 feet) above the town. A remote and inaccessible location, it was only discovered in 1933 and explored by Mexican archaeologist José García Payón in 1935.
A view of the main ceremonial center of Malinalco from the access trail to the East, undercutting some nearly vertical cliffs. The natural characteristics of the site would have made it an almost impregnable fortress. (© Marco Vigato)
Incredible Chambers and Architecture
The site is reached by a modern stairway of over 420 steps. The original access might have been by a similar pathway, as remains of steps and stairs cut into the rock are still visible at places.
View of the “House of the Eagles”, the main monolithic temple that dominates the site of Malinalco. The temple is carved in the shape of a three-tiered pyramid with a circular chamber on top. It is speculated that the conical roof could have served as a “zenith-tube” for astronomical observations. (© Marco Vigato)
Upon reaching the level of the first rock ledge where the main temple is located, one encounters a large rock-cut trench that was clearly left unfinished. From there, a narrow pathway gives access to a small plaza closed on three sides by ceremonial structures and platforms. On the north side is the Cuahcalli or “House of the Eagles”, in the shape of a stepped pyramid entirely dug out of the living rock. A stairway gives access to a spacious, circular, rock-cut chamber with benches in the shape of mythological animals, eagles, and jaguars. To the east of it is a ceremonial pyramid built in the typical Aztec style of small volcanic stones cemented together; while to the West of the plaza stands a smaller, circular altar dedicated to Ehecatl, the God of Wind.
Further to the east, on a continuation of the same rock ledge that was artificially enlarged by means of massive retaining terraces, are a number of chambers and circular structures. Their workmanship appears rather crude in comparison to the precision of the monolithic architecture and is typical of the Aztec technique of construction employing smaller cemented stones.
By far the largest structure on the site is an immense rock-cut chamber, with a front of over 20 meters (65 feet). This has been entirely cut in the living rock with astonishing precision, partially cutting some earlier trenches and aqueducts that are still visible in its upper portions. These aqueducts continue in the form of narrow stone conduits further along the cliff face until reaching some sort of reservoir.
View of the “House of the Eagles”, the main monolithic temple that dominates the site of Malinalco. (© Marco Vigato)
The House of the Eagles: Where Blood Was Spilled
The House of the Eagles is a unique example of monolithic architecture. It was carved directly into the hillside without the aid of metal tools, as these were not known to the Aztecs. It is almost incredible to imagine that such a structure and all its intricate decoration could be carved with simple stone tools.
The rock was carved in the shape of a three-tiered pyramid rising from a high podium, which was similarly carved in the living rock. A single monolithic stairway leads to the top, flanked by balustrades on both sides and seated jaguar statues that might have served as standard-bearers, now badly defaced.
View of the reconstructed bas-reliefs and rock-cut benches inside the “House of the Eagles”. Three seats sculpted in the shape of a jaguar skin and eagles with sprayed wings surround a central altar also in the shape of an eagle. A circular hole in the floor would have served to collect blood or other liquids from the altar. It is also possible that the circular hole, filled with water, could have served as a water mirror for solar or astronomical observations. (© Marco Vigato)