1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Malinalco, A Hilltop Aztec Sanctuary

The Aztec Site of Malinalco


Malinalco Structure 1, Temple of the Eagle

Malinalco Structure 1, Temple of the Eagle


Malinalco is an important Aztec archaeological site in Central Mexico, near Cuernavaca, about 115 km southwest of Mexico City. The site is located on a high cliff overlooking the valley of Malinalco, in Mexico state. During Aztec times, Malinalco was an imperial center and place, capital of one of the tributary provinces of the Triple Alliance.

The region was inhabited by the Matlazinca, a population of Central Mexico who first inhabited the valley of Malinalco centuries before the Aztec/Mexica conquered the area in 1476, under the reign of Axayacatl. Archaeological excavations have brought to light the existence of a previous ceremonial core that predates the Aztecs. The bulk of the ceremonial precinct, however, was built around 1501, under the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl.

Excavations at Malinalco have uncovered exotic artifacts reflecting the predominant ceremonial nature of the site, such as elegant pottery, jewelry, copper bells, numerous sculptures and a rare wooden drum carved with images of dancing jaguars and eagles.

Site Layout

The hilltop part of the site, called Cerro de los Idolos, consists of a ceremonial precinct surrounding three main temples carved into the hill bedrock, and several platforms and smaller shrines. Some of the structures are covered with adobe bricks; Structures 1 and 2 have a mixed rectangular and circular shape. The most impressive is Structure 1, also known as the Temple of the Eagle.

Malinalco’s Structure 1, the Temple of the Eagle

The Temple of the Eagle is a circular shrine, accessed by a staircase with 13 steps which leads to a rectangular platform and the main entrance of the shrine. The whole construction is imbued with Aztec symbolism and religion.

The number of the steps recalls the 13 ascending levels of the sky. The stairway is flanked by the sculptures of two jaguars. At the shrine’s entrance, the face of the Earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, with its mouth open, is carved around the doorway of the inner chamber.

The shrine is full of symbols related to Nahua cosmology and world view. Climbing the stairs to the temple is like passing through the different celestial levels and entering the shrine gives the impression of being devoured by the earth monster. This passageway recalls the voyage of the sun, which, according to Aztec mythology, is devoured every night by the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, to be regurgitated every morning.

At the back wall of the inner chamber is a stone bench, carved out of the bedrock, and decorated with sculptures of eagle and jaguars. In the center of the room is an eagle carved out of the rock, probably serving as an altar or throne.

Malinalco's Structure 3

Structure 3 at Malinalco is also a large temple carved out of the hill bedrock. In the 1930s, the archaeologist José Garcia Payón, in charge of the archaeological investigations at the site, discovered a mural painting on one of the interior walls depicting a procession of warriors. The scene is no longer visible, although a copy exists. The panels portray a procession of fully-armed warriors with bodies painted with red stripes. They walk over a band of geometric motifs that look like a carpet or woven textile, which has been interpreted as a reference to stars in the night sky. The style of the human figures, their ornaments and clothes, recall the typical warlike style widespread in most of Mesoamerica during the Postclassic period.

Meaning of Malinalco

The symbolism and meaning of the ceremonial complex of Malinalco has been much debated. Some scholars propose that the dominant images of eagle and jaguars relate to warfare, and they interpret Structure 1 as a place of gathering for elite Mexica eagle warriors. Others emphasize the solar and celestial motifs as celebrative elements of Mexica imperial power, linked to coronation and rulership rituals. Finally, other experts emphasize how these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztecs, Aztec Religion, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

García Payón, José, 1947, Los Monumentos arqueológicos de Malinalco. Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropológicos vol. 8 (1): 5-63

Fuente de la, Beatriz, Tatiana Falcón, Maria Elena Ruiz Gallut, Felipe Solís, Leticia Staines Cicero, and María Teresa Uriarte, 1999, La Pittura Precolombiana I Murales della Mesoamerica, Jaca Book, Milan, Italy.

Mendoza, Ruben G., 1977, World View and the Monolithic Temples of Malinalco, Mexico: Iconography and Analogy in Pre-Columbian Architecture. Journal de la Société des Américanistes, (64), pp. 63-80.

Smith Michael, 2003, The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell Publishing

Townsend, Richard, F., 1982, Malinalco and the Lords of Tenochtitlan. In The Art and Iconography of Late Post-Classic Central Mexico, edited by Elizabeth Boone, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C., pp. 111-140.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.