The Aztecs were an American Indian people who ruled a mighty empire in Mexico from the 1400’s to the 1500’s. The Aztecs had one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas and built cities as large as any in Europe at that time. They also practiced a remarkable religion that affected every part of their lives and featured human sacrifice. The Aztecs built towering temples, created huge sculptures, and held impressive ceremonies all for the purpose of worshipping their gods. Their magnificent empire was destroyed by the Spaniards in the year 1521, but the Aztecs left a lasting mark on Mexican life and culture.
The majority of the Aztecs lived in what is now called the Valley of Mexico. Located at an elevation of over 7,000 feet, the large valley has housed many great cities. From the massive pyramids of Tenochtitlan, to the inhabitants of the vast hub of modern Mexico City, the great valley has been the heartland of many empires. The mighty Aztecs were the last indigenous group of people to enter the Valley of Mexico.
Like many other pre-Columbian cultures, the Aztecs developed their own political system, religion, social structure, agricultural techniques, lifestyle and world view. The Aztecs were truly unique.
The early Aztecs were semi-nomadic hunters and farmers. According to legend, in about 1000 AD the Aztecs left their mythic, island homeland of Aztlan in the desert frontiers of northern Mexico to begin their 100-year migration south to the Valley of Mexico. Led by their powerful patron god, Huiziloposhtli, they continued their migration southward, stopping along the way to plant crops, to build temples for their gods, and to offer human sacrifices in their honor. From groups they encountered as they traveled, the Aztecs adopted new customs and traditions. The Aztecs were becoming a very religious people.
When the Aztecs reached the Valley of Mexico in about 1193, this fertile inland basin was already heavily populated and little land was left for them to colonize. The Aztecs appeared rude and uncivilized to the members of the older city-states that clustered around the basin. For about another 100 years they continued to look for a permanent home. As they continued their search they served as mercenary soldiers and servants for their powerful neighbors. They continued to absorb the traditions, manners, and customs of the more advanced and established communities that surrounded them. As the Aztecs grew in number, they established superior military and civil organizations.
According to the famous legend, the Aztecs finally settled at a spot where an eagle sat upon a cactus eating a snake. This was a sign foretold by their patron god. The sign, found by the priests, finally appeared on a small island in Lake Texcoco. By 1325, on the island, the Aztecs built a temple to Huitziposhtli and began to construct the city of Tenochtitlan, the “Place of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit.” Over the next 200 years, the city slowly became one of the largest and most powerful cities of the world, and was the giant heart of the Aztecs empire.
To make a large capital city, many things had to be done to the land before they began building. The middle of a lake was not exactly the best place to build a city. There had to be some way for the Aztecs to increase their land area. Since Lake Texcoco was a shallow lake, it was more or less easy for the Aztecs to build up the land to make artificial islands. The Aztecs called this process chinampas and it was basically just piling up mud from the lake bottom to make marshy islands.
Causeways and bridges were built to connect the city to the mainland, aqueducts were constructed, and canals were dug throughout the city for easy transportation of people and goods. Tenochtitlan was also located near the powerful city-states Texcoco and Tlateloco. Religious structures dominated the landscape, the most amazing of which was the giant stepped, limestone faced pyramids on which temples were erected. The most amazing of which were the imposing pyramids of the Sun and the Moon along the Avenue of the Dead.
At the heart of the city was a walled sacred precinct somewhat similar to the forbidden city of China. The precinct was dominated by the Temple Mayor, a massive pyramid topped with dual temples dedicated to the god of rain and the god of the sun. Temples dedicated to other gods along with schools for the nobility, living quarters for priests, and a ritual ballcourt was also located in the precinct. The precinct contained as many as 78 buildings and must have been immense.
Adjacent to the sacred precinct was the palace of Montezuma the palace had numerous rooms and apartments, large open courtyards, storage rooms, judicial chambers, servants’ quarters, beautiful gardens, an aviary and a zoo. The rest of Tenochtitlan stretched into the lake covering artificial islands connected by canals and bridges.
The people of Tenochtitlan had a calendar and a system of numbers, and practiced a form of hieroglyphic writing. They also made astronomical observations which they applied to the orientation of their monuments and their system of divination. Goods were brought to the city by tribute agreements with territories, and many goods were exported to be traded with other parts of the Aztecs Empire and Central America. As a result of its location and superior organization, the city flourished.
By the time the Spanish led their conquest, the great market was attracting up to 60,000 people daily. In 1519, over 1 million people inhabited the Valley of Mexico. As many as 300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan at this time. People from all corners of the Empire were drawn to this strange and beautiful city. Artists came to employ their skills in the service of the ruler. Warriors won fame and fortune in battles of conquest. Traders with their caravans carried exotic treasures to the great marketplace. Foreign rulers paid state visits to the court of Montezuma. In the market, people traded for everyday things, not for luxury items. In the city center, citizens listened to priests, went to the healers, dined on their favorite foods from the market, and visited with friends and relatives. It was truly a remarkable place.