What was the location of the Aztecs?
A model of reconstructed Tenochtitlán is featured at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.Credit: National Museum of Anthropology
Tenochtitlán was an Aztec city that flourished between A.D. 1325 and 1521. Built on an island on Lake Texcoco, it had a system of canals and causeways that supplied the hundreds of thousands of people who lived there.
It was largely destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after a siege in 1521, and modern-day Mexico City now lies over much of its remains. In a 1520 letter written to King Charles I of Spain, Cortés described the city that he would soon attack:
“The city is as big as Seville or Cordoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes.” (From "An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600, " by Mary Wiesner-Hanks, Oxford University Press, 2005)
He noted the city’s richness, saying that it had a great marketplace where “sixty thousand people come each day to buy and sell...” Its merchandise included “ornaments of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, stones, shells, bones and feathers ...”
Origins of Tenochtitlán
According to legend, the Aztec people left their home city of Aztlan nearly 1, 000 years ago. Scholars do not know where Aztlan was, but according to ancient accounts one of these Aztec groups, known as the Mexica, founded Tenochtitlán in 1325.
The legend continues that Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, the sun and human sacrifice, is said to have directed the Mexica to settle on the island. He “ordered his priests to look for the prickly pear cactus and build a temple in his honor. They followed the order and found the place on an island in the middle of the lake ...” writes University of Madrid anthropologist Jose Luis de Rojas in his book "Tenochtitlán: Capital of the Aztec Empire" (University of Florida Press, 2012).
De Rojas notes that the “early years were difficult.” People lived in huts, and the temple for Huitzilopochtli “was made of perishable material.” Also in the beginning, Tenochtitlán was under the sway of another city named Azcapotzalco, to which they had to pay tribute.
Political instability at Azcapotzalco, combined with an alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, allowed the Tenochtitlán ruler Itzcoatl (reign 1428-1440) to break free from Azcapotzalco’s control and assert the city’s independence.
A statue of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, stands at the entrance of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.Credit: Irafael Shutterstock
Over the next 80 years, the territory controlled by Tenochtitlán and its allies grew, and the city became the center of a new empire. The tribute that flowed in made the inhabitants (at least the elite) wealthy. “The Mexica extracted tribute from the subjugated groups and distributed the conquered lands among the victors, and wealth began to flow to Tenochtitlán, ” writes de Rojas, noting that this resulted in rapid immigration into the city.
The city itself would come to boast an aqueduct that brought in potable water and a great temple dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli (the god who led the Mexica to the island) and Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility.
Aztec social organization
The people of Tenochtitlán were divided into numerous clan groups called calpulli (which means “big house”), and these in turn consisted of smaller neighborhoods. “Usually, the calpulli was made up of a group of macehaultin (commoner) families led by pipiltin (nobles)” writes California State University professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno in his book "Handbook to Life in the Aztec World" (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Fray Diego Durán, a Spaniard who lived in Mexico a few decades after Cortés’ conquest, wrote that King Motecuhzoma (or Montezuma) I, who reigned from 1440 to 1469, created an education system where every neighborhood had to have a school or temple to educate youth.
In those places “they will learn religion and correct comportment. They are to do penance, lead hard lives, live with strict morality, practice for warfare, do physical work, fast, endure disciplinary measures, draw blood from different parts of the body, and keep watch at night...” (Translation by Doris Heyden)
Another feature of Tenochtitlán’s society was that it had a strict class system, one that affected the clothes people wore and even the size of the houses they were allowed to build. “Only the great noblemen and valiant warriors are given license to build a house with a second story; for disobeying this law a person receives the death penalty...” Fray Durán wrote.
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What is good info. About the aztec.
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