Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations






Tenochtitlan – Capital of the Aztecs

Category: Aztec

TenochtitlanThe Mexica or Aztecs from Aztlan, were guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, while they traveled for many years. They were told to go until they found an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a serpent. Finally, they found what they were looking for on the shores of Lake Texcoco. Unfortunately, they were among the last Nahua to arrive in the Valley of Mexico in the thirteenth century and the valley was very heavily populated. At first, they had to negotiate a deal that forced them to accept an overlordship from the Atzacapotzalco Indians. Under the agreement Atzacapotzalco would extract tribute from them in exchange for the right to settle on their territory. This was the only way that they could survive. However, their land at this time may have only been two small mounds of mud that barely emerged above the waterline. The first thing the Aztecs did was build a shrine for its god Huizilopochtli. The first homes were reed huts. All around them were marshes. The entire Valley of Mexico at this time was covered in a series of shallow lakes. Roughly, 440 square miles of surface water. Most goods and people moved by canoe. Cities were built on both land and water. Near the location where the Aztecs chose to live there were no building materials, or arable land, finally, in 1428, they were able to rid themselves of the domination of Atzacapotzalco.

Gradually, their new city began to grow. It did so using a system called chinampas. Chinampas or floating gardens were formed by taking mud from the bottom of the lake and heaping it upon a group of intertwined reeds and branches. These gardens increased in size, and eventually became landlocked when the roots of wil­lows and other types of trees roots interlaced with other water loving plants. All day long men on canoes worked the narrow channels between chinampas by scooping up mud and water from the lake and spread it on the gardens. Slowly, the city enlarged, and then by the time the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan it would en­compass about five square miles. At this time, there were approximately fifty cities in the Valley of Mexico. This would have made this area one of the most heavily populated in the world. Only four cities in Europe had a population of over 100,000. They were Venice, Milan, Naples, and Paris. Seville, where the Spanish ships had left for Mexico only had 40,000.

TenochtitlanThree causeways connected Tenochtitlan to the mainland. The causeways did much to control the water levels of the various lakes. However, flooding occurred between the years 1440 and 1450. During these years the water level of Lake Texcoco rose so high that the city was inundated and almost destroyed. The water levels forced the inhabitants to live on their canoes, finally, they solved this problem by building a 17 kilometer long dyke. The dyke divided Lake Texcoco into two parts. Texcoco had no outlet, and salt water that saturated the soil turned the ground sterile. It became so bad that fish cold not live in it. The other lake was called Lake Mexico and it became home to aquatic fowl and fish farms. As the city grew so did the demand for water. Eventually, water had to be brought into Tenochtitlan by aqueduct from springs near Chapultepec. The soil around Tenochtitlan was not very good, so food was brought in from great distances.

From 1427 to 1440, Itzcoatl ruled the Aztecs. He conquered Azcapotzalco and founded the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan with Tetz.coco and Tlacopan. Lventually, their defeat would open up expansionism to the south as well as beyond the volcanoes. Itzcoatl was followed by

Montezuma I who conquered lands in all directions. For the first time human sacrifices began happening in the Temple Mayor, or Coatepec (Serpents Hill) as the Aztecs called it. Templo Mayor was the center of the Aztec universe. According to religious theory, blood had to be spilled so that the cosmos would continue to exist. The sun required human hearts and blood so it could continue to shine.

Most of the buildings in Tenochtitlan were single story and painted white. However, the higher the social order, the more likely that they would have two stories. The more important buildings were made of tezontli, which is a red volcanic stone that was easily worked. The lower level homes were made of lime adobe bricks which were sun dried. Some of the finer palaces were made of fine stone work and cedar wood. The use of scented woods in construction was popular. In all, there were an estimated sixty thousand dwellings with about 250,000 people inhabiting the city limits. People came and went all day long. The city was swarming with ac­tivity. Buying and selling in the marketplace was a way of life. People used cacao, woven cloth, and gold grains as currency. As they still do today, many women walked through the city streets carefully balancing baskets of vegetables and poultry on their heads. At the same time, men carried enormous loads of commerce on their backs. As they walked they caught the scents of the passing gardens filled with fruit trees, roses, and other exotic plants. Then as they maneuvered along the great causeways, canoes glided gracefully across the tops of the lakes. Canoes and walking were the two modes of transportation and they were treated equally. Canoes could even pass through carefully constructed openings into the gardens of the great houses. This would prevent the occupant from having lo land. Stone monuments with pictures carved in them were every­where, and exotic birds of every size and color flew in the skies above the waterways. At night, there were no lights, instead they used red torches to light up the night. Banquets, parties, and music would go until the wee hours.

market places of Tenochtitlan were very orderly. The largest of these was at the Plaza of TlaltelocoThe enormous market places of Tenochtitlan were very orderly. The largest of these was at the Plaza of Tlalteloco. The market normally saw between 10,000 and 20,000 people visitors each day, with every fifth day the crowds reaching 50,000 people. Vendors sold even thing from gold and silver to exotic feathers and animal skins. Slaves, both male and female were sold right next to the mounds of vegetables, fish, poultry, and cloth. Young hairless dogs were a very popular culinary item. In addition, their were many places to eat tortillas and tamales. If you wanted, you could have an alcoholic beverage, get your hair cut. and smoke some tobacco.


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