Tenochtitlan - Island City of the Aztecs
Created | Updated Sep 30, 2011
Imagine yourself as a Spanish foot soldier in the year 1519; to be precise it's 21 April and you are part of Hernán Cortés expedition to discover more of these strange lands to the west of your garrison home on the island of Cuba. The 11 ships you and 550 compatriots are travelling on drop anchor and you all transfer on to boats to row ashore. You have now become the one of the first Westerners to set foot on the continent of North America1. The first natives you encounter are the friendly Totonac, but Aztec runners have already seen your arrival and sent messages to their ruler 200 miles away, the emperor of the mighty Aztec Empire: Moctezuma II2.
As you move inland you receive the emissaries of Moctezuma II who treat you with awe and respect, almost as if you were gods. They shower you with gold, fine works of art and jewels, but warn you not to travel further inland. They say the route to the city is too far and it is too dangerous; however, Cortés has other ideas and he presses inland. You encounter wild tribes and huge jungles; you make alliances and fight battles until early November. By now you are in a high mountain pass between the great volcanoes Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, marching towards the famed Aztec capital. As you clear the peak of the pass the world opens up before you and you can see far down into the Valley of the Mexica below, and there, sitting in the middle of a lake, is a sight of wonder, an immense city that appears to be floating... Tenochtitlan3.
The Mixtec and the Founding of Tenochtitlan
In the 13th Century, the central region of modern Mexico was known as the Valley of the Mexica and was inhabited by a number of different, competing city states based around the shores of Lake Texcoco. All these nations were descended from the Toltecs, who had lived in the area, and were nearly identical. Into this mix, from the northern land of Aztlán came a group of people that also spoke the local language, Náhuatl4, and were known as the Mixtec.
The Mixtec believed they were the chosen people of the God of War, Huitzilopochtli5. Yet they had no land of their own; the legend states that they saw an eagle perched on top of a cactus eating a snake6 that was sitting on an island in a lake. This, according to prophecy, was the sign they were looking for, so they proceeded to row out to the island and found their city. As romantic as this idea is, the more scholarly and probably real reason the people settled on the island was that, compared to the other groups who owned the land surrounding the lake, the Mixtec were very weak. The swampy, disease-ridden island in the middle of the salt-water lake was not a prime property location, so the Mixtec were free to settle there.
For years the Mixtec were tied to the powerful and well-established Azcapotzalco, the city of the Tepanecs, who had claimed the island as their own but were happy to let the Mixtec live there in return for tributes. The Mixtec may have been fierce fighters, but the nation was too small to resist the powerful Tepanecs so they paid the tributes and earned money working as mercenaries in the Tepanec armies. Things slowly began to change over the years; as the nation of the Mixtec grew bigger, the Tepanecs became more concerned. The Tepanec king, fearing the growing power of the Mixtec, launched a series of attacks designed to keep the Mixtec nation subservient. However, the powerful Mixtec King Itzcoatl had formed a series of alliances with the two other city states in the area. This triple alliance defeated the Tepanecs and took over Azcapotzalco in 1428. From then on the new Mixtec nation became commonly known as the Aztecs.
The Aztec Empire and the Growth of Tenochtitlan
As the Aztec nation grew in power and numbers, they soon started to outgrow the island. The solution was to increase the size of the dry ground. This was achieved by planting trees in the shallows and slowly building up the island.
As the nation grew in power so did the city. Three large causeways were built to connect the city to the mainland, and an aqueduct was constructed to bring fresh water into the city. The city was divided into many small districts called calpulli. These calpulli were criss-crossed by streets called 'tlaxilcalli' that used removable wooden bridges to cross the many canals which snaked through the city. Each calpulli had its own speciality - there would be a jewellery calpulli full of jewellery makers and a wood workers' calpulli full of carpenters and so on. Each area had its own market place in addition to the city's central market place, the 'tianquiztli'. In the centre of the city was a 300-metre-wide walled religious area containing the temple of Quetzalcoatl7, the ball game court, the 'tzompantli' or rack of skulls8, and the temple of the sun. Outside was the palace of the emperor and the other official public buildings. The city was a busy place which contained 20,000 inhabitants on a normal day and up to 40,000 on feast days. The city was vibrant and exciting; on a stroll down a normal street one evening you could expect to encounter peddlers, entertainers, beggars9, prostitutes and 'ahuianis'10, street cleaners and even refuse removal men.
As the Aztec nation grew in strength its empire expanded. It was founded on feudal principals very similar to the European system. The king or emperor ruled a group of privileged nobles and priests; below these were the warrior classes, then the tradesmen, the labourers and finally the slaves. The Aztecs had soon become the dominant power in the area, taking control of the other city states. However, they were not controlling rulers - they would extract tributes from their vassal states and in return offer protection and trade. This structure enabled the vassal states to prosper and the empire to continue to grow. Very soon the wars were almost unnecessary; so much so that a new series of wars were deliberately started. These 'Wars of the Flowers' were between the Aztecs and the Tlaxcala nation, who were spared a total conquest in return for participation in the wars. The idea was that by having a regular battle between the Aztecs and the Tlaxcala there would always be a strong core of trained warriors; it would also provide a steady supply of prisoners who could be turned into sacrificial victims for their religion.
The Aztecs and Religion
The Aztecs were a deeply religious people, and to them religion meant blood. The Aztecs believed that the forces of nature were embodied as deities. The moon, the sun, the acts of war and fertility, rain, wind and air each had their specific god in the pantheon. Each of these deities had to be paid a tribute regularly, and the normal tribute was blood, either from a small cut on the earlobe or tongue, or the burning of food or feathers. However, at times of trouble or at certain important days of the year a more important tribute was needed - human life. Generally it was prisoners of war who were used for sacrifice, but the power of the religion was so great that the warriors believed the best ways to die were in battle or to be sacrificed. The victim would be treated with high regard for days leading up to the event until the fateful day when the sacrifice would be led to the top of the temple pyramid. The Spanish soldier and chronicler Bernal Diaz Del Castillo recounted one such example:
The dismal drum of Huichilobos11 sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue12 from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos. Then after they had danced, the papas13 laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them.The Aztecs would, on big occasions, hold huge sacrifices with hundreds of prisoners killed at a time. The god's blood-lust seemed unquenchable. For comparison the Inca nation of South America is known to have sacrificed around 100 to 200 people a year in the entire country. At the dedication of the main temple in Tenochtitlan in 1487 it is rumoured that somewhere around 20,000 people were slain over the course of four days! The problem with trying to work out the numbers though is that the Spanish and the Aztecs exaggerated, and modern historians have trouble finding hard evidence. What is not in doubt is that they did kill huge numbers of people. The best estimate for entire Aztec nation annually is somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 victims, and some modern historians think there could have been as many as 250,000.
Cortés and the Downfall of a Nation
When the Spanish reached Tenochtitlan on 8 November, 1519, they already held the upper hand; before Moctezuma had even heard of Cortés there had been troubled times. The Aztecs, along with many Mesoamerican cultures, did not separate the calendar and the flow of time from religion - they were part of the same concept - and they believed that time was cyclical. The ten years before the Spanish arrival had been a time of great trouble: comets had been sighted in the sky, a bolt of lightning had struck the Tzonmolco temple, the temple of Huitzilopochtli had been destroyed by a fire, and the city had been flooded. When rumours of white men who travel in floating buildings and who rode four-legged beasts were heard, many believed it was the return of the god Quetzalcoatl and spelled disaster for the Aztec nation.
The Aztecs had not helped themselves by becoming a conquering power. They had angered many other peoples who willingly became allies of the Spanish, so that when Cortés finally rode into Tenochtitlan he already held a huge amount of power. Moctezuma met with Cortés in his palace at Tenochtitlan on 9 November and showered Cortés with gifts. Obviously fearful of the stranger, Moctezuma agreed to halt human sacrifices, and many Christian crosses were erected. Then news arrived from the coast that Velázquez had been sent to arrest Cortés for insubordination - he had never been ordered to travel that far inland. Cortés left his deputy Pedro de Alvarado, and marched to the coast, where he fought and defeated Velázquez's expedition.
Meanwhile trouble had broken out in Tenochtitlan. On Cortés return he discovered that Alvarado had interrupted the Aztec celebration of Toxcatl and a fight had broken out killing between 350 and 1,000 people. The Spanish became surrounded by hostile forces and seized Moctezuma to hold him as a captive in his own palace for insurance. Moctezuma appeared on the balcony of his palace and appealed for calm, only to have insults and rocks hurled at him; his people were appalled that he appeared to be helping the hated Spanish. What happened next is a mix of legend and hearsay: some say Moctezuma and the nobles were garrotted by Alvarado, others that Moctezuma was killed by a rock or dart thrown by his own people, others that he was killed by his nephew Cuauhtémoc. Whatever happened, he was succeeded by his brother Cuitláhuac, who died of smallpox after a brief reign, and then Cuauhtémoc claimed the throne and placed the palace under siege. On 1 July, 1520, Cortés and his men muffled their horse's hooves and, with planks of wood to replace the removed bridges, tried to escape the city. However, they were discovered and had to fight for their lives. Cortés only escaped because the Aztecs wanted him kept alive as a very pleasing sacrifice to the war god Huitzilopochtli. In total over 400 Spaniards and 2,000 native allies were killed, but Cortés, Alvarado and the most skilled of the men managed to fight their way out of Tenochtitlan and escape to the shore, where they joined the bigger army of Spaniards and allies.
Cortés then switched to a new tactic. Tenochtitlan could only be reached by the three causeways, so he blocked them off and set up a siege. By systematically wiping out or allying with the towns on the lake shore and by floating ships on the lake Cortés was able to totally blockade the city. It was about this time that smallpox, a European disease that the locals had no resistance to, struck in earnest. It decimated the city and Cortés allies. As much as 40% of the population were killed by the disease14, yet still the city held out. Eventually Cortés attacked. The fighting was brutal and the city had to be virtually torn down street by street to prevent the Aztecs hiding. Cuauhtémoc eventually surrendered on 13 August, 1521. The last great civilisation of the Americas was over.
Once the Aztec people had been subjugated, the process of colonisation could begin. The great stone buildings of Tenochtitlan were torn down and used to provide the stone to build a new Cathedral to sit in the centre of the city. The old ways of the Aztecs were ruthlessly suppressed and slowly the Aztecs as a culture vanished. The city meanwhile continued to expand bit by bit. It was modernised and slowly came to dominate the surrounding countryside once again, although this time there was virtually nothing left of the greatest city of the Aztecs.
Today you can go to any travel agent and book a flight to Tenochtitlan. It costs around £400 to £500 and there are regular British Airways flights direct from Heathrow. In fairness though, if you were to ask a travel agent for a ticket you'd probably get a blank look; a new city has since been built on the ruins of the old one and is named after the people who once ruled much of the country, Mexico. In fact much of Mexico City's big central Zocalo15 is paved with the stones that were once Tenochtitlan's buildings. Yet, like so much of Mesoamerica, there are still remnants left today - some native Mexicans still speak Náhuatl, and in the early 1900s the remains of the Templo Mayor were found by workers digging to lay power cables. This makes the Zocalo a fascinating place to visit; sandwiched between the Catholic Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional is the remains of an Aztec temple. Perhaps it is a fitting end for Tenochtitlan that what was once the most fabulous city in the Aztec empire is now one of the largest cities in the world.Doctor Who visits the AztecsBBC History - The Conquistadors and the Aztecs