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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Colin

The Aztec Empire, part one: The beginning of a civilization

When we talk about the Aztec Empire the first thing that comes to mind are human sacrifices, cannibalism and barbarism. The prejudices against pre-Hispanic cultures -still present in society nowadays- come from the colonial heritage, since any practice incompatible with the Catholic faith was illegitimate. It should be emphasized that in no way do I support or agree with such practices. Nonetheless, history should not be judged with modern eyes. The Aztec Empire was founded in 1325 and ended with the Spanish conquest in 1521. Two hundred years were enough for this incredible civilization to develop in all aspects: architectural, economic, religious and social.

Where does the term "Aztec" come from?

Mural by Diego Rivera showing the market of Tlatelolco in the city of Tenochtitlan. Source: Arqueología Mexicana

The most commonly used denominations are: aztec, mexica and tenochca. The word "Aztec" means "inhabitant of Aztlan", mythical city taken as their place of origin. As for the second term, it is known that the Aztecs called themselves "Mexicas". This is the name they’d adopt after settling in the basin of Mexico (where Mexico City is located today). According to some versions, the root for the word “mexica” is "Mexictli" “Agave Hare. In some codices the name, “Mexictli” was also given to the god Huitzilopochtli (deity of war and the sun) "the southern hummingbird", who would lead them to the "promised land" in order to found their city. "Tenochca" is the name given to the inhabitants of the city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire.

Where do the Aztecs come from?

First page of the Boturini Codex depicting the migration of the Azteca. Source: Wikipedia

The main records come from the chroniclers of the colonial era and pre-Columbian codices; like in many other cases, most of these records contradict each other. On the one hand, it mentions “the Chicomoztoc” which means “place of seven caves”, as a place of origin of several cultures that developed in central Mexico, including the Aztec. On the other hand, it is mentioned that the pilgrimage of the Aztecs begins with the departure from "Aztlán" or "place of whiteness" / "place of herons", in company of other tribes, among them the xochimilcas, tlahuicas, tlaxcaltecas, etc. According to the archeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, “depending on the source consulted, the role of the Chicomoztoc varies from the initial place of the pilgrimage, to a place of passage of some of the migrations departing from Aztlan”. The truth is that the exact location of Aztlán remains unknown. Some archaeologists proposed that it could be situated in the north of Mexico, such as Guanajuato and Nayarit, but there are even those who say it could be in the United States.

Founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan

Commemorative sculpture of the foundation of Tenochtitlan, which is placed next to the main square in central Mexico City. Source: Wikipedia.

As I mentioned before, the Aztecs left this mythical place called Aztlán to found a new city. It is said that the sign to the right place chosen by Huitzilopochtli would be an eagle standing on a prickly pear (which is symbolized in the Mexican flag and Mexico’s coat of arms). However, when arriving at what is now the center of Mexico, the "promised" place was already occupied by other populations. It’s important to say that at this time the basin was dominated by the lordship of Azcapotzalco. First, they remain in Chapultepec “hill of the chapulín” until 1279. Later on they were allowed to settle on a small swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, as long as the Mexica would pay tribute and serve them as soldiers. Tenochtitlan which means "Place where the prickly pears abound" was founded in 1325. This city was originally called “Cuauhmixtitlan”, "Place of the Eagle among the clouds" but it was later renamed in honor of Tenoch, who was leader of the Mexica for more than 30 years.

Construction of the city

Tenochtitlan circa 1519, just before the Spanish Conquest. Painted by Luis Covarruvias. Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The first Huey-Tlatoani "great ruler, great speaker" of the Mexica is Acamapichtli, son of a Mexica and a princess native to Azcapotzalco. Despite the fact that the Mexicas could elect their rulers, they remained subdued under the lordship of Azcapotzalco.

As the years went by, Acamapichtli undertook an ambitious construction project: to build a large capital in the middle of a lake. Several sources claim that the Mexicas wanted to build a city based on the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan (located about 40 km from the capital).

Tenochtitlan had as its center the Templo Mayor dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, deity of water. As they moved away from the center, the buildings varied in size and social function:

  • In the center, the main religious temples.

  • Around the religious perimeter, the house of government and palaces.

  • Then the houses-habitation, surrounded by chinampas (a floating garden where the Aztecs practiced a form of agriculture) and water.

  • On dry land the homes of those near the capital.

There were several causeways leading to various directions. The city was divided in four neighbors: Atzacoalco "Place where the water stops", Cuepopan "On the road", Teopan "Where God is" and Moyotlan “place where there are mosquitoes”.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recalls:

"When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about."

—  The Conquest of New Spain


I hope you have enjoyed this article! I'm very fond of pre-Hispanic history and I'm excited to share my passion with you all! I will post two more entries about the Aztec Empire, so stay tuned for more information!


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