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Subject: Aztec, History of Mexico, Pre-Columbian Mexico, List of Mesoamerican pyramids, Moctezuma II
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Model of the temple district of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology
Capital Tenochtitlan
Languages Nahuatl
Religion Mexica religion
Government Monarchy
Historical era Pre-Columbian
 -  Established 1325
 -  Formation of the Aztec Empire 1521

Mexico-Tenochtitlan    , commonly known as Tenochtitlan (Classical Nahuatl: Tenochtitlan ) was an Aztec altepetl (city-state) located on an island in Lake Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico. Founded in 1325, it became the capital of the expanding Mexican Empire in the 15th century,[1] until captured by the Spanish in 1521. At its peak, it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. When paired with Mexico, the name is a reference to Mexica, also known as "Aztecs" although they referred to themselves as Mexica. It subsequently became a cabecera of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Today the ruins of Tenochtitlan are located in the central part of Mexico City.

Traditionally, its name was thought to come from Nahuatl tetl ("rock") and nōchtli ("prickly pear") and is often thought to mean "Among the prickly pears [growing among] rocks". However, one attestation in the late 16th-century manuscript known as "the Bancroft dialogues" suggest the second vowel was short, so that the true etymology remains uncertain.[2] Tenochtitlan was one of two Mexican altepetl (city-states) on the island, the other being Tlatelolco.


Western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan is the southern part of the main island (under the red line). The northern part is Tlatelolco

Tenochtitlan covered an estimated 8 to 13.5 km2 (3.1 to 5.2 sq mi), situated on the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco.

At the time of Spanish conquests, Mexico City comprised Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco at the same time. Since then, the city extended from north to south from the north border of Tlatelolco to the swamps, which by that time were gradually disappearing to the west, the city ended more or less at the present location of Bucareli Street.

It was connected to the mainland by causeways leading north, south, and west of the city. These causeways were interrupted by bridges that allowed canoes and other traffic to pass freely. The bridges could be pulled away, if necessary, to defend the city. The city was interlaced with a series of canals, so that all sections of the city could be visited either on foot or via canoe.

Lake Texcoco was the largest of the five interconnected lakes. Since it formed in an endorheic basin lake, Lake Texcoco was brackish. During the reign of Moctezuma I, the "levee of Nezahualcoyotl" was constructed, reputedly designed by Nezahualcoyotl. Estimated to be 12 to 16 km (7.5 to 9.9 mi) in length, the levee was completed circa 1453; the levee kept the spring-fed fresh water in the waters around Tenochtitlan and kept the brackish waters beyond the dike, to the east.

Two double aqueducts, each more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long and made of terracotta,[3] provided the city with fresh water from the springs at Chapultepec. This was intended mainly for cleaning and washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was preferred. Most of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was said to take four baths a day. As soap they used the root of a plant called copalxocotl (Saponaria americana);[4] to clean their clothes they used the root of metl (Agave americana). Also, the upper classes and pregnant women enjoyed the temazcalli. Similar to a sauna bath, it is still used in the south of Mexico. This was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.

City plans

The city was divided into four zones or campan, each campan was divided on 20 districts (calpullis, Nahuatl calpōlli), and each calpulli, or 'big house', was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets that crossed the city, each leading to one of the three causeways to the mainland of Tepeyac, Ixtapalpa, and Tlacopan.[6] Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that they were wide enough for ten horses. Surrounding the raised causeways were artificial floating gardens with canal waterways and gardens of plants, shrubs, and trees.[7] The calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night.

A complex system of canals, extending throughout the city, provided the infrastructure for an efficient approach to sanitation. Over one thousand natives worked to collect waste nightly, using barges to recycle organic waste for cultivation and dispose of other forms of waste.[8] This system impressed outsiders, and contemporary Mexico City has even begun to imitate its practice of recycling waste for the fertilization of chinampas.[9]

The earliest European images of the city were woodcuts published in Augsburg around 1522.[10]


Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at The Field Museum, Chicago

Each calpulli (from Classical Nahuatl calpōlli, Nahuatl pronunciation: [kaɬˈpoːlːi], meaning "large house") had its own tiyanquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a main marketplace in Tlatelolco – Tenochtitlan's sister city. Cortés estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people trading daily. Bernardino de Sahagún provides a more conservative population estimate of 20,000 on ordinary days and 40,000 on feast days. There were also specialized markets in the other central Mexican cities.

Public buildings

Tenochtitlan and model of Templo Mayor.
Fundación de México – Tenochtitlán by Roberto Cueva del Río.

In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples and prostis. Inside a walled square, 300 meters to a side, was the ceremonial center. There were about 45 public buildings including: the Templo Mayor, which dedicated to the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli and the Rain God Tlaloc, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the tlachtli (ball game court) with the tzompantli or rack of skulls, the Sun Temple, which was dedicated to Tonatiuh, the Eagle's House, which was associated with warriors and the ancient power of rulers, the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice, and some minor temples.[11] Outside was the palace of Moctezuma with 100 rooms, each one with its own bath, for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. Also located nearby was the cuicalli or house of the songs, and the calmecac.[12]

The city had a great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning. It planned everything that needed to be done, as of today, Tenochtitlan is still in the order of their gods. Mexicans are worshipping their gods in the arrangement to achieve blessings and earn respect from their gods above.

Palaces of Moctezuma II

The palace of Moctezuma II also had two houses or zoos, one for birds of prey and another for other birds, reptiles and mammals. About 300 people were dedicated to the care of the animals. There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten ponds of salt water and ten ponds of fresh water, containing fish and aquatic birds. Places like this also existed in Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huaxtepec (now called Oaxtepec) and Texcotzingo.[13]


Mexico City statue commemorating the foundation of Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Mexican civilization, consisting of the Mexica people, founded in 1325. The state religion of the Mexica civilization awaited the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: that the wandering tribes would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signaled by an Eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus. The Aztecs saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, a vision that is now immortalized in Mexico's coat of arms and on the Mexican flag. Not deterred by the unfavourable terrain, they set about building their city, using the chinampa system (misnamed as "floating gardens") for agriculture and to dry and expand the island.

A thriving culture developed, and the Mexica civilization came to dominate other tribes all around Mexico. The small natural island was perpetually enlarged as Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica. Commercial routes were developed that brought goods from places as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and perhaps even the Inca Empire.[14]

After a flood of Lake Texcoco, the city was rebuilt under the rule of Ahuitzotl in a style that made it one of the grandest ever in Mesoamerica.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519. With an estimated population between 200,000 and 300,000, many scholars believe Tenochtitlan to have been among the largest cities in the world at that time.[15] Compared to Europe, only Paris, Venice and Constantinople might have rivaled it. It was five times the size of the contemporary London of Henry VIII.[6] In a letter to the Spanish king, Cortés wrote that Tenochtitlan was as large as Seville or Córdoba. Cortes' men were in awe at the sight of the splendid city and many wondered if they were in a dream.[16]

Although some popular sources put the number as high as 350,000,[17] the most common estimates of the population are of over 200,000 people. One of the few comprehensive academic surveys of Mesoamerican city and town sizes arrived at a population of 212,500 living on 13.5 km2 (5.2 sq mi),[18] It is also said that at one time, Moctezuma had rule over an empire of almost five million people in central and southern Mexico because he had extended his rule to surrounding territories to gain tribute and prisoners to sacrifice to the gods.[7]

The coming of Cortez/Cortés

Leading up to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs reported having received several omens of an imminent catastrophic event. These omens had a great psychological impact on the population of Tenochtitlan, especially their ruler, Moctezuma II. When Cortez and his men finally did land in Mexico, the Aztec people, especially Moctezuma, believed the Spaniards to be gods and Cortez to be Quetzalcoatl returning as he had promised in Aztec legend.[19] It may have been Moctezuma's devout worship of the gods of his tradition that in the end destroyed him and the people of Tenochtitlan. Perhaps if he was less convinced of the supernatural origin of the Spaniards he would have delayed them and prevented the rapid defeat that destroyed their beloved capital. But, in the end, Moctezuma's responsibility for the collapse of the Aztec Empire cannot be ignored.[20]

As Cortés approached the great city of Tenochtitlan, the nativeen they arrived, they were taken captive and two were killed, the other two escaping through the woods. Upon their return to Vera Cruz the officer in charge was infuriated, and so led troops to storm Almería. Here they learned that Moctezuma was supposedly the one who commanded the officers to be executed.[21] Back in Tenochtitlan, Cortés detained Moctezuma and questioned him endlessly.[22] Though no serious conclusions were made, this started the relationship between Moctezuma and the Spaniards on a bad note.[23]

After the conquest

Cortés subsequently reduced the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan to utter famine through a seventy-five day siege,[7] directed the systematic destruction and leveling of the city,[24] and began its rebuilding, despite opposition, with a central area designated for Spanish use (the traza). The outer Indian section, now dubbed San Juan Tenochtitlan, continued to be governed by the previous indigenous elite and was divided into the same subdivisions as before.[25]

Social classes

Tenochtitlan can be considered the most complex society in Mesoamerica in regards to social stratification. The highly complex system involves many social classes. The macehualtin are commoners who lived outside of the island city of Tenochtitlan. The pipiltin were noblemen who were relatives of leaders and former leaders and they lived in the confines of the island. Cuauhipiltin, or eagle nobles, were commoners who impressed the nobles with their great skills in warfare and they were therefore treated as nobles. Tetuhctin were the highest class; these individuals were rulers of various parts of the empire. The king was included in this class. Tlatohtin were individuals who chose to enslave themselves to pay back a debt; they were not slaves forever and were not treated as badly as typical slaves seen in other ancient civilizations worldwide. The last class were the pochteca; they were basically merchants who traveled all of Mesoamerica trading. The membership of this class was based on heredity. Pochteca could become very rich because they did not pay taxes, but they had to throw a big party from the wealth that they obtained from their trade expeditions. Where and in what a person lived also showed their status. Ordinary people lived in houses made of reeds plastered with mud and roofed with thatch; people who were better off had houses made of adobe brick with flat roofs.[6] The wealthy had houses of stone masonry with flat roofs; they most likely made up the house complexes that were arranged around the inner court. The higher officials in Tenochtitlan lived in the great palace complexes that made up the city. Adding even more complexity into the Aztec system of social stratification was the concept of the calpolli. Calpolli, meaning ‘big house’ is a group of families that are related by either kinship or proximity. These groups consist of both elite members of Aztec society and commoners. They have a relationship of mutualism because the elite members provide the commoners with arable land as well as nonagricultural occupations and the commoners perform various services for chiefs and render tribute.[26]


Ruins of Templo Mayor

Tenochtitlan's main temple complex, the Templo Mayor, was dismantled and the central district of the Spanish colonial city was constructed on top of it. The great temple was destroyed by the Spanish during the construction of a cathedral. The location of the Templo Mayor was rediscovered in the early 20th century, but major excavations did not take place until 1978–1982, after utility workers came across a massive stone disc depicting the nude dismembered body of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. This stone disc is 3.25 meters in diameter (or 10.5 ft).[27] These finds are held at the Templo Mayor Museum.

The ruins, constructed over seven periods, were built on top of each other. The resulting weight of the structures caused them to sink into the sediment of Lake Texcoco. This resulted in the ruins now resting at an angle instead of horizontally.

Mexico City's Zócalo, the Plaza de la Constitución, is located at the site of Tenochtitlan's original central plaza and market, and many of the original calzadas still correspond to modern city streets. The Aztec calendar stone was located in the ruins. This stone is 4 meters in diameter and weighs over 20 tons. It was once located half-way up the great pyramid. This sculpture was made around 1470 under the rule of King Axayacatl, the predecessor of Tizoc, and is said to tell the history of the Mexicas and a prophecy for the future.[28]

In August 2012, archaeologists discovered a mix of 1,789 human bones five metres below street level in Mexico City.[29] The burial dates back to the 1480s and lies at the foot of the main temple in the sacred ceremonial precinct of the Aztec capital. The bones are from children, teenagers and adults and a complete skeleton of a young woman was also found at the site.[29]

Works in modern history

The Spanish conquistadors disposing of Moctezuma's body, Florentine Codex, 16th century
  • Motezuma, an opera composed by Antonio Vivaldi, is set in Mexico City/Tenochtitlán.
  • La Conquista (2005), an opera by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero.
  • Cortez the Killer, a song by Neil Young, talks about the arrival of the Cortez's troops and the massacre that ensues.
  • Woman of a Thousand Secrets, a novel by Barbara Wood, tells the story of the founding of Tenochtitlán through the eyes of someone who was there.
  • Huesos de Lagartija, a novel by Federico Navarrete, tells the story of a young Aztec who lived through the European invasion of Mexico. The novel has many details about daily life in Tenochtitlán.
  • Aztec, a novel by Gary Jennings, is told through the eyes of a Mexica ("Aztec") in the times of the European conquest of Mexico.
  • The Broken Spears, by Miguel León-Portilla is a book containing an episode on Tenochtitlan and other contemporary cultures.

See also


  1. ^ "Tenochtitlán, la capital azteca". Retrieved 8 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Frances Karttunen (1983) An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl p.225, Texas linguistic series, University of Texas, Austin ISBN 978-0-2927-0365-0; OCLC 230535203
  3. ^ Cortés, H.
  4. ^ Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2006). Handbook to life in the Aztec world.  
  5. ^ Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, "The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico 1517 1521", Edited by Genaro Garcia, Translated with an Introduction and Notes?, pp 269–, A. P. MAUDSLAY, first pub 1928 [1]
  6. ^ a b c Coe, M. 2008, p. 193.
  7. ^ a b c Walker, C. 1980, p. 162.
  8. ^ Glasco, Sharon Bailey. Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts Over Culture, Space, and Authority. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print. p. 129
  9. ^ Ibid.; 1. Agren, David. “Trading Recyclables for Rosemary.” New York Times 7 Nov. 2012. The New York Times Co. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. .
  10. ^ "Newspaper About the Country that the Spaniards Found in 1521, Called Yucatan". World Digital Library. 2011-10-17. Retrieved 2014-06-22. 
  11. ^ Coe, M. 2008, p. 193
  12. ^ Cortés, H. 1520, p. 87.
  13. ^ Cortés, H. 1520, p. 89.
  14. ^ Blainey, G. A Very Short History of the World, 2007
  15. ^ Levy, Buddy (2008). Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. Bantam Books. p. 106.  
  16. ^ Butterworth, Douglas; Chance, John K. (1981). Latin American urbanization. CUP Archive. p. 2.  
  17. ^ Stannard, D. (1992)
  18. ^ Smith (2005), p. 411
  19. ^ Cohen, S. 1972, p. 26.
  20. ^ Cohen, Sara E. (March 1972). "How the Aztecs Appraised Montezuma". Society for History Education: The History Teacher 5 (3): 21–30. 
  21. ^ Cortés, H. 1520, p. 73.
  22. ^ Cortés, H. 1520, p. 77.
  23. ^ Stannard, D. 1992, 214.
  24. ^ "The Colonial Spanish-American City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism", Jay Kinsbruner, University of Texas Press, 2005, p20,ISBN 0-292-70668-5
  25. ^ Stannard, D. 1992, 109.
  26. ^ Coe, M. 2008, p. 194-196.
  27. ^ Snow, Dean R. (2010). Archaeology of Native North America. Boston: Prentice Hall.  
  28. ^ Walker, p. 162–7
  29. ^ a b A.R Williams (29 August 2012). "Venerable Bones". National Geographic. 


External links

  • Tenochtitlan Entry in The Visual History Project

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