The Aztecs were a pre-Columbian society based in modern-day Mexico. Understanding their history is important to many other topics and people, including: Age of Exploration, Hernan Cortés, Inca Empire, and more. The Aztec civilization was one of the biggest in the New World, and the story of their collapse is an important event in the world history.
The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as the Mexica, extended throughout much of central Mexico and existed from the 14th century until the 16th century when they were conquered by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortés. However, to understand the Aztec Empire, its first important to understand their early history and how they came to be. The capital city of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan and was first established in 1325 in the Valley of Mexico. Before establishing the city, the Aztec people are said to have come from the desert areas of northwest Mexico, such as the Sonora Desert.
The time period before the Aztec established the city of Tenochtitlan is referred to as the ‘Long Migration’. During this time, Aztec history talks of the Aztec people leaving their homeland in the desert, called Aztlan, and migrating south over a period of two centuries. They didn’t settle again until reaching central Mexico and Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. This period of migration is an important aspect of Aztec history and highlights their religious beliefs. For example, in searching for a new homeland, the Aztecs waited until they came across a specific sign that was said to have been instructed to them by the god Huitzilopochtli. The sign they searched for was an eagle on a cactus holding a rattlesnake. They supposedly came across this sign after two centuries of migration when they arrived on the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Officially, the city was founded on July 20th, 1325 on the western shores of the lake and was named for their chief Tenoch. Tenochtitlan means ‘the city of Tenoch’.
At the time the Valley of Mexico was populated by many different powerful civilizations, including: Chalco, Tepanec, Tlacopan, Culhuacan, and Chichimec. Several of these civilizations were also on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including the Culhuacan which were on the south shore. As such, when the Aztec people arrived in the Valley of Mexico they had to contend with the other civilizations. In fact, the Aztecs clashed with several of these groups and were briefly expelled and forced to relocate to a different location on the lake. Regardless, Tenochtitlan prospered quickly as a city.
As stated previously, Tenochtitlan was first founded on July 20th, 1325 on the western shores of Lake Texcoco. The lake was actually quite shallow and had swamp-like conditions on the western edge where the Aztecs built their city. The city itself was constructed on an island in the lake and was connected to the land by causeways. As well, there were reports of the Aztec people draining parts of the lake to improve fresh water supplies and to allow for more construction of the city. The Aztec also built large aqueducts that supplied fresh water to the city from nearby wells. The location for Tenochtitlan proved excellent as the waterways of the lake allowed the Aztec to easily travel and trade with other societies in the region. Also, the island location gave it better protection from any possible attack. Finally, the island was large enough to support a large population with many markets, public buildings, temples and palaces. For example, by the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been three to five square miles (eight to thirteen square kilometers), and have a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. This means that it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and larger than any in Europe. At the center of the city was the main Aztec temple pyramid called Templo Mayor. Throughout its history, the city grew in culture and political power and the Aztecs came to dominate the surrounding societies. In fact, many historians now acknowledge that the Aztecs absorbed some of the culture and traditions of the surrounding societies and civilizations that came before. For example, most historians agree that Teotihuacan was a major inspiration for the Aztec and the creation of Tenochtitlan.
The city of Tenochtitlan flourished until 1521 when it was famously conquered by Spanish conquistadors under the direction of Hernan Cortés. During the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs began dying from smallpox that had been brought by earlier Spanish conquistadors to the New World. Because the disease had never existed in the New World, the Aztecs lacked immunity to it. Historians believe that as much as half of the city population of Tenochtitlan may have died from smallpox. The spread of smallpox further destroyed the Aztec societal structures and plunged the culture empire into chaos. Meanwhile, Cortés regrouped and attacked Tenochtitlan in full force in 1521. At that time, the city’s society was in chaos. The Aztecs no longer trusted their leader Montezuma II, they were short on food, the smallpox epidemic was under way, and with such a severely weakened population, it was easy for the Spanish to take Tenochtitlan. During the conquest the conquistadors destroyed large sections of the original city and the Aztec population scattered throughout the region as they fled both the spread of disease and the warfare of the Spanish.
The modern Mexico City is built upon the original site of Tenochtitlan and archeologists have made discoveries in recent years of bones, walls and buildings from the time period of the original city. Today, Tenochtitlan is remembered as the famous capital of the Aztec people and the story of its destruction is an important event in the history of the New World and the Age of Exploration.