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The Aztec Empire

The great empire of the Aztecs and its capital city of Tenochtitlan flourished in the central valley of Mexico just before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.  This last great civilization of Precolumbian Mesoamerica has vanished but it has left with us languages, traditions, and a way of life that still influence modern Mexico today.  Descendants of the Aztecs still relate to their indigenous past through foods they consume (corn, beans, squash); the weaving of fine cloth on backstrap looms;  an incredibly rich market system; and religious practices that incorporate elements of ancient beliefs.

While sources for the history of other New World cultures are sparse, we have abundant written records for the Aztecs.  These include: codices (painted indigenous manuscripts), chronicles written by the Spanish conquistadors and early priests, and works written by the Aztecs themselves in the period directly after the Conquest.  We also have the archaeological record, but often thereis more archaeological evidence from earlier New World cultures than from the Aztecs. This is because the great capital of Tenochtitlan was almost completely demolished in the final seige of the city in 1521.  In addition, the conquering Spanish and the Catholic church made every effort to destroy the remnants of what they considered a heathern society dominated by a blood thirsty tradition.

The Aztecs were late comers to the Valley of Mexico, recent emigrants from the desert frontiers of northern Mesoamerica. Legend says they left their original homeland of Aztlan (hence the name Aztec) around A.D.1100.  Led by their tribal god, Huitzilopochtli, they arrived in the Central Plateau around 1200. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325, was built on a rocky island in Lake Texcoco where the Aztecs discovered an eagle perched on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth.  They had been told by Huitzilopochtli that this symbol, still the emblem of modern Mexico, would mark the spot for their capital city.  So there, in the swampy edge of the lake, construction of Tenochtitlan was begun and a temple built for their patron god.

As empire builders the Aztecs were the cultural heirs of other civilizations that had preceded them in Mesoamerica.  Ancient concepts concerning religion, agriculture, trade, markets, and the need for human sacrifice were adopted by the Aztecs from earlier peoples.  An important Mesoamerican tradition was urbanism.  For at least 1500 years before the Aztecs, civilizations had been built around cities with large populations.  This established urbantradition became a strong feature of Aztec culture.

The great capital of Tenochtitlan was the sacred and secular center of the expanding Aztec empire.  This beautiful island city, built at the edges of the lake, was located where Mexico City stands today. It was constructed on a series of artificial islands with canals for streets, towering pyramids and slendid public buildings.  Ruled by the semidivine king, Moctezuma II, it had a population of 250,000 people making it one of the largest urban centers in the world.  The city could be approached by three great causeways which connected it to the mainland.  Along these causeways ran aqueducts carrying fresh water to the pools and public fountains of the town.  The Spanish described Tenochtitlan as the most beautiful city they had ever seen and compared it to Venice.  In both cities canals were the basis of transportation and boats carried goods and people through the city and to surrounding villages on the lake shore.  For the Aztecs this method of transport was particularly important as, like all the prehispanic cultures of the Americas, they lacked draft animals and the wheel.

In this sophisticated metropolis were government buildings, schools, ballcourts, temples, pyramids, palaces and simple homes.  At its center was the sacred precinct where the gods of the Aztec pantheon were worshiped through song, dance, ritual and human sacrifice.  At the heart of the precinct stood the Templo Mayor, or “great temple”.  This massive double pyramid structure was dedicated to the two most important gods of the Aztec empire, Tlaloc, god of rain, and Huitzilopotchli, god of war and the sun. These were the deities responsible for the sustenance of the Aztec state  Tlaloc as provider of the empire’s agricultural needs and Huitzilopotchli as provider of the wealth and tribute resulting from wars of conquest.

The city was divided into four quarters composed of more than 80 calpullis or clans which formed the basis of Aztec society. The calpullis, probably based on ancient tribal or kinship divisions, were corporate land holding groups.  They formed the heart of the Aztec empire and served as the political, economic, military and religious focus of the common people.  All free Aztecs were born into a calpulli.  From it they recieved religious and secular schooling, training in warfare, the services of its priests, a parcel of land to farm when they married and security in old age.  The men of a calpulli fought as a company in battle and served together on obligatory work crews for city projects such as causeway repairs. These free commoners, were the backbone of the state but they had little chance for social mobility. In the Aztec system, unless special privliges were awarded on the battle field, people were bound to the life and class into which they had been born.  They tilled the chinampa fields at the edge of the lake, crafted the objects of daily life, carried wood for fires, tended the children, cooked the meals and wove beautiful textiles on backstrap looms.

At the top of Aztec society was a powerful and wealthy nobility which controlled the riches and labor forces of the empire.  This upper class of society supplied the state with itsmilitary leaders, bureaucrats, judges, high priests and rulers. They also served as scribes, teachers, muscians and poets  passing along the wisdom of the past and the songs and poems of their people by means of pictorial books and a rich oral tradition. These men were greatly honored as:
      Those who carried with them
      the black and red ink,
      the manuscripts and the pictures, wisdom.
  They brought everything with them:
  The song books and the music of the flutes.
    Codex Matritense del Real Palacio,VI,fol.126
    (in LeonPortilla,1969:23)
The highest position of all was that of emperor.  The office was hereditary within one family but was often passed to the ruler’s brother before his son.  Moctezuma II was the nephew of the last king and son and grandson of previous kings.

At the bottom of this castelike system were the  slaves.  Slaves were brought from distant realms by long distance traders to be sold in the marketplace.  Also crimes were punished by
enslavement to the aggrieved party and in times of adversity freemen might sell themselves or family members into slavery to survive.  The system itself, however, was not hereditary and children were born free.

The bustling city of Tenochtitlan contained enormous markets which particularly impressed the Spanish.  They marveled at the richness and variety of products and at the highly organized systemwith its specialized judges and state taxation.  There was both a local market system which supplied the daily needs of the city and a long distance trade system controlled by the Pochtech, an hereditary group of specialized traders.  These rich and powerful merchants were responsible for importing exotic items of great value from distant realms of the empire.  The markets were laid out daily in the central plazas of the city.  They offered an incredible diversity of goods. Slaves, pottery, baskets, foodstuffs, textiles, featherwork, building materials, tobacco, wildgame, medicines and many other products could be purchased.  Barter was the usual method for exchange but money in the form of chocolate beans, cotton mantles and quills of gold dust were used to make up a difference in value.

In addition to trade goods, wealth flowed into Tenochtitlan as tribute.  All males were trained as warriors and were on call for military duty.  Successful warfare not only extended the boundaries of the state, but forced conquered towns to supply the emperor with highly valued materials.  These included colorful tropical bird feathers, fine cotton mantles, jade, gold, jewels, chocolate, and human beings designated for sacrifice to the ever demanding Aztec gods.

The Aztecs considered themselves the people of the sun.  In this role they were responsible for providing the blood of sacrificial victims to sustain the sun in its journey each day across the sky.  While human sacrifices were also offered to other gods in the Aztec pantheon, it was this need to maintain the sunthat was the basis for the warrior cult of the Aztec state.  This cult promoted warfare as the means for taking prisoners to be offered on the sacrificial stone of the great pyramid.  Their blood provided sustenance for the sun and another day of life and light for the world.

By the early 16th century the Aztec empire extended to both coasts and south to Guatemala.  However, it was not an unified nation.  In reality it was an economic empire formed of vanquished provinces who were forced to supply their Aztec masters with constant supervised tribute.  The system was similar to one used by the British in India.  First, comercial relationships were established by long distance trading companies ( The East India Company in England, Pochtecah groups in Mesoamerica).  Then warfare ensued to establish the rights of special interest in the wealth and desirable products of the weaker nation by the stronger one.  In both cases the flag followed trade and wealth poured back to the conquering nation, leaving bitterness and resentment behind.  Cortes was to use this smoldering resentment to enlist native allies to help him in his conquest of the great city of Tenochtitlan.

In 1519 Cortes and a small group of Spanish adventurers set sail from Cuba on a voyage that opened the doors of a vast new empire for the Spanish crown.  The fateful encounter of two different worlds in the persons of Cortes and Moctezuma and the fall of the Aztec empire to the Spanish in 1521 is one of the most incredible and dramatic stories in the history of the world.  Thefinal battle for Tenochtitlan was fought in August of 1521 between the soldiers of Cortes and Aztec warriors led by Moctezuma’s successor, Cuauhtemoc.  Eighty days of seige and hand to hand combat left the city in shambles.  Disease had decimated the native population and great losses had occurred on both sides.  The defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish and their Indian allies led to the destruction of Tenochtitlan and the abrupt end of one of the most brillant civilizations of the prehispanic Americas.

At Tlatelolco in Mexico city, scene of the last battle for Tenochtitlan, a plaque has been placed on the wall of an ancient building.  Its inscription addresses the fall of the Aztec empire and the unique Mexican culture that grew out of the fusions of Old New and New World traditions. 

On the 13th of August in 1521 heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernan Cortes.
This was neither a triumph nor a defeat, it was a painful birth of the mestizo people who are the Mexico of today.