The capital city of the aztec empire, Tenochtitlán was founded in a.d. 1325 and fell to the Spaniards under Hernando Cortés on 13 August 1521. In less than 200 years, the island city had a remarkable growth and development, and by the time the Spaniards arrived it was one of the largest cities in the world. Certainly, it was one of the most beautiful: the Spaniards were in awe of it as they gazed upon the city shortly before meeting the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma (Montezuma). In the words of one eyewitness, the Spanish foot-soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo:

And in the morning we arrived at a wide causeway and we continued marching toward Iztapalapa. And from the causeway we saw so many cities and towns in the water, and other great towns on the lakeshore, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [Tenochtitlán] made us marvel, and we said that it was like the enchantments that are written about in the tale of Amadis, on account of the great towers and pyramids and buildings that rise from the water, and all built of stone masonry. And some of our soldiers wondered aloud if the things that we saw were not a dream.

(Matthews 307–308)
Aztec descriptions of the city were understandably no less glowing: “The city is spread out in circles of jade, radiating flashes of light like quetzal plumes. Beside it the lords are borne in boats: over them extends a flowery mist,” elegized one poet.

According to legend, Tenochtitlán was founded at a nadir in Aztec history. The Aztecs had just been driven out of a city where they had served as mercenaries, having committed atrocities that disgusted their hosts. The Aztecs were forced to flee to a group of low, swampy islands that lay in the western part of Lake Texcoco, the largest of a series of lakes that formed the heart of the basin of mexico where Mexico City now stands. It had long been prophesied that they would be given a divine sign by their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, when the time was right to build their city and become ancient Mexico’s “chosen people.” This sign would be an eagle eating a snake and perched on a prickly-pear cactus, and the Aztec priests saw that sign on those swampy islands in Lake Texcoco.

The Aztecs settled on the islands, driving wooden stakes into the grounds as piles to anchor their building foundations, and gradually their fortunes improved. In a.d. 1428, they attacked and beat the most powerful city in the basin of Mexico, and from that time they were the most powerful nation in the region. The city grew rapidly in both grandeur and size, ultimately reaching a population of 150,000– 200,000 people and covering perhaps twenty square miles.

By the time of the Spaniards’ arrival, the city was a metropolis of gleaming white houses and temples interspersed by canals and linked to the mainland by a series of causeways. In the center of the city was a sacred precinct, surrounded by a wall and containing the great temples of the city, a ball court, and a “skull-rack”—a structure that contained the skulls of tens of thousands of sacrificial victims skewered on wooden stakes. All buildings were dominated by a huge pyramid topped by twin temples: one was the house of the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc; the other, that of Huitzilopochtli, the war god and patron of the Aztec people.

Outside the precinct wall, but still at the heart of the city, were the palaces of the various Aztec emperors. Beyond these were the houses of the nobles and commoners laid out in a grid with canals serving as streets (many of the Spanish conquerors compared Tenochtitlán most favorably with Venice). The city was divided into quarters, each quarter was divided into smaller units called calpulli, and by all accounts, the city was very clean, orderly, and efficiently run. The great market of the Aztecs was in another city, Tlatelolco, immediately to the north of Tenochtitlán. There, some 60,000 people would pour into the market to exchange wares brought in from every corner of the empire.

After conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards razed the city and began to build their own capital of New Spain—the city now called Mexico City. The Spaniards reduced most of the beautiful Aztec buildings to rubble, reusing many of the stones in their own constructions. Even so, the rubble reached in some parts to a height of three to four meters, which means that in many parts of Mexico City there are preserved remains of Tenochtitlán. Almost any deep excavation in the central part of the city will reveal such remains, and in 1968, excavations to extend Mexico City’s subway system uncovered a perfectly preserved Aztec temple. It was kept as the centerpiece of the Pino Suárez subway station.
In 1978, a huge carved stone was found by electrical workers in central Mexico City. The stone was decorated with the relief of an Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, sprawled dead and dismembered on the ground. In fact, the Coyolxauhqui stone was at the base of a stairway leading to the temple of Huitzilopochtli and recalled the Aztec myth telling how Huitzilopochtli killed his half-sister Coyolxauhqui, dismembered her, and threw her body down from Coatepec (Snake Hill). The Aztec Great Temple of Tenochtitlán, then, was the physical reconstruction of Coatepec, with the broken body of Coyolxauhqui at its base.

Subsequent excavation of the Great Temple has revealed the way in which the structure was enlarged over the years, each construction being larger and more elaborate in direct reflection of the growing fortune of the empire. The Great Temple was the ritual heart of the empire, and it was at the very center of Tenochtitlán.

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