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Aztecs: Fierce Wanderers

Aztec Article

This map shows three cities important to the Aztec empire.

Aztec map

Tlacopan, Mexico. In 1431, the Aztecs forged an alliance with this northern kingdom and Texcoco to the east. The Triple Alliance defeated the eastern kingdoms of Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, making the Aztecs the dominant rulers of central Mexico.

Texcoco, Mexico. This junior member of the Triple Alliance of 1431, with the Aztecs and Tlacopan to the west, benefited from Aztec dominance in the region. But it was also one of the first kingdoms to feel the wrath of Cortez and his anti-Aztec allies, as the Spanish conquistador made his scorched-earth march toward Tenochtitlan in 1520.

Tenochtitlan, Mexico. The Aztecs founded their capital city on an island in Lake Texacoco after seeing an eagle perched on a cactus. Today, the Venice-like city of canals, grand plazas, and temples is hidden by the modern construction of Mexico City, one of the world's largest settlements.


To their neighbors, they were fierce and annoying nomads who called themselves the Mexica. For hundreds of years, they were pushed from settlement to settlement, their aggressive behavior too rude for several hosts to stand.

But today, we know the Mexica as the Aztecs, the fierce people highlighted in the fourth episode of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR, who came to rule much of what we now call Mexico.

Aztec headdress

An Aztec headdress.

The Aztecs believed they were born in the bowels of the earth and entered the world through seven caves. At first, they settled in Aztlan, a still undiscovered city that archaeologists believe was somewhere along Mexico's northwest coast. About 1100, however, the Aztecs left Aztlan and headed south, settling for short periods in various cities ruled by their neighbors. By the 1300s, they had reached the marshy shores of Lake Texacoco in the broad Valley of Mexico. They found the best land already occupied by more powerful immigrants who had arrived earlier. So they settled for an empty island in the middle of the lake, serving as mercenaries for more powerful tribes for more than 50 years and learning how to coax food from the wet soils. To survive, they even harvested algae and dried it into cakes.

Eventually, however, the servant Aztecs rebelled against their masters, and seized power themselves. Acting on a tribal prophecy, they began building a city on the island after seeing an eagle perched on a cactus. The city, called Tenochtitlan, soon became the capital of a vast empire that blossomed in the early 1300s. It boasted grand canals, enormous market squares, and gaudy temples, and was inhabited and fueled by a wealthy class of priests, warriors, traders, and tax collectors, who directed a highly organized society. More than 300,000 people lived in the city alone.

Alliances with neighboring states and wars against enemies brought both wealth and, just as importantly, prisoners who could be sacrificed to the gods. In 1487 alone, historians claim, the streets ran with blood as 20,000 captives were sacrificed to dedicate a great temple.

The remnants of Tenochtitlan can still be found buried beneath Mexico City.

The Aztecs' power, however, began to crumble in the early 16th century. First, in 1517, a comet appeared on the horizon -- a bad omen to the Aztecs. Then, in 1519, came tales of ships larger than buildings disgorging white men carrying crosses on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. To the Aztec leaders, it seemed that an old legend was coming to life, a myth foretelling the arrival of a light-skinned god who would call his people to account.

The "gods," however, were Spanish conquistadors bent on finding gold, led by their merciless commander Cortez. Marching inland from the Gulf of Mexico, Cortez forged alliances with tribal groups hostile to the Aztecs. Together, this growing army dismantled the Aztec empire as it marched toward Tenochtitlan. At the lakeside city in 1521, the Aztec king welcomed Cortez. But a hastily arranged treaty did little to ward off the weapons and diseases brought by the Spanish: within 20 years, an estimated 19 million Mexican natives -- more than 95% of the population -- died from the effects of war and disease.

Today, however, the remnants of Tenochtitlan can still be found amidst the busy streets of Mexico City, one of the world's largest and most polluted cities. Buried beneath the honking traffic and crosswalks, great squares and ruined temples lie silent and dark, mute reminders of a tribe that once wandered the Valley of Mexico and then made its mark on history.

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