Model of the temple district of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology
Mexico-Tenochtitlan (Spanish: México-Tenochtitlan, Spanish pronunciation: [ˈmexiko tenotʃˈtitlan] ( listen)), commonly known as Tenochtitlan (Classical Nahuatl: Tenōchtitlan [tenoːt͡ʃˈtit͡ɬan]) was an Aztec altepetl (city-state) located on an island in Lake Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico. Founded on June 20, 1325, it became the capital of the expanding Aztec Empire in the 15th century, until it was captured by the Spanish in 1521.
At its peak it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. It subsequently became a cabecera of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Today the ruins of Tenochtitlan are located in Mexico City's downtown.
Traditionally, the name Tenochtitlan was thought to come from Nahuatl tetl [ˈtetɬ] ("rock") and nōchtli [ˈnoːtʃtɬi] ("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.
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 both Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. 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 Avenida Bucareli.
The city was connected to the mainland by causeways leading to the north, south, and west. The 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 five interconnected lakes. Since it formed in an endorheic basin, 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 fresh spring-fed 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, 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. According to the context of Aztec culture in literature, the soap that they most likely used was the root of a plant called copalxocotl (Saponaria americana), and to clean their clothes they used the root of metl (Agave americana). Also, the upper classes and pregnant women washed themselves in a temazcalli, similar to a sauna bath, which is still used in the south of Mexico. This was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
The city was divided into four zones, or campan; each campan was divided into 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. 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. The calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night.
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 Salamanca 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.
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 was 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.
Outside was the palace of Moctezuma with 100 rooms, each 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.
The city had great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning.
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.
Tenochtitlan can be considered the most complex society in Mesoamerica in regard to social stratification. The complex system involved many social classes. The macehualtin were commoners who lived outside the island city of Tenochtitlan. The pipiltin were noblemen who were relatives of leaders and former leaders, and lived in the confines of the island. Cuauhipiltin, or eagle nobles, were commoners who impressed the nobles with their great war skills, and were treated as nobles. Teteuctin were the highest class, rulers of various parts of the empire, including the king. Tlacohtin 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. Finally, the pochteca were 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 sponsor the ritual feast of Xocotl Huetzi from the wealth that they obtained from their trade expeditions.
Status was displayed by location and type of house where a person lived. Ordinary people lived in houses made of reeds plastered with mud and roofed with thatch. People who were better off had houses of adobe brick with flat roofs. 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 to Aztec social stratification was the calpolli. Calpolli, meaning ‘big house’ is a group of families related by either kinship or proximity. These groups consist of both elite members of Aztec society and commoners. Elites provided commoners with arable land and nonagricultural occupations, and commoners performed services for chiefs and gave tribute.
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 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.
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[who?] scholars believe Tenochtitlan to have been among the largest cities in the world at that time. Compared to Europe, only Paris, Venice and Constantinople might have rivaled it. It was five times the size of the London of Henry VIII. 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 dreaming.
Although some popular sources put the number as high as 350,000, 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), 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.
The coming of Cortés
When Cortés and his men arrived to Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma II, who precariously ruled over a large empire, chose to welcome Cortés as an honored guest, rather than risk a war which might quickly be joined by aggrieved indigenous people. The persistent myth that Cortés was seen as a god has been put to rest by historians such as Camilla Townsend.
As Cortés approached the great city of Tenochtitlan, the natives put on many events. Nobles lined each side along the buildings of the city's main causeway, which extended about a league. Walking down the center came Moctezuma II, who had two lords at his side, one being his brother, the ruler of Iztapalapa. Cortés dismounted, and was greeted by the ruler and his lords, but was forbidden to touch him. Cortés gave him a necklace of crystals, placing it over his neck.
They were then brought to a large house that would serve as their home for their stay in the city. Once they were settled, Moctezuma himself sat down and spoke with Cortés. The ruler declared that anything that they needed would be theirs to have. He was thrilled to have visitors of such stature. Although the Spaniards were seeking gold, Montezuma expressed that he had very little of the sort, but all of it was to be given to Cortés if he so desired it.
Since arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortés faced early trouble. Leaving a post in Vera Cruz, the officer left in charge received a letter from Qualpopoca, the leader of Almería, asking to become a vassal of the Spaniards. He requested that officers be sent to him so that he could confirm his submission. To reach the province, the officers would have to travel through hostile land. The officer in charge of Vera Cruz decided to send four officers to meet with Qualpopoca.
When they arrived, they were captured 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. Back in Tenochtitlan, Cortés detained Moctezuma and questioned him endlessly. Though no serious conclusions were made, this started the relationship between Moctezuma and the Spaniards on a bad note.
After the conquest
Cortés subsequently besieged reduced Tenochtitlan for 75 days, causing the inhabitants utter famine, directed the systematic destruction and leveling of the city, 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.
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). 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.
In August 1987, archaeologists discovered a mix of 1,789 human bones five metres below street level in Mexico City. 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.
Works in modern history
- 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 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.
- 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.
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- Soustelle, Jacques (1984). La vida cotidiana de los aztecas en visperas de la conquista (in Spanish). Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica.
- Stannard, David E. (1992). American Holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Walker, Charles (1980). Wonders of the Ancient World. New York, New York: Crescent Books.
- Calnek, Edward. "Settlement Pattern and Chinampa Agriculture at Tenochtitlan." American Antiquity 37.1. (1973) 190-95.
- Calnek, Edward. "El sistema de mercado en Tenochtitlan." In Economía política e ideología en el México prehispánico. Eds. Pedro Carrasco and Johanna Broda, pp. 97–114. Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones Superiores del Instituto de Antropología e Historia, 1978.
- Calnek, Edward. "Tenochtitlan in the Early Colonial Period." Acts of the XLII International Congress of Americanists 8, 1976 (1979) 35-40.
- Calnek, Edward. "Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: the Natural History of a City." In El Urbanismo en Mesoamérica/Urbanism in Mesoamerica, vol. 1. edited by W.T. Sanders et al., 149-202. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia; University Park: Pennsylvania State University 2003.
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- Mundy, Barbara E. "Place-Names in Mexico-Tenochtitlan." Ethnohistory 61 (2) Spring 2014. 329-355.
- Mundy, Barbara E. The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City. Austin: University of Texas Press 2015.
- Toussaint, Manuel, Federico Gómez de Orozco, and Justino Fernández, Planos de la Ciudad de México. XVI Congreso Internacional de Planificación y de la Habitación. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1938.
- Townsend, Richard F. State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archeology 20. Washington D.C., Dumbarton Oaks 1979.
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