Tenochtitlan: Great Capital City of the Aztecs

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The centerpiece of the completed city was the Great Temple, the main religious building in Tenochtitlan. It was here that the Aztecs, in an effort to please their many gods, carried out most of their human sacrifices.

The Aztecs’ original homeland was in Aztlan, an island somewhere in the north. According to legend one of the Aztecs’ gods told them to travel to a new land where the god would make them “lords of all that is in the world.”

After two centuries of wandering, the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico. This valley was surrounded by volcanoes and had an elevation of more than 7,000 feet. A lake, Lake Texcoco, covered much of the valley floor.

All the best land in the valley was already occupied by other settlers who fought to keep the Aztecs from settling there. Now the Aztec god told them to look for a large cactus with an eagle perched on it. The eagle would be holding a snake in its beak. That was where they should settle.

The next day the Aztecs found the cactus on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Here the Aztecs founded their new home. They called it Tenochtitlan which means “the place of the cactus.”

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The Floating Garden

The Aztecs soon discovered why no other people had settled on their island. The land was not fertile, and few crops would grow there. So the Aztecs had to come up with a way to grow enough food to feed everyone.  The Aztec solution to the problem was to create “floating gardens” called chinampas. First, they built large rafts made of reeds. Next, they used long poles to anchor the rafts to the lake bottom. Finally, they covered the rafts with thick layers of mud. The mud was very fertile and helped produce large harvests.

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Once the chinampas were in place, the Aztecs filled in the spaces between the gardens. They built houses on these filled-in areas, and soon they had a thriving community.  As their settlement grew, the Aztecs began to spread out to other small islands on the lake. They repeated the process by which the original island had been developed. Eventually all of these smaller settlements grew together to produce one large island. On this island the Aztecs built their capital city, Tenochtitlan.

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The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

The centerpiece of the completed city was the Great Temple, the main religious building in Tenochtitlan. It was here that the Aztecs, in an effort to please their many gods, carried out most of their human sacrifices.

The Great Temple towered over the rest of the city. At the top of this huge pyramid stood twin shrines. One was dedicated to the god of the sun and war.  These gods represented the two main concerns of the Aztecs. Rain was needed for good harvests, and war supplied prisoners for human sacrifices.

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A Magnificent Capital

Tenochtitlan was connected to the rest of the valley by causeways, along which people could travel to and from the mainland. Part of each causeway was a removable wooden bridge. This feature made it possible for troops to defend the city against invaders.

The city was laid out in a pattern of grids. Broad paved avenues led from the causeways into the area of the Great Temple. Many of the smaller roads were actually canals. These narrow waterways made it easy to travel about the city by canoe.  Aqueducts were also built to carry fresh water into the city. The water went to public fountains and to reservoirs throughout the city.

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The heart of Tenochtitlan was the Sacred Precinct. Here was located the Great Temple, the ruler’s palace, and the main market. On market day, people came from miles around to buy and sell goods and to exchange news.

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At the peak of the Aztec Empire’s power, at least 100,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan. This was more than twice the population of any city in Europe at that time. Another 300,000 people lived in the suburbs – smaller settlements along the shore.

Upon seeing Tenochtitlan for the first time, one eyewitness exclaimed, “These great towns and buildings rising from the water, all made of stones seem like an enchanted vision.” 

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Tenochtitlan today as part of Mexico City

Read more about Aztecs: The Greatest Mesoamerican Empire

4 comments

Elaine P. N.
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Posted on Mar 15, 2011
James R. Coffey
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Ron Siojo
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Posted on Feb 3, 2011