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Definition: Tenochtitlán from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Capital of the Mexican Aztecs. It was founded c. 1325 on an island among the lakes that occupied much of the Valley of Mexico, on the site of modern Mexico City. Its population reached about 150,000. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met Aztec ruler Montezuma here in November 1519. Welcomed as guests, the Spaniards captured Montezuma and forced him to recognize the sovereignty of Charles V. Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlán in 1521 and rebuilt it as a Spanish colonial city.

Summary Article: Tenochtitlán, City of
from Conflict in the Early Americas: An Encyclopedia of the Spanish Empire's Aztec, Incan, and Mayan Conquests

Built on an island in Lake Texcoco, on the site of present-day Mexico City, Tenochtitlán was the capital city of the Aztec Empire. Tribute from conquered peoples made the city prosperous and it grew rapidly to become a heavily populated urban center; in the early 16th century, Tenochtitlán's population of about 400,000 was the largest in Mesoamerica. After Tenochtitlán's destruction in 1521, the Spanish built Mexico City on top of the Aztec ruins. Tenochtitlán remained largely hidden until 1790, when two sculptures, the famous Aztec Calendar Stone and a statue of the earth goddessCoatlicue, were unearthed. Valuable finds continued to be made during construction projects in Mexico City throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Recent archaeological excavations and the analysis of Aztec texts have provided further insight into Tenochtitlán's brief but dramatic history.

According to tradition, Tenochtitlán was founded in the first half of the 14th century (some scholars give the date 1325) by the Aztec (or Mexica) people on the site where they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. The earliest settlement was sited on two marshy islands in Lake Texcoco. This territory was quickly enlarged by the construction of habitable floating platforms between the islands and the mainland shore. Among the site's advantageswas access to the lake's natural resources as well as strategic defense against the more powerful peoples on the mainland.Built on a grid plan, the city was orderly and fairly symmetrical in layout. It grew rapidly in size and population and became even larger after conquering and incorporating the nearby city of Tlatelolco, which became the site of Tenochtitlán'senormous, busy marketplace. Tenochtitlán's territory also included extensive agricultural and residential areas on the mainland near the lake, and the area covered by greater Tenochtitlán was administered as four distinct wards. Canoes providedtransportation around the city and floated goods to market.

Intensive agricultural practices supported Tenochtitlán's large and concentrated population. Not only were lakeside fields farmed, but crops were grown on the water as well. Chinampas, cultivated fields created on platforms on the lake's surface, were the basis of Tenochtitlán's highly productive agriculture. Most of the farmers whocultivated the chinampas and the mainland fields lived not within the city proper but rather in the surrounding suburban and cultivated areas on the mainland. Canals and dikes kept the freshwater that springs fed into Lake Texcoco separated from the lake's own salty water, and terracotta aqueducts conveyed more fresh water into the city. Three broad causeways linked Tenochtitlán to the community on the mainland; a Spanish account claimed that these causeways were wide enough for 10 horses to cross abreast.

Tenochtitlán in a 16th-century painting, probably based on Hernán Cortés's sketches. British Museum. (Jupiterimages)

Within the main part of the city the population was composed mostly of priests, warriors, administrators, and craftspeople that produced, among other goods, pottery, textiles, featherwork, and stonework. Tenochtitlán's vast whitewashed palace complexes included hundreds of rooms, offices for bureaucrats, libraries, justice halls, and workshops. The emperor and other nobles maintained luxurious gardens, aviaries, and zoos on their properties, which were located near the main religious sanctuary. The common people resided in distinct, relatively self-contained neighborhoods called calpulli. As the population grew and Tenochtitlán became the region's economic and political center, its administrative structure expanded and was divided into specialized departments for such interests as the military and taxation. Very little is known, however, about the specific procedures of the government's operation.

Nine Aztec emperors ruled from Tenochtitlán, including Acamapichtli, the founder of the Aztec imperial dynasty, and Itzcoatl, who allied Tenochtitlán with Texcoco and Tlacopan. Montezuma I is credited with improving the administrative and judicial systems at Tenochtitlán and overseeing many architectural projects. In 1487, the emperor Ahuitzotl consecrated Tenochtitlán's Great Temple with tens of thousands of human sacrifices. His successful military campaigns brought in vast quantities of tribute to the capital, and it developed rapidly during his rule. Among Ahuitzotl's additions to the city was its much-needed second aqueduct to accommodate the growing population. In 1503, a huge flood that struck Tenochtitlán included Ahuitzotl among its victims.

The city contained hundreds of temples and many religious complexes, including two major ones located in Tenochtitlán itself and in Tlatelolco. At the Tenochtitlán complex, walls measuring 1,200 feet in length surrounded a variety of religious structures, including pyramids painted red and blue, courtyards, living quarters for priests, a ball court, and a holy pool and grove. The main pyramid, called the Great Temple, stood 100 feet high and was decorated with giant serpents carved in stone. It was consecrated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc. Atop the pyramid were two separate temples dedicated to each god. Such offerings from Tenochtitlán's vassals as pottery, jade, shells, and textiles were buried within the pyramid's precincts. Near the Great Temple was the huey tzompantli, an enormous rack that displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims on horizontal poles.

When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadores entered Tenochtitlán in 1519, they were astounded by the size and complexity of the city as well as by its clean streets, great marketplace, and efficient public sanitation system. In 1520, the city was unable to hold out against a siege leveled by a combined force of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans (a local Aztec enemy). By 1521, probably less than 200 years after its founding, the Spanish and their allies captured and largely destroyed Tenochtitlán.


See also: Ahuitzotl; Cortés, Hernán; Tlatelolco, or Tlateold.

  • Broda, Johanna; David Carrasco; Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan: Center and Periphery in the Aztec World. University of California Press Berkeley, 1989.
  • Henderson, Keith; Jane Stevenson Day. The Fall of the Aztec Empire. Roberts Rhinehart Denver CO, 1993.
  • Smith, Michael Ernest The Aztecs. Blackwell Malden MA, 2002.
  • Copyright 2013 by Rebecca M. Seaman

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