How a City in a Swamp Became the Capital of the Aztecs

The Capital City of Tenochtitlan

Bird's Eye View of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (Reconstruction, National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City)
Bird's Eye View of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (Reconstruction, National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City). schizoform

Tenochtitlán, located in the heart of what is now Mexico City, was the largest city and capital of the Aztec empire. Today, Mexico City is still one of the largest cities in the world, despite its unusual setting. It sits on a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Basin of Mexico, a strange place for any capital, ancient or modern. Mexico City is ringed by volcanic mountains, including the still-active volcano Popocatépetl, and prone to earthquakes, severe flooding, and some of the worst smog on the planet.

The story of how the Aztecs selected the location of their capital in such a miserable place is part legend and part history. 

Although the conquistador Hernán Cortés did his best to dismantle the city, three 16th century maps of Tenochtitlan survive showing us what the city was like. The earliest map is the Nuremberg or Cortes map of 1524, drawn for the conquistador Cortés, possibly by a local resident. The Uppsala Map was drawn about 1550 by an indigenous person or persons; and the Maguey Plan was made about 1558, although scholars are divided about whether the city depicted is Tenochtitlan or another Aztec city. The Uppsala Map is signed by cosmographer Alonso de Santa Cruz [~1500-1567] who presented the map (with the city spelled as Tenuxititan) to his employer, the Spanish Emperor Carlos V, but scholars do not believe he made the map himself, and it may have been by his students at the Colegio de Santa Cruz at Tenochtitlan's sister city Tlatelolco.

Legends and Omens

Tenochtitlán was the home of the immigrant Mexica, which is just one of the names for the Aztec people who founded the city in AD 1325. According to legend, the Mexica were one of seven Chichimeca tribes who came to Tenochtitlan from their fabled city of origin, Aztlan (Place of the Herons).

They came because of an omen: the Chichimec god Huitzilopochtli, who took the form of an eagle, was seen perched on a cactus eating a snake. The leaders of the Mexica interpreted this as a sign to move their population to an unpleasant, miry, buggy, island in the middle of a lake; and eventually their military prowess and political abilities turned that island into the central agency for conquest, the Mexica snake swallowing most of Mesoamerica.

Aztec Culture and Conquest

Tenochtitlan of the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. was excellently suited as a place for the Aztec culture to begin the conquest of Mesoamerica. Even then, the basin of Mexico was densely occupied, and the island city afforded the Mexica a commanding lead over trade in the basin. In addition, they engaged in a series of alliances both with and against their neighbors; the most successful was the Triple Alliance, who as the Aztec Empire overran major portions of what are now the states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Veracruz, and Puebla.

By the time of the Spanish conquest in 1519, Tenochtitlán contained around 200,000 people and covered an area of twelve square kilometers (five square miles). The city was crisscrossed by canals, and the edges of the island city were covered with chinampas, floating gardens that enabled local production of food.

A huge marketplace served nearly 60,000 people daily, and in the Sacred Precinct of the city were palaces and temples the like of which Hernán Cortés had never seen. Cortés was awed; but it didn't stop him from destroying almost all of the city's buildings during his conquest.

A Lavish City

Several letters from Cortés to his king Charles V described the city as an island city in the center of a lake. Tenochtitlan was laid out in concentric circles, with a central plaza serving as the ritual precinct and the heart of the Aztec empire. The buildings and pavements of the city all barely rose above the level of the lakes and were grouped into clusters by canals and connected by bridges.

A densely forested area—the precursor to Chapultepec park—was an important feature of the island, as was water control.

Seventeen major floods have struck the city since 1519, one lasting an astounding five years. During Aztec times, a series of aqueducts led from the surrounding lakes into the city, and numerous causeways connected Tenochtitlan to the other important city-states in the basin.

Motecuhzoma II (also known as Montezuma) was the final ruler at Tenochtitlan, and his lavish main courtyard covered an area measuring 200x200 meters (about 650x650 feet). The palace included a suite of rooms and an open courtyard; around the main palace complex could be found armories and sweat baths, kitchens, guest rooms, music rooms, horticultural gardens, and game preserves. The remnants of some of these are found in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, although most of the buildings are from later times.

Remnants of the Aztec Culture

Tenochtitlan fell to Cortes, but only after the bitter and bloody siege of 1520, when the Mexica killed hundreds of conquistadors. Only parts of Tenochtitlan are extant in the city of Mexico; you can get into the ruins of the Templo Mayor, excavated beginning in the 1970s by Matos Moctezuma; and there are ample artifacts at the National Museum of Anthropology (INAH).

But if you look hard enough, many other visible aspects of the old Aztec capital are still in place. Street names and place names echo the ancient Nahua city. The Plaza del Volador, for example, was an important location for the Aztec ceremony of the new fire. After 1519, it was transformed first into a place for the Actos de Fe of the Inquisition, then into an arena for bull-fighting, then a market, and finally into the current site of the Supreme Court.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "How a City in a Swamp Became the Capital of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-aztec-capital-city-of-tenochtitlan-167271. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, August 17). How a City in a Swamp Became the Capital of the Aztecs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-aztec-capital-city-of-tenochtitlan-167271 Hirst, K. Kris. "How a City in a Swamp Became the Capital of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-aztec-capital-city-of-tenochtitlan-167271 (accessed December 13, 2017).