The Aztecs constructed an empire in what is now central Mexico within a hundred years. The arrival of Spanish conquerors abruptly ended it.
According to legend, the Aztec people migrated from their Aztlan homeland to modern-day Mexico. The Mexica, as the Aztecs called themselves, purportedly migrated to central Mexico in the 13th century.
The Mexica created Tenochtitlan under the guidance of their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli instructed them to erect their settlement where a giant eagle was devouring a snake atop a cactus. This place, situated on a group of five interconnected lakes in the Mesoamerican region called Anáhuac, became Tenochtitlan in 1325 C.E.
Initially, the Mexica were one of several minor city-states in the region dependent on the Tepanec, whose capital was Azcapotzalco, and were obligated to pay tribute. The Mexica teamed up with Texcoco and Tlacopan cities in 1428, forming the Aztec Triple Alliance and winning the battle for regional control, thereby getting tributes from conquered territories.
The agricultural system that fed the population was vital to Tenochtitlan’s prosperity. The system, which included chinampas, small baskets created over the water, was critical to the development of the civilization. Keeping track of tributes was essential. The Matricula de tributos and Codex Mendoza, two pictographic texts that survived Spanish destruction, documented the tributes paid to the Aztecs, as well as religious practices.
In addition to a 365-day solar calendar, Aztec priests employed a 260-day ritual calendar for divination. At the central temple in Tenochtitlan, Templo Mayor, the Aztecs performed bloodletting and human sacrifices as part of their religious duties. The Spanish reaction to Aztec religious rituals may have contributed to the violence of the Spanish conquest.
The Spanish led by Hernando Cortés arrived in present-day Mexico in 1519, searching for gold, and were presented with gifts from Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma. Upon arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortés imprisoned Motecuhzoma and attempted to govern on his behalf. But, this effort led to a failure, and Cortés fled the city in June of 1520.
The interactions with the Spanish, however, were not finished. The Spanish besieged the Aztec capital from mid-May 1521 until they surrendered on August 13th. Texcoco, once a member of the Triple Alliance, assisted the Spanish. A lot of Tenochtitlan was destroyed, looted, burned, or ruined after the surrender. Cortés began constructing the Spanish colony’s capital, now known as Mexico City, atop the rubble, where he became governor.
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