aztec empire


November 8th 1519: Cortés enters Tenochtitlan

On this day in 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan where he was greeted with a celebration by king Moctezuma. At the time, Tenochtitlan is believed to have been one of the largest and most advanced cities in the world, dominating most great European cities. Cortés and his men were expelled from the city in 1520 after some of the Spanish soldiers massacred Aztec civilians during a festival. They later returned with Tlaxcalan allies to siege Tenochtitlan; the attack almost completely destroyed the great city, and the Spanish took Tenochtitlan in 1521. This was a major event in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the fall of the Aztec Empire.


The Consecration of Temple Mayor VI

In the 13th century the Aztecs migrated to central Mexico.  Unwelcome anywhere else in Mexico because of their warlike ways, the Aztecs were forced to inhabit a small island in the middle of swampy Lake Texcoco.  With ingenuity and brilliant engineering they had turned the swampy island into the city of Tenochtitlan, which would become one of the largest cities in the world.  By the late 15th century the Aztecs had far expanded beyond their city, conquering a mighty empire that dominated central Mexico.

As the Aztec Empire expanded, so too did their need for larger religious infrastructure.  At the center of the city was the Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, atop of which sat the Temple Mayor.  The Temple Mayor served as the center of the Aztec religion, and as the Aztec Empire expanded, the temple itself was rebuilt, renovated, and expanded as well.  In 1487 Temple Mayor was rebuilt a sixth time under the oversight of Emperor Ahuizotl.  

To consecrate the new temple Ahuizotl ordered the sacrifice of over 20,000 victims to the gods Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture.  The victims to be sacrificed were not the Aztecs themselves, but conquered subjects from the many kingdoms and city states that made up the empire.  Every conquered kingdom or city was forced to give a quota of victims, those who refused were destroyed by the Aztec army.

The temple priests worked in teams and shifts, sacrificing an average of 1,000 people a day for the next 20 days.  Aztec human sacrifice was a gory and violent death where the priest cut open the chest cavity with an obsidian or flint knife.  He then removed the still beating heart and presented it as a gift to the gods.  As the sacrifices continued the blood flowed throughout the temple until it ran down the stairs of the Tenochtitlan Pyramid.  

In 1519, a band of strange foreigners arrived in Tenochtitlan.  Though not as direct as the Aztecs, the Spanish were brutal conquerors as well.  With the aid of superior technology, smallpox, and tens of thousands of disgruntled Mexican natives who were tired of supplying victims for the Aztec’s blood orgies, they quickly conquered the Aztec Empire.  In 1521 the Spanish destroyed Templo Mayor.  Hundreds of years later the foundations of the temple are an important historical site.  There archaeologists have found many important artifacts including sculptures, ceremonial objects, beadwork, obsidian/flint knives, and the remains of sacrifice victims. 

March 4th 1519: Cortés arrives in Mexico

On this day in 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico with the intention of exploring and securing the land for colonisation. Upon his arrival, the impressive Spanish fleet amazed the natives and led to them heralding Cortés as a god. His ruthless army marched to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and captured the city in 1521. His overthrowing the Aztec Empire paved the way for Spanish colonisation of Mexico.

Aztec Calendar

This calendar system was used by not only the Aztecs, but also other Pre-Columbian peoples of Central Mexico. Carved in 1479, the calendar was buried under Mexico for about 300 years before being unearthed in 1790. The calendar consists of a 365-day cycle called xiuhpohualli, and a 260-day ritual cycle, tonalpohualli. Every 52 years, the two calendars would align, potentially bringing disaster upon the world.

Picture courtesy of Matthew Clemente.

Tenochtitlan of the Aztec Empire. 

“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.”

—Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain

This mask is believed to represent Quetzalcoatl (‘the feathered serpent’) or the rain god Tlaloc. Both deities are associated with serpents. The mask is carved from a single piece of Cedrela odorata wood and covered with turquoise mosaic work. The teeth are made of white conch shell (Strombus).

Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl, l. 17.3 x w. 16.7 cm, Aztec Empire, Mexico, 15th - 16th century AD.

The Siege of Tenochtitlan, 1521 CE

After two years of failed negotiations, war, and plague, the Aztecs had elected a new emperor, Cuauhtemoc, and began to fortify Tnochtitlan in preparation for a siege by 50,000 troops from Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, among other city states, together with their Spanish allies. The enemy attacked the city by both land and water. But once they had broken into the city, they quickly found themselves trapped within the labyrinth of city streets and canals. Many were lured into dead ends where they were easily crushed to death by stones and rubble cast down by troops positioned on the roofs of buildings. Those who sought to hide of pillage became lost in the mazes of small tooms and patios of private dwellings.

Here an Aztec strik force has simultaneously broken through the timber roof and plaster walls of an apartment complex to mercilessly entrap and hack a Tlaxcalan and his Spanish ally to pieces. The Spaniard is a captain and master swordsman. The Tlaxcalan wears the red and white headband of a nobleman and holds equal rank. His steel sword is a prized gift from the Spaniard. While bowmen pin down the enemy from above, two Aztec warriors have succeeded in breaking through the adobe brick walls of the room to surprise and corner the enemy. One is a nobleman identifiable by his ehuatl or tunic. The other is a warrior dressed in a tlahuiztli and helmet representing a legendary flaming coyote. Such strategic use of the urban setting forces Cortes to first retreat and then to initiate the siege all over again only by dismantling Tenochtitlan house by house in what would become the longest continuous battle in history.

(Adam Hook and John Pohl for Osprey)

Offering to goddess reveals reach of late 15th century Aztec empire

In May 2008 a team of researchers forming part of the Templo Mayor project of the historic centre of Mexico City, discovered a large offering which had been placed underneath an enormous statue of the goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Underneath Mexico City lie the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and at its centre was the Templo Mayor. The project researchers believe that this offering was made during the reign of Ahuizotl, who was ruler of the Aztec empire for sixteen years, from 1486 to 1502, and in that time conquered 45 Mesoamerican territories.

Offering 126, the largest found so far at the Templo Mayor, is composed of almost 4,000 organic remains, of which three-fourths (3,045) are marine molluscs. Read more.

Master of the House of Darts / Aliette de Bodard

The day dawned clear and bright on the city: as the Fifth Sun emerged from His night journey, He was welcomed by the drumrolls and conch-blasts of His priests – a noise that reverberated in my small house until it seemed to fill my lungs. I rolled to my feet from my sleeping mat, and made my daily offerings of blood – both to Tonatiuth the Fifth Sun, and to my patron Lord Death, the Fleshless One, ruler of the underworld. 

This done, I put on a simple grey cloak, and headed to my temple – more for the sake of form, for I suspected I wouldn’t remain there long, not if the army were indeed coming back today.

As I walked, I felt the slight resistance to the air, the familiar nausea in my gut – a feeling that everything wasn’t quite right, that there was a gaping hole beneath the layers of reality that undercut the Fifth World. I’d been living with it for over three months, ever since the previous Revered Speaker had died. His successor, Tizoc-tzin, had been crowned leader of the Mexica Empire; but a Revered Speaker wasn’t confirmed in the sight of the gods until his successful coronation war.

Today, I guessed, was the day I found out if the hole would ever close.

The Sacred Precinct, the religious heart of Tenochtitlan, was already bustling even at this early hour: groups of novice priests were sweeping the courtyards of the temple complexes; pilgrims, from noblemen in magnificent cloaks to peasants in loincloths, brought offerings of incense and bloodstained grass-balls; and the murmur of the crowd, from dozens of low-voiced conversations, enfolded me like a mother’s arms. But there was something more in the air – a tautness in the faces of the pilgrims, a palpable atmosphere of expectation shared by the cotton-draped matrons and the priests with blood-matted hair.

The Temple for the Dead was but a short distance from my house, at the northern end of the Sacred Precinct. It was a low, sprawling complex with a pyramid shrine at its centre, from which the smoke of copal incense was already rising like a prayer to the Heavens. I wasn’t surprised to find my second-in-command, Ichtaca, in deep conversation with another man in a light-blue cloak embroidered with seashells and frogs, and a headdress of heron feathers: Acamapichtli, High Priest of the Storm Lord. Together with Quenami, High Priest of the Mexica patron god Southern Hummingbird, we formed the religious head of the Empire. I didn’t get on with Quenami, who was arrogant and condescending – and as to Acamapichtli… Not that I liked him any more than Quenami, but we’d reached an uneasy understanding the year before.

Master of the House of Darts / Aliette de Bodard

Interview with Aliette de Bodard at The Faster Times