Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán

Occupying land used by other civilizations before them, the Aztecs built one of the world’s largest cities in the Valley of Mexico.

Summary of Event

The Spanish conquistadors encountered the Aztecs’s remarkable civilization in its full flower, before Spanish guns, avarice, and disease laid it to waste. The center of Aztec civilization, Tenochtitlán, occupied the site of another great metropolis, what is now called Mexico City. The Aztecs called the place where they lived “Mexica,” from which “Mexico” is derived. The first Spaniards to see Tenochtitlán described a city more splendid than any their well-traveled eyes ever had seen. [kw]Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán (1325-1519)
[kw]Tenochtitlán, Aztecs Build (1325-1519)
Central America;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Architecture;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Cultural and intellectual history;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Expansion and land acquisition;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Religion;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Trade and commerce;1325-1519: Aztecs Build Tenochtitlán[2730]
Moctezuma II
Cortés, Hernán

The Aztecs probably moved to the Valley of Mexico from the present-day Mexican state of Nayarit, about 450 miles (725 kilometers) northwest of Tenochtitlán. The marshes of the Pacific coast, not far from Mexicaltitán, fit descriptions of the Aztecs’s origin place, Aztlan, “place of the herons,” from which they derived “Aztec,” meaning “people of the heron place.”

According to the Aztecs’s chroniclers, their people arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1325. During almost two centuries between that date and the Spanish invasion led by conquistador Hernán Cortés Cortés, Hernán (in 1519), the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán (meaning “place of the prickly-pear cactus”). Tenochtitlán was much larger than Paris or Rome at that same time, and it had twice the population of London. As the Aztec Empire spread to the Gulf of Mexico and present-day Guatemala, Tenochtitlán grew on land reclaimed from surrounding swamps. Two three-mile-long aqueducts were built to carry fresh water from the mainland, each with two sluices, so one could be closed for cleaning without interrupting the water supply.

Artist’s rendition of Tenochtitlán.

(American Museum of Natural History)

The Aztec cosmos was filled with gods for every human activity, from fertility to death. Each community and craft had its deity. Some researchers have counted as many as sixteen hundred deities. Most Aztecs believed that the gods could not keep the Sun and Moon moving (and by implication, continue the cycle of life on earth) without a steady diet of human flesh and blood. Their cosmology propelled the Aztecs into wars to procure prisoners for sacrifice to their gods. Religion;Aztecs

The Aztec Empire expanded through this warfare, which was as much a pageant as a battle. Wars were fought hand-to-hand. Aztecs disarmed their opponents and forced them to surrender, or they beat them unconscious. Soldiers wore headdresses and shirts of yellow parrot feathers set off with gold. Soldiers wore jaguar skins and hoods of gold set off by feather horns. Their shields were decorated with golden disks depicting butterflies and serpents. The armies of the Aztec Empire went to battle with two-toned drums, conch-shell trumpets, shrill clay whistles, and high-pitched screams. Priests led the soldiers into battle with trumpet-blasts calling on the gods as witnesses. The priests then waited in the rear with razor-sharp obsidian blades, ready to feed the gods with the still-warm blood of captives’s beating hearts. The Aztecs transported many thousands of subject peoples to Tenochtitlán for forced labor and religious sacrifice. Military;Aztecs

Estimates of the number of people sacrificed for religious purposes range from ten thousand to eighty thousand during those three decades before the Spanish invasion. Four people at a time were sacrificed at the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán from dawn to dusk. The entire city stank of burning flesh. At times, the stench was sealed into the valley by the same atmospheric inversions that today capture some of the world’s worst air pollution.

The Aztecs built a commercial network that brought to the Valley of Mexico all manner of food, rare feathers, precious metals, and other commodities, many of which were traded at a great market at Tlatelolco. Cortés reported having seen as many as sixty thousand people bartering in this grand bazaar. Trade;Aztecs

While the solid temples, residences, and storehouses of the city gave Tenochtitlán an air of permanence, the city was not old by Mesoamerican standards. In less than two centuries, the site had grown from little more than a small temple surrounded by a few mud-and-thatch huts. According to Cortés’s accounts, the grandeur of the Aztecs’s capital outshone anything he had ever seen. In Spain, he wrote, there is nothing to compare with it. Some of Cortés’s soldiers asked as if they were in a dream. The Aztec capital was a cavalcade of color—the architecture painted turquoise, yellow, red, and green.

Cortés and his roughly four hundred men forged alliances with many native peoples who were more than ready to turn against the domineering Mexicas. Through the use of informants such as the legendary Malinche (a former Mexican Indian princess who was first a slave to Cortés, then later his mistress, interpreter, and guide) and an uncanny sense of timing that Aztec leaders sometimes thought was supernatural, Cortés’s small band of Spanish conquistadors reduced a state that had subjugated millions to defeat within two bloody years. The Spanish also were aided by European diseases and the Aztecs’s own fear of a troublesome future.

Cortés began recruiting Indian allies against the Aztecs in Cempoalla, near the Gulf coast, home to about thirty thousand people of the Totonac nation, the first city he visited on his way to Tenochtitlán. With thousands of allies, Cortés entered the Valley of Mexico with enough human power to initiate serious combat.

Cortés and his allies found themselves received in Tenochtitlán as ambassadors of a mighty foreign country. Cortés repaid hospitality with violence: At first, he took the Aztec emperor Moctezuma Moctezuma prisoner, then slowly and ruthlessly undermined his power among the Mexicas. The imprisonment included physical and psychological torture. The Spaniards held Moctezuma captive for several months, while rumors regarding his health spread through the capital. After months of Spanish torment, Moctezuma was killed.

At one point, Cortés’s men discovered a massive amount of gold and silver, the state treasury. The Spanish extracted 162,000 pesos de oro (or roughly 19,600 troy ounces) of gold from this cache. At 2003 gold prices (about $330 per troy ounce), this hoard would have been worth about $6.5 million. Much of what the Spanish purloined was part intricate artwork that they melted into bullion for convenient shipment back to Spain, except for a few pieces that Cortés preserved intact to impress his sponsors.

Following the murder of Moctezuma, Cortés and his comrades soon found the Mexica capital in full revolt. The Spanish then departed Tenochtitlán by night, along one of the causeways that connected the city with the mainland. Seven thousand Spanish and Tlascalan allies surged onto the causeway as the Aztecs attacked them from boats. The Battle of Noche Triste (“sad night”), as it was called, became an Aztec folktale, a comeuppance for many of the Spaniards who drowned because they had tied so much gold to their bodies.


The fact that Tenochtitlán was built in less than two centuries is amazing enough. When one reflects on the Aztecs’s lack of construction machinery (even the wheel), this feat of Aztec construction becomes even more astounding. The island on which Tenochtitlán was built contained no construction materials, so virtually everything used to construct it had to be ferried, aboard canoes at first. Later, supplies were carried, or rolled on logs, using ropes and pulleys, along the causeways that connected the city with the mainland. Architecture;Aztecs

The city’s size was remarkable for its time. If Tenochtitlán’s population was about three-hundred thousand, which seems likely, it was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, and the largest urban area in North or South America until after 1800. At the time the United States became independent, its largest cities (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) housed no more than fifty thousand people each.

The Spanish invasion initiated a major demographic shift in Mexico. Henry Dobyns has estimated that the population of Mexico declined from between 30 million and 37.5 million people in 1520 to 1.5 million in 1650, a holocaust of an extent unknown in the Old World. Even if one argues that Dobyns’s figures are too high, cutting them almost in half to a 1520 population of 20 million would produce a mortality rate during a 130-year period of 92.5 percent.

Further Reading

  • Brandon, William. The American Heritage Book of Indians. New York: Dell, 1961. Describes the Aztecs in the context of Native American life.
  • Carrasco, David, ed. Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1999. Discusses Aztec sacred spaces, rites, ceremonies and festivals, sacrifice, shamanism, myth, and more. Includes illustrations, bibliographies, and index.
  • Collis, Maurice. Cortés and Montezuma. New York: New Directions, 1999. Provides a general overview of the history of Cortés and Moctezuma in the time of the Aztecs, from Cortés’s arrival to his storming of Tenochtitlán. Includes illustrations and index.
  • Dobyns, Henry F. “Estimating Aboriginal American Population.” Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 395-449. Dobyns makes his case for large populations in Mexico and across the hemisphere.
  • McDowell, Bart. “The Aztecs.” National Geographic, December, 1980, 704-752. Comprehensive history of the Aztec Empire.
  • Molina Montes, Augusto F. “The Building of Tenochtitlán.” National Geographic, December, 1980, 753-766. Detailed description of the city’s history.
  • Portilla, Miguel León. The Aztec Image of Self and Society: An Introduction to Nahua Culture. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992. A detailed account of Aztec culture and society.
  • Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A graphic account of the death and destruction that accompanied the Spanish conquest.