Tenochtitlan (Spanish: Tenochtitlan, Spanish
pronunciation: [ˈmexiko tenotʃˈtitlan] ( listen)),
originally known as México-Tenochtitlán (Classical Nahuatl:
Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan [meːˈʃíʔ.ko te.noːt͡ʃ.ˈtí.t͡ɬan]),
was a large
Mexica city-state in what is now the center of Mexico
City. Founded on June 20, 1325, the city was built on an island in
what was then
Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The city was the
capital of the expanding
Aztec Empire in the 15th century until it
was captured by the Spanish in 1521.
At its peak, it was the largest city in the
Pre-Columbian Americas. It
subsequently became a cabecera of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Today,
the ruins of
Tenochtitlan are in the historic center of the Mexican
Tenochtitlan was one of two Nahua āltēpetl (city-states) on the
island, the other being Tlatelolco.
3 City plans
3.2 Public buildings
3.3 Palaces of Moctezuma II
4 Social classes
5.1 The coming of Cortés
5.2 After the conquest
6 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
Traditionally, the name
Tenochtitlan was thought to come from Nahuatl
tetl [ˈtetɬ] ("rock") and nōchtli [ˈnoːtʃtɬi] ("prickly pear")
and is often thought to mean, "Among the prickly pears [growing among]
rocks". However, one attestation in the late 16th-century manuscript
known as "the Bancroft dialogues" suggest the second vowel was short,
so that the true etymology remains uncertain.
The western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco.
Tenochtitlan is the
southern part of the main island (under the red line). The northern
part is Tlatelolco.
Tenochtitlan covered an estimated 8 to 13.5 km2 (3.1 to
5.2 sq mi), situated on the western side of the shallow Lake
At the time of Spanish conquests,
Mexico City comprised both
Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. The city extended from north to south,
from the north border of Tlatelolco to the swamps, which by that time
were gradually disappearing to the west; the city ended more or less
at the present location of Avenida Bucareli.
The city was connected to the mainland by bridges and causeways
leading to the north, south, and west. The causeways were interrupted
by bridges that allowed canoes and other water traffic to pass freely.
The bridges could be pulled away, if necessary, to defend the city.
The city was interlaced with a series of canals, so that all sections
of the city could be visited either on foot or via canoe.
Lake Texcoco was the largest of five interconnected lakes. Since it
formed in an endorheic basin,
Lake Texcoco was brackish. During the
reign of Moctezuma I, the "levee of Nezahualcoyotl" was constructed,
reputedly designed by Nezahualcoyotl. Estimated to be 12 to 16 km
(7.5 to 9.9 mi) in length, the levee was completed circa 1453.
The levee kept fresh spring-fed water in the waters around
Tenochtitlan and kept the brackish waters beyond the dike, to the
Two double aqueducts, each more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long and
made of terracotta, provided the city with fresh water from the
springs at Chapultepec. This was intended mainly for cleaning and
washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was preferred. Most
of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was said to
take four baths a day. According to the context of Aztec culture in
literature, the soap that they most likely used was the root of a
plant called copalxocotl (
Saponaria americana), and to clean their
clothes they used the root of metl (Agave americana). Also, the upper
classes and pregnant women washed themselves in a temazcalli, similar
to a sauna bath, which is still used in the south of Mexico. This was
also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.
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
The city was divided into four zones, or camps; each camp was divided
into 20 districts (calpullis,
Nahuatl calpōlli); and each calpulli,
or 'big house', was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were
three main streets that crossed the city, each leading to one of the
three causeways to the mainland of Tepeyac, Ixtapalpa, and
Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that they were wide
enough for ten horses. Surrounding the raised causeways were
artificial floating gardens with canal waterways and gardens of
plants, shrubs, and trees. The calpullis were divided by channels
used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night.
The earliest European images of the city were woodcuts published in
Augsburg around 1522.
The Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at The Field Museum, Chicago.
Each calpulli (from Classical
Nahuatl calpōlli, Nahuatl
pronunciation: [kaɬˈpoːlːi], meaning "large house") had its own
tiyanquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a main marketplace in
Tlatelolco – Tenochtitlan's sister city. Cortés estimated it was
twice the size of the city of
Salamanca with about 60,000 people
Bernardino de Sahagún
Bernardino de Sahagún provides a more conservative
population estimate of 20,000 on ordinary days and 40,000 on feast
days. There were also specialized markets in the other central Mexican
A picture of
Tenochtitlan and a model of the Templo Mayor.
In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples, and
palaces. Inside a walled square, 500 meters to a side, was the
ceremonial center. There were about 45 public buildings, including:
the Templo Mayor, which was dedicated to the Aztec patron deity
Huitzilopochtli and the Rain God Tlaloc; the temple of Quetzalcoatl;
the tlachtli (ball game court) with the tzompantli or rack of skulls;
the Sun Temple, which was dedicated to Tonatiuh; the Eagle's House,
which was associated with warriors and the ancient power of rulers;
the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice; and some minor
Outside was the palace of Moctezuma with 100 rooms, each with its own
bath, for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people.
Also located nearby was the cuicalli, or house of the songs, and the
The city had great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by
the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning.
Palaces of Moctezuma II
The palace of
Moctezuma II also had two houses or zoos, one for birds
of prey and another for other birds, reptiles, and mammals. About 300
people were dedicated to the care of the animals.
There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had
ten ponds of salt water and ten ponds of fresh water, containing
various fish and aquatic birds. Places like this also existed in
Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huaxtepec (now called Oaxtepec), and
Tenochtitlan can be considered the most complex society in Mesoamerica
in regard to social stratification. The complex system involved many
social classes. The macehualtin were commoners who lived outside the
island city of Tenochtitlan. The pipiltin were noblemen who were
relatives of leaders and former leaders, and lived in the confines of
the island. Cuauhipiltin, or eagle nobles, were commoners who
impressed the nobles with their martial prowess, and were treated as
nobles. Teteuctin were the highest class, rulers of various parts
of the empire, including the king. Tlacohtin were individuals who
chose to enslave themselves to pay back a debt; they were not slaves
forever and were not treated as badly as typical slaves seen in other
ancient civilizations worldwide. Finally, the pochteca were merchants
who traveled all of
Mesoamerica trading. The membership of this class
was based on heredity. Pochteca could become very rich because they
did not pay taxes, but they had to sponsor the ritual feast of Xocotl
Huetzi from the wealth that they obtained from their trade
Status was displayed by location and type of house where a person
lived. Ordinary people lived in houses made of reeds plastered with
mud and roofed with thatch. People who were better off had houses of
adobe brick with flat roofs. The wealthy had houses of stone
masonry with flat roofs. They most likely made up the house complexes
that were arranged around the inner court. The higher officials in
Tenochtitlan lived in the great palace complexes that made up the
Adding even more complexity to Aztec social stratification was the
calpolli. Calpolli, meaning ‘big house’ is a group of families
related by either kinship or proximity. These groups consist of both
elite members of Aztec society and commoners. Elites provided
commoners with arable land and nonagricultural occupations, and
commoners performed services for chiefs and gave tribute.
Mexico City statue commemorating the foundation of Tenochtitlan.
Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Mexican civilization of the Mexica
people, founded in 1325. The state religion of the
awaited the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: the wandering tribes
would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be
signaled by an eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a (Opuntia)
Mexica saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in
Lake Texcoco, a vision that is now immortalized in Mexico's coat of
arms and on the Mexican flag. Not deterred by the unfavourable
terrain, they set about building their city, using the chinampa system
(misnamed as "floating gardens") for agriculture and to dry and expand
A thriving culture developed, and the
Mexica civilization came to
dominate other tribes around Mexico. The small natural island was
perpetually enlarged as
Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and
most powerful city in Mesoamerica. Commercial routes were developed
that brought goods from places as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the
Pacific Ocean and perhaps even the Inca Empire.
After a flood of Lake Texcoco, the city was rebuilt under the rule of
Ahuitzotl in a style that made it one of the grandest ever in
Hernán Cortés arrived in
November 8, 1519. With an estimated population between 200,000 and
300,000, many[who?] scholars believe
Tenochtitlan to have been among
the largest cities in the world at that time. Compared to the
cities of Europe, only Paris,
Constantinople might have
rivaled it. It was five times the size of the
London of Henry VIII.
In a letter to the Spanish king, Cortés wrote that
as large as
Seville or Córdoba. Cortes' men were in awe at the sight
of the splendid city and many wondered if they were dreaming.
Although some popular sources put the number as high as 350,000,
the most common estimates of the population are of over 200,000
people. One of the few comprehensive academic surveys of Mesoamerican
city and town sizes arrived at a population of 212,500 living on
13.5 km2 (5.2 sq mi), It is also said that at one
time, Moctezuma had rule over an empire of almost five million people
in central and southern Mexico because he had extended his rule to
surrounding territories to gain tribute and prisoners to sacrifice to
The coming of Cortés
Further information: Fall of Tenochtitlan
The Conquest of Tenochtitlan.
When Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma II, who
precariously ruled over a large empire, chose to welcome Cortés as an
honored guest, rather than risk a war which might quickly be joined by
aggrieved indigenous people. Moctezuma may have feared that Cortés
was the returning god Quetzalcoat, because the Spanish arrival
coincided with the close of an Aztec calendar cycle consistent with
such a return. This claim is found in the Florenino Codex, among other
early sources, and accepted as true in many later histories. However,
some scholars doubt it.
As Cortés approached Tenochtitlan, the natives celebrated Toxcatl. At
this event the most prominent warriors of altepetl[clarification
needed] would dance in front of a huge statue of Huitzilopochtli. The
Spanish leader, Pedro de Alvarado, who was left in charge, worried
that the natives planned a surprise attack. He captured three natives
and tortured them until they said that this[clarification needed] was
indeed true. There was no proof, however, but Alvarado decided to
attack first. During the festival, the Spaniards came heavily armed
and closed off every exit from the courtyard so that no one would
escape. This happened during their last days in Tenochtitlan..
Nobles lined each side of the city's main causeway, which extended
about a league. Walking down the center came Moctezuma II, with two
lords at his side, one his brother, the ruler of Iztapalapa. Cortés
dismounted and was greeted by the ruler and his lords, but forbidden
to touch him. Cortés gave him a necklace of crystals, placing it over
They were then brought to a large house that would serve as their home
for their stay in the city. Once they were settled, Moctezuma himself
sat down and spoke with Cortés. The great ruler declared that
anything that they needed would be theirs to have. He was thrilled
to have visitors of such stature. Although the Spaniards were seeking
gold, Moctezuma expressed that he had very little of the sort, but all
of it was to be given to Cortés if he desired it.
Since arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortés faced early trouble. Leaving a
post in Vera Cruz, the officer left in charge received a letter from
Qualpopoca, the leader of Almería, asking to become a vassal of the
Spaniards. He requested that officials be sent to him so that he could
confirm his submission. To reach the province, the officers would have
to travel through hostile land. The officer in charge of Vera Cruz
decided to send four officers to meet with Qualpopoca.
When they arrived, they were captured and two were killed, the other
two escaping through the woods. Upon their return to Vera Cruz, the
officer in charge was infuriated, and led troops to storm Almería.
Here they learned that Moctezuma was supposedly the one who ordered
the officers executed. Back in Tenochtitlan, Cortés detained
Moctezuma and questioned him. Though no serious conclusions were
reached, this started the relationship between Moctezuma and the
Spaniards on a bad note.
After the conquest
Cortés subsequently besieged
Tenochtitlan for 75 days, causing a
famine; directed the systematic destruction and leveling of the
city; and began its rebuilding, despite opposition, with a central
area designated for Spanish use (the traza). The outer Indian section,
now dubbed San Juan Tenochtitlan, continued to be governed by the
previous indigenous elite and was divided into the same subdivisions
as before. While the people of
Tenochtitlan were celebrating the
few Spaniards who were not able to escape and were killed, the city
was in great ruins.[clarification needed]
The people of
Tenochtitlan were exposed to diseases. Someone who was
exposed would not feel it for the first ten days, then the disease
would spread throughout the body, causing many sores, pain in the body
and high fever. People were weak to the point that they could not
move, nor obtain food and water. They couldn't cook or bury the
remaining dead bodies from the conquest. The population of the people
Tenochtitlan began to starve and weaken. The death toll rose
steadily over the course of the next 60 days.[when?]
The ruins of the Templo Mayor.
Tenochtitlan's main temple complex, the Templo Mayor, was dismantled
and the central district of the Spanish colonial city was constructed
on top of it. The great temple was destroyed by the Spanish during the
construction of a cathedral. The location of the
Templo Mayor was
rediscovered in the early 20th century, but major excavations did not
take place until 1978–1982, after utility workers came across a
massive stone disc depicting the nude dismembered body of the moon
goddess Coyolxauhqui. The disc is 3.25 meters in diameter (or
10.5 ft), and is held at the
Templo Mayor Museum.
Fundación de México (The foundation of Mexico) – Tenochtitlán by
Roberto Cueva del Río.
The ruins, constructed over seven periods, were built on top of each
other. The resulting weight of the structures caused them to sink into
the sediment of Lake Texcoco; the ruins now rest at an angle instead
Mexico City's Zócalo, the Plaza de la Constitución, is located at
the site of Tenochtitlan's original central plaza and market, and many
of the original calzadas still correspond to modern city streets. The
Aztec calendar stone
Aztec calendar stone was located in the ruins. This stone is 4 meters
in diameter and weighs over 20 tons. It was once located half-way up
the great pyramid. This sculpture was carved around 1470 under the
rule of King Axayacatl, the predecessor of Tizoc, and is said to tell
the history of the Mexicas and to prophesy the future.
In August 1987, archaeologists discovered a mix of 1,789 human bones
five metres below street level in Mexico City. The burial dates
back to the 1480s and lies at the foot of the main temple in the
sacred ceremonial precinct of the Aztec capital. The bones are from
children, teenagers and adults and a complete skeleton of a young
woman was also found at the site.
List of megalithic sites
List of Mesoamerican pyramids
History of Mexico City
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