Tenochtitlán, ancient capital of the Aztec empire. Located at the site of modern Mexico City, it was founded c. 1325 in the marshes of Lake Texcoco. It formed a confederacy with Texcoco and Tlacopán and was the Aztec capital by the late 15th century.
Originally located on two small islands in Lake Texcoco, it gradually spread through the construction of artificial islands to cover more than 5 square miles (13 square km). It was connected to the mainland by several causeways.
The population in 1519 was estimated to be about 400,000 people, the largest residential concentration in Mesoamerican history. It contained the palace of Montezuma II, said to consist of 300 rooms, as well as hundreds of temples.
The origin of the Aztec people is uncertain, but elements of their own tradition suggest that they were a tribe of hunters and gatherers on the northern Mexican plateau before their appearance in Mesoamerica in perhaps the 12th century ce; Aztlán, however, may be legendary.
It is possible that their migration southward was part of a general movement of peoples that followed, or perhaps helped trigger, the collapse of the highly developed Toltec civilization of central Mexico and its capital, Tula, a spectacular urban center that featured pyramids, temples, public buildings, and statuary.
At the beginning of the 12th century, catastrophe befell Toltec civilization when Tula was attacked and destroyed, as were other important Toltec centers.
Tribes of hunters and gatherers, including a group of Chichimec under the leadership of Xólotl, took advantage of the situation and traveled from the arid plateau of northern Mexico toward the fertile, heavily settled central zone.
Xólotl’s Chichimec joined forces with the remaining Toltecs, resulting in a period of relative peace and cultural progress in the Valley of Mexico.
During this time the Aztecs, who, according to legend, had been wandering in search of a new place to settle, established a precarious home near the ruins of Tula. There they improved their approach to agriculture and acquired other technological knowledge.
However, their stay was temporary. Aztec tradition holds that the god Huitzilopochtli instructed them to depart again in search of a permanent home, the location of which would be revealed by the appearance of an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a serpent in its beak (an image that is memorialized on Mexico’s national flag).
There they built a temple and, around it, on islands in Lake Texcoco, the first dwellings of what was to become the powerful city of Tenochtitlán.
The empire that the Aztecs would establish was equaled in the New World only by that of the Incas of Peru, and the brilliance of their civilization is comparable to that of other great ancient cultures of America and the Old World.
The Aztec empire was still expanding, and its society still evolving, when its progress was halted in 1519 by the appearance of Spanish explorers.
Among the reasons for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire was that Montezuma, at least initially, suspected that Cortés was a returning god.
Cortés was a skillful leader, but he also benefited from his force’s possession of superior arms (crossbows, muskets, steel swords, and body armor), as well as horses and dogs that were trained for battle.
Deadly European diseases against which the Aztecs had no immunity also took their toll. Finally, the Spaniards took great advantage of the hatred that tribes who had been conquered by the Aztecs held for their imperial overlords.
Thousands of Native American warriors joined the Spanish invasion, which likely would not have succeeded without their participation.
After a brutal two-year campaign, by August 13, 1521, the Spanish had taken control of Tenochtitlán. With its capture, the Aztec empire came to an end.
Britannica.com / ABC Flash Point News 2023.