Rise of the Aztecs

Aztec codex
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The Aztec Empire is one of the most well-known Mesoamerican cultures. It existed between c. AD 1325 and 1521 and controlled a significant portion of central Mexico, almost as large as modern-day Mexico.


While often referred to as the 'Aztec', they are also known as the 'Mexica', which is how they referred to themselves.


The influence of the Aztec stretched from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Gulf of Mexico in the east.


The Aztec Empire used a mixture of military conquest and diplomatic alliances to maintain control over this vast region.

Early history

The Aztec began as just one of several Nahuatl speaking tribes. The area of northern Mexico, called 'Aztlan', is often associated with the origin of the Aztecs; however, the exact location of Aztlan is debated among historians, and its existence as a specific historical place is uncertain.


Around AD 1100, the ancestors of the Aztec headed south, seeking a new homeland.


Over successive generations, the Aztec were repelled by the regions they entered until 1325, when they reached Lake Texcoco.


Legend states that the tribe saw an eagle perched on a cactus on an island in the lake, eating a snake. The Aztec took this as a sign and founded their capital city, Tenochtitlan, on the lake.


Building a city on a lake was a challenging task, but it had some natural advantages: the lake provided easy access to clean drinking water and would provide water for agriculture.


The Aztec also became clever engineers, as they developed the necessary technology to build canals and water gates to control the water level of the lake.


They also constructed raised roads, called causeways, which could link the islands to the shore in order to improve transportation.


However, since Tenochtitlan was surrounded by water, canoes and boats continued to be the primary means of transport.

Ancient Mexico pyramid
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It didn't take long for the Aztec to make their existence felt among the local tribes in the region. They formed alliances with some neighbors, often through diplomatic marriages, while attacking others.


In 1428, the Aztec allied with the cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco, creating an entity called the 'Triple Alliance'.


This new combined force expanded rapidly in the late 15th century, with the Aztec emerging as the most powerful of the three cities. With each war of expansion, conquered peoples were forced to pay heavy taxes and tribute to Tenochtitlan.


Valued commodities sent by these cities included gold, jewelry, woven cloth, cacao beans, corn, honey, birds, fish, and even slaves.

Mural of Aztec people
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The rapid and aggressive expansion, as well as the heavy taxes put upon their subjects, created anger towards the Aztec and the Triple Alliance.


Many cities refused to surrender and remained a constant military threat. These included the city-states of Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinco.


By 1500, the Aztec Empire was a powerful force in the region, although not the undisputed regional superpower, as there were other powerful Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Tarascan Empire, that were not conquered by the Aztecs and remained significant regional powers.

Growing food

One of the ongoing concerns for Tenochtitlan was the need to supply enough food for its population.


Since it was located on a lake, there was limited access to good farmland. To solve this problem, Aztec engineers created a clever solution called chinampas. Chinampas, sometimes referred to as "floating gardens" (although they were not truly floating), were man-made islands that were used for growing crops.


To construct them, they would row out to an open space of the lake and hammer wooden logs into the lake bottom to create a rectangular frame. The frame was then filled in with mud from the bottom of the lake, decaying vegetation, and soil brought in from the edge of the lake.


With enough dirt, it rose above the water level and created a garden bed that could grow crops, all the while being watered by the lake around it.


In these chinampas, the Aztec grew three main crops: corn, beans, and squash, often together in a method known as the "Three Sisters" agricultural technique.


This method allowed each plant to support the others, creating a more sustainable and efficient growing system. There were other more luxurious foods which they grew as well, including tomatoes, avocados, chilis, and sweet potatoes.

Different kinds of corn kernels
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Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Aztec culture is its religion. Religious belief played an important role in Aztec life, but it is very different from the religions we're familiar with today.


The Aztec were polytheists, which meant that they worshipped hundreds of gods. Each god had their own temple and particular ceremonies that needed to be carried out for them. The Aztec believed that the gods were in charge of keeping the universe in existence and that the correct ceremonies carried out at the correct times would prevent chaos breaking out or causing the destruction of the world.


The most controversial part of this system was the role that human sacrifice played in their religious ceremonies. The Aztec believed that the gods required human blood to help them maintain order in the universe. As a result, the killing of captured enemies or volunteers occurred regularly throughout the year.


In Tenochtitlan, the two largest temples were located in the middle of the city, at a complex known as the Templo Mayor or Great Temple. People had to ascend approximately 100-114 steps (the exact number varies depending on the source and the specific time period in the history of the temple complex) to reach the twin temples at the top.


Two of the Aztec's most important gods were worshipped there: Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war. The fact that the gods of rain and sun and war were the two prominent deities indicates the importance of agriculture and military conquest in Aztec society.

Aztec priest
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