The Rise and Fall of the Aztec Empire
The Aztecs. Source: (Photo from ourworld.unu.edu)
The Aztecs were a people that lived in the middle American region in what is now known as Mexico City and the area that surrounded it back in the 14th through the 16th centuries. This was before the Spanish or Columbus arrived. The Aztecs occupied the area from 1345 to 1521 A.D. They were fierce warriors who fought endless battles with their neighbors but, at the same time, built magnificent cities.
Origin and Early History
Their origin and history have been pretty much overlooked, but historians have traced their original homeland back to a land called Aztlan, the land of white herons. They began to migrate south toward Central Mexico. According to legend, they received a celestial command to leave the “seven caves of Chichomoztoc and emerge into the light to explore the world.” There were seven tribes that came from these seven caves: “Xochimilco, Chalca, Tepanec, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcalteca, and Mexica. It took 300 years for all of the tribes to finish migrating as they all did not leave at the same time. The last tribe to arrive was the Mexica tribe which was in 1285 with their god of War leading them. While traveling, they would take 10-20 year rest periods and set up towns as they went.
It was not an easy task for them to settle as most of the areas in Central Mexico were already occupied and no one wanted to let them in. They finally settled in a place called Chapultepec, the “Hill of Grasshoppers.” Their surrounding neighbors were not too thrilled with them being there so they elected a warrior leader, which led them to become aggressive. According to Diego Duran, an author on the history and culture of the Aztecs, there was a conspiracy formed among their neighbors, where they planned to surround them in order to totally destroy them. Because they received a warning from their god, they were able to turn the table on them and ambush them instead as well as capture their leader. His heart was ripped out and thrown into Lake Texcoco and the area where it landed was to become their capital, Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City.
The Aztecs were not just another barbaric tribe but were quite resourceful. They learned how to create their own irrigation system in the swampland that they were forced to settle on. They made levees and reservoirs for water. In the beginning, for food, they would eat pretty much anything including snakes and whatever else they could come up. Later, though, they built chinampas, on the lake beds, which are small rectangular-shaped floating crops. Using wooden stakes, rocks, and clay, they built foundations for causeways. There were also large pyramids and temples built, where they worshipped and made sacrifices to their gods.
Slaves and Human Sacrifices
Their god of War told them to build a city to honor him which they called Tenochtitlan (the city of Tenoch). It was there that they were to honor him with human sacrifices. He was especially fond of human hearts. As part of the Aztec governing system, they would punish people for not paying tribute or for other various crimes by making them slaves. Prisoners taken in wars would either be made slaves or become human sacrifices. They also performed human sacrifices to please their gods, so they could have good crops or for other reasons where they desired favor.
The Fall of the Aztec Empire
After the Aztecs became strong enough to prove to their neighbors they were a force to be reckoned with, the Aztec Triple Alliance (or Aztec Empire) was formed that included neighboring allies, Texcoco and Tacuba. They remained a strong empire until Cortez entered the picture. It was foretold to them that one day a fair-skinned man would come that was the return of their god. When Cortez, along with the Spaniards, showed up, Montezuma, the Aztec leader, believed it was their god even though the priests warned of impending doom. That made it easy for Cortez to move in for the kill, especially when he saw all the gold and treasures they had. They were able to defeat the Triple Alliance that had been so strong for 900 years.