Mexico City and the Aztecs

Much of Mexico City is underwater.

Or at least it would be if historical geology held sway.

It was called Lake Texcoco and it, along with a few other lakes filled much of the Valley of Mexico for nearly all of human history.

This was what the valley looked like around the time Cortés showed his infamous face. Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital, and what, in time, would become Mexico City. The map also gives a good idea of the many additional tribes. Note Teotihuacan in the upper right corner.

These days it’s a tad more crowded.

Current Mexico City area

“A tad more crowded” is no exaggeration. The city proper, plus the suburbs included in these maps, hold upwards of 22 million people – more than New York City. And the traffic reflects every inch of it.

All this lakefront property has been popular for a long time. Even the Aztecs were Johnny-come-latelies; their federation didn’t even kick off until around 1428. For the real Wayback Machine, take that 1400 years back to zero, then go back 1400 more. There was a place called Cuicuilco, within current SW Mexico City limits. My best guess is it was on the west side of Lake Xochimilco, across from what ended up being Culhuacan in the Aztec era.

Maybe it wasn’t 1400 BC. Wikipedia is confused. On the same page, it stated being settled 1400 BC, earliest occupation 1200 BC, and founded 1000 BC. In any case, the settlement(s) grew into a city, and the city became the first important civic-religious center of the Mexican Highlands. These folks were contemporary with the Olmecs, may have competed with them, and are even more mysterious.

The interesting thing is, they may have been the ones to start off the pyramid thing in Mesoamerica. They built a circular version, about 90 feet high, between 800 and 600 BC.

Image from Google Maps

We didn’t see that one, so I borrowed a pic…

The Cuicuilco civilization had challenges. Besides the Olmec, as the clock ticked towards the end of BC and towards AD, the civilization at Teotihuacan on the NE end of Lake Texcoco was growing in power. I’ll talk about them in a separate post.

But even they weren’t the real problem. The real problem was a volcano called Xitle (sit-lay).

I get the impression there were several eruptions, with a serious one around 60 BC that covered much of the area and initially caused the city to be abandoned. It had a small comeback in later years, but another, bigger eruption around 300 AD buried the place. End of story. But not of the Mexico City area.

We’ll skip Teotihuacan for now, and jump forward to the Aztecs.

Note: I’m dropping in a bunch of photos I took at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I have very little Spanish so I couldn’t read most of the placards, and can’t describe everything I’m showing you. I doubt I’d remember even if I could read Spanish. It’s likely some of the pictures are not from the Aztec era.

I’m not going to attempt a full history of the Aztecs. In fact, I’ll cheat, and copy the intro from Wikipedia. You can read more details there if you’re so inclined.

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521. The Aztec peoples included different ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Aztec culture was organized into city-states (altepetl), some of which joined to form alliances, political confederations, or empires. The Aztec Empire was a confederation of three city-states established in 1427: Tenochtitlan, city-state of the Mexica or Tenochca; Texcoco; and Tlacopan, previously part of the Tepanec empire, whose dominant power was Azcapotzalco. Although the term Aztecs is often narrowly restricted to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, it is also broadly used to refer to Nahua polities or peoples of central Mexico in the prehispanic era, as well as the Spanish colonial era (1521–1821).

You may recognize Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan from that first map. The alliance defeated Azcapotzalco, then the dominant power, and became the new power.

Mockup of the central plaza (Templo Mayor) of Tenochtitlan in its heyday, with a painting showing the island within Lake Texcoco.

Tenochtitlan was laid out symmetrically, with four sectors separated by four causeways or canals surrounding the central area. This central area was where the temple of Huitzilopochtli, temples for other gods, and the rulers’ palaces lay. Each of the four sectors had its own services, including a religious precinct, and was occupied by craftspeople like weavers, sculptors, and potters.

Within the Templo Mayer were two temples, one for Tlaloc, the god of rain, and one for Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. This is where the Aztec practiced both bloodletting (offering one’s own blood) and human sacrifice.

What happens if you argue until you’re blue in the face.

So what’s the deal with Montezuma, and did he get his revenge?

Do you envy this guy?

Politics is complicated. Even though the Aztecs took over the joint, they were still a confederation of tribes, and each tribe had their own chief. But most folks would agree the big kahuna at the time was the chief of the Mexicas, Itzcoatl (1427-1440). He was the one who channeled the Toltecs and broadened his power base by conquering the city-states on the south end of the lakes.

Itzcoatl had a nephew, named Motecuzoma. (Note: I’m finding several spellings for “Montezuma”, aka “Motecuhzoma” or “Moctezuma”. None of the “scholarly” sites use Montezuma. Maybe that’s why he wants revenge…)

But while emperor Moctezuma I (1398-1469) was a major player in expanding the Aztec empire, he wasn’t the “famous” one. He was followed by Axayacatl (1469-1481), Tizoc (1481-1486), and Ahuitzotl (1486-1502). I’m going to ignore those guys, even though they had notable histories too. Suffice it to say, anytime a new ruler took the throne, he had to prove himself…

Motecuzoma II (1502-1520) was the next guy in line. While he started off well, ruling for 18 years and expanding the Aztec empire to its greatest size, he was also the guy with the bad fortune to be in power when the Europeans showed up. Ever heard of Hernán Cortés?

To be fair, it wasn’t just Cortés and a band of badass conquistadors. The Aztecs, with all their conquests, had accrued quite the collection of native enemies who were all too happy to help Cortés kick butt.

Even then, Cortés didn’t do it in one fell swoop. It took eight months of battles and negotiations to overcome the resistance of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II to his “diplomatic” visit. Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on 8 November 1519, where he took up residence with fellow Spaniards and their indigenous allies.

But in 1520, Cortés had to deal with one of his own kind, Pánfilo de Narváez. Apparently, the Spanish governor of Cuba got his drawers in a bunch because Cortés hadn’t gotten his blessing to invade Mexico (the gov wanted all the glory), and he sent Narváez to shut him down. Even though Cortés was outnumbered 3 to 1, he outmaneuvered Narváez and took him prisoner.

Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, the remaining 80 Spaniards led by Pedro de Alvarado had attacked the Aztec lords during an Aztec religious celebration. Possibly to acquire their gold and jewelry, possibly due to rumors of the Aztecs attacking the Spanish garrison, probably both. Before he left Cortés had given explicit instructions to not attack, but Alvarado did anyway. When Cortés got back, he saw things were going sour fast and decided to escape, but the Aztecs wouldn’t have it and killed as many as they could during the retreat. This massacre is best known as the Noche Triste (the sorrowful night) as about “400 Spaniards, 4000 native allies and many horses [were killed] before reaching the mainland”. The causeway proved to be a killing ground. The Spaniards and their allies were trapped as the Aztecs could attack from both ends plus canoes from the sides, and if the Spaniards fell in the lake their armor did them no favors. Moctezuma II was also killed in this battle, possibly by “friendly” fire, as he was now seen by the population as a puppet of the invading Spaniards.

The Spanish, Tlaxcalans, and reinforcements returned a year later to a civilization that had been weakened by famine and smallpox. Tenochtitlan was conquered by an eight-month siege, when Cortes cut off the causeways and freshwater aqueducts, and built a small fleet of brigantines armed with cannon to patrol Lake Texcoco. Pitched battles were common, and thousands died on both sides. The city was destroyed, and the foundations of what would become Mexico City were built on the site.

Here’s a nice write-up on the whole Cortes/Tenochtitlan affair, describing the final battles in more detail.


But what happened to the lake(s)?

Lake Texcoco was a mix of fresh water from rain runoff, and salty water from the natural salts of the landscape. To overcome the problems of drinking water in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs built a system of dams to separate the saltwater of the lake from the rainwater. It also permitted them to control the level of the lake. The city also had an inner system of channels that helped to control the water.

During Cortés’s siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the dams were destroyed and never rebuilt, so flooding became a big problem for the new Mexico City.

In 1604, the lake flooded the city, with an even more severe flood following in 1607. They built a drain to control the level of the lake, but in 1629 another flood kept most of the city covered for five years. At that time, it was debated whether to relocate the city, but the Spanish authorities decided to keep the current location.

Eventually, the lake was drained by the channels and a tunnel to the Pánuco River. Even that could not stop the floods during the rainy season since by then most of the city was under the water table, and draining the lake was causing Mexico City to sink even more. So they built more drains, even up to the current day.

There was some thought that reclaiming so much land would be good for farming, but the reclaimed soil is salty and poor.

Because of the drains, the valley has turned semi-arid, and water shortage is becoming a problem for the 22 million residents.

And as for what water remains? Here lies Moctezuma’s Revenge. Don’t drink it if you want a happy digestion system. We drank only purified water from bottles and we even treated ice with care, begging the question: does all the alcohol in a Margarita negate the nasties in the ice?

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17 thoughts on “Mexico City and the Aztecs

  1. I’ve always enjoyed your photos, but now I also learn so much from your posts! As for the question about alcohol negating the problems with drinking the water…..that sounds like an experiment I might actually sign up for!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one may be a bit too history bookish and maybe not enough personal experience, but I’m still working out how to present all this history that I thankfully wasn’t around for. I think we were fairly successful with the Margaritas…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems we were never taught much of the history down south of the border. Seems as though some things never change when it comes to power struggles. Hard to imagine what will become of all the people when the water dries up around Mexico City. And some folks thought we had problems with so many trying to move north.

    I might also add I enjoyed the history. The pics of the cultural artworks were a bonus. ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, I don’t remember what we were taught about Mesoamerican history back in my school days – it was too long ago. I know going into this trip I was a little confused about the Aztec and Mayan contexts. That’s the thing about researching background for blog posts; I learn a lot, and it helps cement the trips that inspire them.

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  3. The very first thing that stopped me was the mention of Lake Texcoco. I had no idea that interior Mexico was submerged in the same way that the middle of North America was covered by the Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous period. Obviously, Texcoco was far more recent, but it still is a reminder that geology/geography determines a good bit of history: human and otherwise. The discussion of the salt and fresh water systems was interesting, too. Even now, our bay system and the fish it supports changes according to salinity levels. Too much fresh water from river flooding, and certain fish flee. Too salty, and important plants die.Obviously, too much salt is a problem for people, too.

    The second thing that brought me up short was the mention of the Olmecs. I know a hispanic fellow whose last name is Olmec. I need to find out if he’s Mexican, and if he knows anything of his genealogy.

    Looking at the various artifacts, I was struck by similarities between the masks and some I have hanging on my wall from West Africa. It’s really interesting that such different cultures could produce such similar art. I’m sure someone’s studied it, but I’ve never explored the subject myself.

    It was interesting to read about the Aztecs’ enemies among other native peoples, too. The same dynamic obviously played out in North America. People who assume Europeans were responsible for all the havoc wreaked on our native tribes need to read a bit more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think Lake Texcoco was nearly as big as the Western Interior Seaway, it just filled a basin in the mountains of central Mexico. But your points about salinity still stand.

      I wonder if they’ve done DNA tracing from skeletons going back to the Olmec era, as well as other tribes, and cross-checked it against current populations. I know they talk about Aztec and Maya descendants, but maybe that’s more based on language.

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  4. There’s a hamlet near my hometown in NY called “Montezuma” which overlooks a national wildlife refuge with the same name, about 10,000 acres of swamp and woods with lots of bald eagles, herons, geese, etc. The name is from the early 1800’s – – a local settler built a big house on the hill, and apparently thought it was as grand as an Aztec palace.
    The native people in that part of NY, the Iroquois tribes, were much better at playing the Europeans off against each other (French, English, Dutch) and were pretty successful doing that for a couple centuries, but over time the Europeans were pretty successful themselves, recruiting natives to fight each other.

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    1. That sounds like a grand place until you get to the swamps, where the mosquitoes likely get Montezuma’s Revenge.

      At first cut I used to think it odd that Cortez, and Pizarro before him in Peru, could subdue entire countries with a relative handful of men. Clearly, they had help.

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      1. Yeah in school they made it sound like a couple dozen conquistadors did it all by themselves, and I always wondered how that was possible. And now I’m thinking about that Procol Harum song “Conquistador” kind of strange but I’ve always liked it.
        Interesting post, Dave, thanks!

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  6. Another fascinating post! The Anthropology Museum in Mexico City is amazing. One rainy day, I spent six hours in there, cramming as much information as I possibly could into my tiny brain. I am currently traveling in Perú. The parallels between Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs and Francisco Pizarro’s defeat of the Inca civilization is uncanny. The geology and human habitation of Tenochtitlan is also fascinating. There is a body of water on the south side of Mexico City called Xochimilco that are the last remnants of the Aztec canal system.

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    1. The easy conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires would seem to suggest those civilizations may have been on the brink to start with – they just needed a push. What I find more amazing is how quicky the cultures were subsumed by Catholism. Maybe it was just more popular to emphasize a symbolic sacrifice than actual, multiple physical sacrifices.

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