The Magnificent City of the Aztec Empire
Circa the year 1325 CE, the Mexica, whom we now call the Aztecs, wandered to the Central Valley of Mexico looking for a permanent home. It had been prophesied that they would have a sign from their god, Huitzilopochtli. When they saw an eagle perched upon a prickly pear cactus holding a snake in its mouth, it would mark that spot where their promised land would be. Other indigenous Mesoamericans were already occupying the best of the available land when they arrived; the only area left was a marshy mud islet, a small island, in the middle of Lake Texcoco. There they embellished the islet and created an artificial man-made island. That island would be where they built one of the most beautiful city-states in all of the Americas and Europe, as well, Tenochtitlan, site of modern day Mexico City. It was the most organized and cleanest city of the time. Hernan Cortez stated that Tenochtitlan was comparable to Seville and surpassed Venice in its grandeur.
There were actually a total of 5 lakes, Xaltocan, Zumpango, Chalco, and Xochimilco having fresh water and Texcoco, having brackish water. The total area was about 442 sq. miles. The elevation of the valley is about 7,400 feet above sea level. These lakes were surrounded by mountains. Texcoco was the lowest of the 5 lakes; the waters of the other 4 drained into it. During the summer the heavy rains would fill the lakes so that they appeared to become one. In winter, as there was less rain, they would become separated again.
The city-state was divided up into 4 sections. Each section was broken up into 20 smaller districts. Each section was crisscrossed by streets; each area had its own market place. Tenochtitlan had a zoo, lavish flower gardens and schools, a multitude of temples dedicated to their gods and goddesses, plazas and various buildings, a large elaborate palace for the leader, smaller palaces for priests, communal buildings, and residences. Overall, it was remarkable architecture and artistic design. The temples and some of buildings were made from a reddish rock covered with brilliant lime whitewash that gleamed in the sunlight. The residences of the common people were made of adobe, stucco, and whitewash, with reed roofs. The city’s buildings’ walls were painted with Aztec symbols and images of gods in bright blues, reds, greens, and black, adorning the city. They also had “floating gardens,” incorrectly named. The gardens were actually on stilts; 2.5 acres of these agricultural systems had 7 crops a year and could feed 20 people. All of Tenochtitlan appeared to be floating on the blue lake, reflecting the beautiful white buildings from the island and the surrounding shore in the day. By night, as many as 50,000 canoes would traverse the lake through lighted canals among the flames emanating from the temples.
In the center of Tenochtitlan was a huge plaza, 900 feet by 1,000 feet, enclosed by an 8 to 9 foot tall wall. The 4 whitewashed walls had painted stone carvings of snakes. Each of the sides had a gate; the gates faced north, south, east and west. Three of the gates were approached by 20 foot wide causeways, roads built up over wet land. The causeways were also used as dikes to control flooding and to separate the fresh waters from Texcoco’s brackish water. There were 3 aqueducts from the surrounding hills and a sewer system. It is estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 people inhabited Tenochtitlan and up to 700,000 occupied the surrounding shoreline of the main land.
The huge plaza was used as a marketplace for bartering of goods and services, as they did not have a monetary system. It was also used for public gatherings and ceremonial purposes. Among the 20 or more minor temples was the great temple of the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, where human sacrifice was carried out to ensure the rising of the sun each day. The great pyramid temple was over 164 feet high, including 2 separate smaller buildings, side by side, on top.
What a shame all of this was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.
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