Before Columbus discovered the New World, Native American nations flourished on both continents. None were greater than the Aztecs, whose empire spanned major portions of present-day Mexico. Aztec history exemplifies the proud heritage of America’s indigenous inhabitants, but also shows how every empire eventually reaches its end.
Like most ancient peoples, the Aztecs’ origins are murky and inauspicious. Their legends tell of Aztlan, the ancestral birthplace of all Aztec tribes. Those we call Aztecs were only one subgroup, the Mexica. They came as nomads to the populous Valley of Mexico around 1250 AD. In 1325, they founded their capital of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco.
The Peak of Power
Following a century of growth, in 1428, Tenochtitlan and two neighboring cities formed a fearsome triple alliance. With Tenochtitlan in command, the Aztec Empire expanded across Mexico from shore to shore, collecting tribute from the tribes they conquered.
Enriched by conquest, Tenochtitlan became the Americas’ largest city, with an estimated population of 300,000. This prosperity allowed for a complex commercial and cultural life, including elaborate military and religious ceremonies, architecture, art and literature.
Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple was the center of the Aztec world, where ritual festivals were held to pacify their gods. The temple’s mystical significance still fascinates scholars to this day.
End of an Empire
In 1519, 600 Spaniards headed by Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico. Initially welcomed to Tenochtitlan, the Conquistadores were expelled after a massacre in the Great Temple. Though thoroughly routed, Cortes soon returned with an army of the Aztecs’ native enemies.
With his city besieged and decimated by smallpox, a European disease for which the Aztecs lacked immunity, the emperor Cuauhtémoc capitulated on August 13, 1521. Tenochtitlan was destroyed and rebuilt as Mexico City. The Aztec people were gradually assimilated into a Spanish-dominated Mexican culture. Today, scattered ruins are all that remain of a once powerful civilization.
It’s been said that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. Our world can learn from the legacy of the Aztecs, if we’re willing to listen.