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The Aztecs: People of the Sun

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The Aztecs: People of the Sun

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The Aztecs were an American Indian people who ruled a mighty empire in Mexico from

the 1400's to the 1500's. The Aztecs had one of the most advanced civilizations in the

Americas and built cities as large as any in Europe at that time. They also practiced a

remarkable religion that affected every part of their lives and featured human sacrifice.

The Aztecs built towering temples, created huge sculptures, and held impressive

ceremonies all for the purpose of worshipping their gods. Their magnificent empire was

destroyed by the Spaniards in the year 1521, but the Aztecs left a lasting mark on

Mexican life and culture.

The majority of the Aztecs lived in what is now called the Valley of Mexico. Located at

an elevation of over 7,000 feet, the large valley has housed many great cities. From

the massive pyramids of Tenochtitlan, to the inhabitants of the vast hub of modern

Mexico City, the great valley has been the heartland of many empires. The mighty

Aztecs were the last indigenous group of people to enter the Valley of Mexico.

Like many other pre-Columbian cultures, the Aztecs developed their own political

system, religion, social structure, agricultural techniques, lifestyle and world view. The

Aztecs were truly unique.


The early Aztecs were semi-nomadic hunters and farmers. According to legend, in

about 1000 AD the Aztecs left their mythic, island homeland of Aztlan in the desert

frontiers of northern Mexico to begin their 100-year migration south to the Valley of

Mexico. Led by their powerful patron god, Huiziloposhtli, they continued their migration

southward, stopping along the way to plant crops, to build temples for their gods, and

to offer human sacrifices in their honor. From groups they encountered as they

traveled, the Aztecs adopted new customs and traditions. The Aztecs were becoming a

very religious people.

When the Aztecs reached the Valley of Mexico in about 1193, this fertile inland basin

was already heavily populated and little land was left for them to colonize. The Aztecs

appeared rude and uncivilized to the members of the older city-states that clustered

around the basin. For about another 100 years they continued to look for a permanent

home. As they continued their search they served as mercenary soldiers and servants

for their powerful neighbors. They continued to absorb the traditions, manners, and

customs of the more advanced and established communities that surrounded them. As

the Aztecs grew in number, they established superior military and civil organizations.

According to the famous legend, the Aztecs finally settled at a spot where an eagle sat

upon a cactus eating a snake. This was a sign foretold by their patron god. The sign,

found by the priests, finally appeared on a small island in Lake Texcoco. By 1325, on

the island, the Aztecs built a temple to Huitziposhtli and began to construct the city of

Tenochtitlan, the "Place of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit." Over the next 200 years, the city

slowly became one of the largest and most powerful cities of the world, and was the

giant heart of the Aztecs empire.


To make a large capital city, many things had to be done to the land before they began

building. The middle of a lake was not exactly the best place to build a city. There had

to be some way for the Aztecs to increase their land area. Since Lake Texcoco was a

shallow lake, it was more or less easy for the Aztecs to build up the land to make

artificial islands. The Aztecs called this process chinampas and it was basically just

piling up mud from the lake bottom to make marshy islands.

Causeways and bridges were built to connect the city to the mainland, aqueducts were

constructed, and canals were dug throughout the city for easy transportation of people

and goods. Tenochtitlan was also located near the powerful city-states Texcoco and

Tlateloco. Religious structures dominated the landscape, the most amazing of which

was the giant stepped, limestone faced pyramids on which temples were erected. The

most amazing of which were the imposing pyramids of the Sun and the Moon along the

Avenue of the Dead.

At the heart of the city was a walled sacred precinct somewhat similar to the forbidden

city of China. The precinct was dominated by the Temple Mayor, a massive pyramid

topped with dual temples dedicated to the god of rain and the god of the sun. Temples

dedicated to other gods along with schools for the nobility, living quarters for priests,

and a ritual ballcourt



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