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Unveiling the Aztec Empire: Legacy, Mysteries, and Marvels

The Aztec Empire became prominent in the 14th century and dominated central Mexico. The Aztec Empire (c. 1345-1521) encompassed most of northern Mesoamerica to its greatest extent. Aztec warriors had permitted rulers such as Montezuma to impose Aztec ideas, beliefs, and religion across Mexico and control their neighboring states. The last great Mesoamerican civilization was renowned for its art, architecture, trade, and agricultural prowess. However, under the following blog, you will discover the Aztecs, their origin, the establishment of an empire, their religion, architecture and art, and many more. 

Who Were Aztecs?

The Aztecs were a Nahuatl-speaking people who ruled a large empire in the 15th and early 16th centuries which is now southern and central Mexico. The name Aztec derives from Aztlán, which may refer to “Land of White Herons,”  “White Land,”  or “Place of Herons,” referring to their origins likely in northwest Mexico. 

They were also called the Mexica,  from Metzliapán (“Moon Lake”), a mystical name for Lake Texcoco; and  “Tenochca” came the name of their magnificent city, Tenochtitlán, which was founded on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico.

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Origins of the Aztec Empire

The exact origin of the Aztec people is unknown, but the elements of their customs and tradition suggest that they were a hunter-gatherer tribe living on the northern Mexican plateau before making their appearance in Mesoamerica as the south-central region of pre-Columbian Mexico is known in the early 13th century CE. Their arrival helped bring about the fall of the Toltec and its capital Tula, a previously dominant Mesoamerican civilization.

The Toltec civilization encountered catastrophe at the beginning of the 12th century when Tula and other parts of the Toltec were attacked and destroyed. Tribes of hunters and gatherers, led by Xólotl, took advantage of the situation and moved to the heavily settled central zone,  from the arid plateau of northern Mexico toward the fertile. The Aztecs decided to settle there, along the southwest edge of Lake Texcoco when they had seen an eagle perched on a cactus in the muddy area. In 1325 A.D., they established the foundations for Tenochtitlan, their capital city, by draining the marshy area and establishing man-made islands where they could grow plants.

However, the powerful military tradition and the sophisticated system of agriculture (including irrigation methods and the intensive cultivation of land) enabled the Aztecs to establish a successful state, and later become a great empire, The Aztec Empire. 

Establishment of the Aztec Empire

Under the leadership of Itzcóatl (1428–40), Tenochtitlan formed agreements with Texcoco and Tlacopan, two neighboring states, and came to prominence as the major Mexican force. Tenochtitlan ultimately governed over 400–500 small nations through trade and conquest. By 1519, the empire comprised some 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people living in  207,200 square kilometers (80,000 square miles). Tenochtitlan was the largest most populous Mesoamerican settlement ever, spanning over 13 square km and sheltering up to 140,000 people at its height. 

The Incas of Peru were the only other New World civilization to match the Aztec empire in size, and their level of knowledge is on level with other great ancient societies in the Americas and the Old World.

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Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Aztec Empire, situated on the western bank of Lake Texcoco. It was expanded to such a level that by the early 16th century, it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas, with at least 200,000 inhabitants. There were several levels of society (social strata) among these people. Teteteuhctin (the local rulers, were at the top), afterward pipiltin (the elite), macehualtin (the commoners), mayeque (serfs), and finally, tlacotin (the slaves).  These levels were relatively fixed but there is ample evidence of movement in the lower classes.

Tenochtitlan was a center of politics, and religion, and a major trade hub, with import and export of goods and services including gold, turquoise, greenstone, cacao beans, cotton, tobacco, food, tools, pottery, weapons, and slaves. The city has many attractive places such as the Templo Mayor Pyramid which shows the magnificent artwork and architecture. The Spanish invaders were greatly impressed by the city’s massive stone sculptures. 

Furthermore, the enormous Sacred Precinct, with monumental ball court and temples dominated the city. The water management was equally impressive of the town, with large canals running through the city, which was enclosed by chinampas, and raised and flooded fields, significantly expanding the Aztecs’ agriculture capacity. Additional characteristics of the city included anti-flood dykes, man-made freshwater reservoirs, and stunning flower gardens.

Aztec Religion

The religion of the Aztecs was syncretistic, including ideas and beliefs taken from many different Mesoamerican societies. Fundamentally, it maintained many of the cosmological concepts and beliefs held by past societies, most notably the Maya. According to that, the earth was the last of several creations and it was positioned between systems of nine underworlds and thirteen heavens. The main figures in the Aztec pantheon were Tonatiuh (god of the sun); Huitzilopochtli (god of war); Quetzalcóatl (the Feathered Serpent), and Tlaloc (god of rain).

Bloodletting and human sacrifice, particularly the offering of a victim’s heart to Tonatiuh, were popular traditions. Furthermore, the Aztecs, who were known as the “people of the sun,” had to feed Huitzilopochtli human blood to ensure the continued existence of humankind. Thus, from an ideological perspective at least, they saw war as a religious obligation that produced slaves who might be offered as sacrifices to the sun god. Nevertheless, as the empire propagated, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan ritually executed prisoners from every part of modern-day Mexico.

Aztec religion was closely associated with the calendar, according to which every temple and god having its priestly order performed the elaborate round of rituals and ceremonies. Many of these events were accessible to the public, who participated as spectators. A solar year of 365 days and a holy year of 260 days comprised the Aztec calendar, which was extensively followed in Mesoamerica. The two yearly cycles worked parallel.

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Architecture & Art

The Aztecs admired fine art, they gathered masterpieces from every region of their empire and brought them back to Tenochtitlan, where they frequently buried them ceremoniously. Monumental sculptures were especially prevalent; they may be extremely realistic, like the well-known sculpture of a seated Xochipilli, or fearsome monstrosities, like the enormous Coatlicue statue. The artwork includes a turquoise mosaic, like the renowned Xuihtecuhtli mask, which is among the most outstanding.  Pottery vessels frequently include anthropomorphic vases in bright hues that were exquisitely crafted.  The highly valued Cholula ceramics of Cholollan are also particularly impressive.

Aztec art represented a wide range of topics, but gods, plants, and animals especially those that represented agriculture and fertility were extremely popular. To spread Tenochtitlan’s imperialism, art may also be made use of as propaganda. Aztec perspective is portrayed in artifacts like the Throne of Motecuhzoma, the Sun Stone, and the Stone of Tizoc, which seek to establish a close relationship between governmental rulers and cosmic instances, or even the gods themselves. The Templo Mayor pyramid was built to resemble Coatepec, the sacred snake mountain of Aztec mythology, and Aztec emblems were placed in cathedrals and monuments all across the empire.

The Collapse of the Aztec Empire

The collapse of the Aztecs started with the heavy defeat by the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo in 1515. After the Spanish conquistadors arrived, some rebellious groups took advantage to regain their freedom. The conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, eventually made their way from the Old World to the Aztec capital, where they received great pleasure and cordial ties with Motecuhzoma II. Further, after the killing of Spanish troops in Tenochtitlan, things turned out adverse. 

The Aztec warriors overthrew Motecuhzoma and set Cuitlahuac as the new tlatoani. Cortés returned to the city to relieve the besieged Spanish forces after this event, However, on June 30, 1520, he was forced to retreat in what became known as the Noche Triste. After a few months, Cortés returned and gathered local allies before besieging the city in 1521.

On August 13, 1521, a fateful day, the Aztecs under the leadership of Cuauhtemoc, ultimately collapsed under the weight of illness and starvation. There was a siege and monument destruction in Tenochtitlan. The long history of Mesoamerican civilizations, dating back to the Olmec, came to a sudden and terrible end when the colony of New Spain saw the rise of its new capital from the ashes.

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In conclusion, the Aztec Empire is one of the great empires that flourished in a century and was able to build a sophisticated society with intricate social hierarchy, architectural marvels, and rich cultural practices. However, the empire’s rapid decline started in the early 16th century with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. the advanced weaponry, the indigenous armies, and devastating diseases finally dismantled the Aztec Empire in 1519.


When did the Aztec Empire begin and end? 

The Aztec Empire began in 1325 A.D. in the Valley of Mexico and ended in 1519 before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. 

What is the Aztec Empire famous for?

The Aztec empire is famous for the advanced calendar of their time, for sensitive and highly skilled art, and the extraordinary temples that were built in the most organized and clean cities. 

Who defeated the Aztec Empire? 

Hernán Cortés and a small group of men defeated the Aztec Empire in Mexico between 1519 and 1521.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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