Hundreds of years ago, a towering temple stood at the center of what is now Mexico City. This Great Temple was a symbol of the power of the Aztec Empire—an empire that stretched across much of Mexico.
WHO WERE THE AZTECS?
The Aztec Empire was the last in a series of great Native American civilizations in Mexico. Before they became powerful, the Aztec people wandered from place to place and lived by hunting animals and gathering wild plants. They roamed a part of northern Mexico called Aztlán. The name Aztec comes from Aztlán.
In the 1200s, the Aztecs moved to central Mexico. But they found that the best land there was already taken by other people. The only place left was two small islands in a shallow, salty lake called Lake Texcoco. So the Aztecs settled there and started farming.
A DAZZLING CAPITAL
In 1325, the Aztecs built their capital city, called Tenochtitlán, on those islands. To make more land for farming, they created artificial islands by filling the lake with soil.
Eventually, Tenochtitlán became an impressive city of plazas, canals, palaces, pyramids, and houses. There was even a zoo. In the 1500s, perhaps 200,000 people lived in Tenochtitlán. It may have been the biggest city in the world at that time.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
By the 1500s, the Aztecs were very powerful. But it was not always that way. Earlier, in the 1200s and 1300s, the Aztecs had little power and got little respect. They were forced to give a portion of their food and other valuable goods to their more powerful neighbors.
But the Aztecs grew stronger. In the early 1400s, they formed an alliance, or friendship, with the people of two other cities in the area. The alliance soon defeated all their enemies in central Mexico. By the late 1400s, the alliance ruled most of lower Mexico. Tenochtitlán became the most important city in the growing empire. The Aztecs were now the masters of central Mexico.
HOW DID THE AZTECS LIVE?
Aztec society had several classes of people. At the top was an upper class of priests, warriors, and administrators. Below them were merchants, craft workers, farmers, and laborers. Only upper class people could own land. People in the other classes were given land to use, but they had to pay the empire for that privilege.
No matter which class they were in, the Aztecs believed their rulers were like gods. Their two most powerful rulers were Montezuma I and Montezuma II.
Religion played a very important part of Aztec life. The Aztecs believed in many gods. The most important was Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the Sun. The Aztecs believed that Huitzilopochtli and other gods needed human blood to stay strong. So, they sacrificed thousands of people to the gods at the Great Temple. Most victims were prisoners of war.
HOW DID THE AZTEC EMPIRE END?
In 1519, the Aztecs and their ruler, Montezuma II, controlled a vast area. They probably thought their empire would last forever. But they were wrong.
That year, a Spanish explorer named Hernán Cortés landed on the east coast of Mexico with about 600 men. Cortés was looking for gold and glory. People on the coast told him about the Aztecs and their fabulous capital. That was all Cortés had to hear. He set off to conquer the Aztecs. He recruited hundreds of people who were enemies of the Aztecs to help him.
In August 1521, Cortés defeated the Aztecs. The Spaniards took the Aztecs’ gold and other treasures and leveled Tenochtitlán. They built a new city, Mexico City, on its ruins.