Lecture 8. Tenochtitlan: The Heart of the Aztec Empire (AD 1325 – 1521)

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Carolyn Tate

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Shaping Place in Mesoamerica

Tenochtitlan is important for many reasons. In 1519, when the Spanish under Hernán Cortés invaded, it was the largest city of the New World and it grew to its impressive size of around 250,000 in less than 200 years. According to legend, a long period of wandering and struggle had led the Mexica, a group of Nahuatl speakers who had left their homeland, Aztlan, possibly 1000 years earlier, to the highland basin of Central Mexico. This was between the volcanoes Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, and Mt. Tlaloc on the south and east and other mountains on the north and west. In the middle of this basin were five lakes with varying kinds of water (fresh, salty, brackish). During this long journey, they had sought the place described by their tribal deity, Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird on the South), who said that they would know their true home when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus growing out of a lake. The Mexica experienced this in 1325 and established their capital. Despite a difficult beginning, continuing warfare, struggles, and strategic alliances eventually led to Tenochtitlan’s pre-eminence as the center of a large tributary empire. The Mexica demanded goods, captives, and labor from their tributaries and Tenochtitlan became rich and powerful. When Cortés and his men saw the gleaming white city, with tall pyramids and broad avenues and canals, apparently floating in the lake, they were awed by its orderliness and magnificence as well as its strangeness. In this lecture, we will focus on the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, within the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan. It was an example of the twin-temple style of pyramid developed by the Aztec. The twin temples were dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain-agricultural deity, and Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica tribal deity. The twin temples faced the summer solstice sunrise over Mt Tlaloc on the east. Although the pyramid was leveled by the Spanish and it stones used to construct Colonial era buildings in Mexico City, it was rediscovered in 1978. Subsequent excavations have revealed a fascinating series of caches and sculptures within the pyramid. As the conceptual center of the city, and of the empire, its steps and plazas were the settings for many of the Aztec monthly rituals. Described by two Spanish observers, these rituals linked the heart of the city to the peripheral landscape of the Basin and brought the influences of the deities of water, grass, mountains, life, and death to the populace of the capital. Topics and themes: • Tenochtitlan: its legendary founding • The Templo Mayor: its growth over the reigns of the successive rulers • Bringing the periphery to the center in the form of cached objects • Sculptures that embody characters from the Aztlan-Coatepec-Tenochtitlan migration story • Solar-architectural alignments • Aztec Palaces

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