Ancient city of Tenochtitlan

Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Can you imagine what life was like in a prehistoric Aztec metropolis? Back in the pre-Columbian era, Tenochtitlán was once the biggest city in the world. As the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán was built on a damp island in the heart of Mexico’s Lake Texcoco. Discover more about the ancient city of Tenochtitlán.

Aztec roots

While historians are unsure of when Tenochtitlán was founded, they believe that it established on March 13, 1325. Located in modern-day Mexico City, the historic capital was key to expanding the Aztec empire in the 15th century. Its name is commonly thought to come from the words “nahuatl,meaning “rock,” and “nōchtli, meaning “prickly pear.” Therefore, the city’s name is popularly translated to mean, “Among the prickly pears [growing among] rocks.”

Tenochtitlán was surrounded by active volcanoes, including the ever-explosive Popocatépetl. Not only that, but the Aztec capital was susceptible to extreme earthquakes, flash floods, and horrible air pollution. It was also constructed in the heart of Mexico’s swampiest lake. So why would the Aztecs choose this marshy place as their capital?

The impossible city

Legend has it that the Mexica people migrated to Tenochtitlán from the mythical town of Aztlan, or “Place of the Herons” because of a powerful omen. Supposedly, the Mexica tribe spotted the Chichimec Eagle god Huitzilopochtli devouring a snake while sitting on a cactus. Evidently, this was the Mexica tribe’s signal that they needed to relocate to the site where the saw the prophetic sign: a bug-infested, isolated island in the center of Lake Texcoco.

Before the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán, it was the bustling center of Mesoamerica. Almost half a million people were located there, and the island spanned at least five square miles. The Aztecs established their own calendars to predict the harvest and “chinampas,” or floating gardens, to produce large amounts of food. They also had a massive market that served almost 60,000 customers per day. Tenochtitlán was home to the Sacred Precinct, a place decorated with palaces and temples alike. It’s no wonder that Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was mesmerized when he came across the metropolis known as “the Impossible City.”

Cortés’ capture

On November 8, 1519, Cortés and his soldiers arrived at the floating island of Tenochtitlán for the first time. At the time, the vibrant city was thought to be five times larger than London. In a letter to the Spanish King Charles V, Cortés claimed that Tenochtitlán was as enormous as Seville or Córdoba, Spain. Cortés also reported to the King of Spain that the town was in the center of the lake and featured a large plaza, sophisticated bridges, and ingenious canals. It also had its own wooded area called Chapultepec park, and an elaborate water control system to combat flooding. The last known king of Tenochtitlán was Moctezuma II, and his expansive palace contained a courtyard, gun arsenals, saunas, and lavish gardens.

Everything changed when Tenochtitlán was seized by Cortés and his men in 1521. Although the Spaniards were warmly welcomed by Moctezuma II, they quickly began to assault the island nation. Even though the Aztec King offered gold to the Spaniards gold if they wanted it, the two groups soon had bad blood between them. The Spaniards launched a 75-day siege on Tenochtitlán and took control of the city after losing hundreds of men to the Mexica tribe. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlán in Mexico remind us of the splendor of this fallen city.