The center of the Aztec civilization was the Valley of Mexico, a huge, oval basin about 7,500 feet above sea level. The Aztec empire included many cities and towns, especially in the Valley of Mexico. The largest city in the empire was the capital, Tenochtitlan.
The early settlers built log rafts, then covered them with mud and planted seeds to create roots and develop more solid land for building homes in this marshy land. Canals were also cut out through the marsh so that a typical Aztec home had its back to a canal with a canoe tied at the door.
The story of the Aztecs’ rise to power is awe inspiring one, and is one of the most remarkable stories in world history. They were a relatively unknown group of people who came into the Valley of Mexico during the 12th and 13th century A.D., and rose to be the greatest power in the Americas by the time the Spaniards arrived, in the 16th century.
Little is known of the earliest Aztecs, they did not keep a written record. Their history was passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Legend has it that they came from an Island called Aztlan, meaning White Place – Place of Herons.
In the Aztec codex Tira de la Peregrinacion, commonly called the Migration Scrolls. The scrolls have the Aztecs leaving Aztlan, which was described as an island in a lake with Chicomoztoc depicted as seven temples in the center of the island. The Aztecs felt they were the “chosen people” of Huitzilopochtli. The Aztecs believed Huitzilopochtli their war god was their protector, how had them search for their promised land.
Sometime during the 12th & 13th century the Aztecs straggled into the Valley of Mexico, led by their chieftain Tenoch. They were a poor, ragged people who survived on vermin, snakes, and stolen food. They were hatred and rejected by all the surrounding inhabitants of the valley, for their barbarous and uncultured habits. They were driven from one location to another. Early in the 14th century, Huitzilopochtli told Tenoch to lead his people to a place of refuge on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco. When they reached their destination, they were to look for an eagle perched on a cactus, growing from a rock or cave surrounded by water. At that location, they were to build their city and honor Huitzilopochtli with human sacrifices. The city they built was called Tenochtitlán, the city of Tenoch.
In the beginning stages of Tenochtitlán, development, Aztec life was very difficult in their undesirable location. Tenochtitlán was located on a marshy island with limited resources, they built a few thatch and mud huts, and some small temples. The Aztecs would have to work constantly to maintain a city on swampy land. There was also continuing tensions between the Aztecs and the neighboring peoples on the mainland who despised them. Despite these obstacles, the Aztecs worked hard to improve the quality of their lives. They adopted an agricultural system of farming called the Chinampas. and in a short period of time, the land was transformed into a fertile and highly productive island.
As the Aztec empire expanded, specialized craftsmen and common laborers were brought to Tenochtitlán to expand the city. Since it was built on swamp land, large wooden stakes were driven into the soft ground to provide secure foundations for the new buildings. They were able to use the stone Tezontli to construct the buildings on the unstable ground. Despite these precautions, the larger temples and palaces would often sink below ground level. As a result, the older building were continuously repaired or rebuilt with the newer structures built over the older core.
By 1376, the Aztecs knew that they had to select a emperor of royal lineage, to gain respect of their neighbors. With political genius, they chose a man by the name of Acamapichtli as their emperor. He was related to the last rulers of Culhuacán, and his lineage extended back in time to the great Toltec ruler Quetzalcóatl. With the selection of Acamapichtli as the Aztecs first true emperor, their were able to claim descendancy from the great Toltecs.
During the 15th century the military strength of the Aztecs increased. They grew from a small tribe of mercenaries into a powerful and highly disciplined military force. They also formed alliances with their powerful neighbors Texcoco and Tacuba, known as the Triple Alliance. It was a time for building and the city Tenochtitlán grow and prospered.
By the end of Tenochtitlans rule, in 1520, 38 conquered tributary provinces had been made, who had to make payments. However, some of the tribes at the borders stayed strongly independent. This made it easy for the Spanish captain, Cortez to defeat them. The priests reported signs of doom, but Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, thought Cortez was a returning god. When the Spanish saw the gold presents Montezuma offered to them as presents, they wanted to conquer the city. The Spanish defeated the Aztecs and the Catholics felt that it was their duty to destroy every trace of the Aztecs. The few Aztecs that remain have carried on their culture today.
1100 A.D. Aztecs left homeland in search of new home.
1195 Aztecs arrived in Valley of Mexico.
1250 Aztecs settled near Lake Texcoco.
1325 Tenochtitlan was founded. First temple built by Aztecs.
1350 Causeways built with canals.
1370 Tenoch, Aztec Priest-Ruler, died. Aztecs ruled by Tepanecs.
1375 Acamapichtli becomes first ruler of Aztecs.
1400 Tepanecs were defeated. Aztecs expand and rule whole valley.
1428 Aztecs joined forces with Texcoco & Tlacopan formed Triple Alliance.
1440 Moctezuma started rule.
1452 Tenochtitlan destroyed by flood.
1458 Moctezuma sent armies to conquer lands.
1469 Moctezuma I died.
1486 Ahuizotu became ruler.
1487 Great Temple at Tenochtitlan dedicated. Aztecs expanded southward into Mayan territories.
1502 Moctezuma II became ruler. Aztec Empire at height.
1519 Cortez comes to Mexico. Moctezuma II killed.
1520 Cuitlahuac elected ruler.
1521 Tenochtitlan destroyed.
1522 Tenochtitlan rebuilt, named Mexico City. Declared capital of Spanish colony of New Spain.