Skip to content

4.7 Mexico

The city of Teotihuacán (The Place of Those Who Have the Road of the Gods) rose to prominence 2000 years ago in the Mexico basin. It was the first great civilization in central Mexico. Its great monuments were built during the first century of its existence in pyramidal shape. The temples of the Sun and of the Moon were built along a central axis called Avenue of the Dead. About 50,000 people lived there at the end of the first century. The pyramids were among the biggest in all of America. There was a sophisticated astronomical observatory and they developed a calendar more accurate that the one later adopted by Pope Gregory. People were living in one-story buildings built by the government. They invaded Guatemala and some Mayan cities. The influence of Teotihuacán was based on religion and trade.

About 292 the Maya civilisation emerged in the Yucatán lowlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Between 700 and 750 AD, Teotihuacán reached its zenith as the 6th largest city in the world. Its population was about 200,000 and it was so overcrowded for the time that they forced immigration in the Valley of Mexico to provide the necessary food and exploit natural resources. It has been shown that Teotihuacán comprised 15 square miles of continuous structures organised in an urban grid system.

However in 750 Teotihuacán was invaded and reduced to rubble. Its palaces and temples were destroyed. Its rulers fled to a small place on the Rio Tula where they built new palaces and temples.

In 800 Tula became the new capital of the Toltec civilization. Tula, located on the Rio Rosas and the Rio Tula north of present day Mexico City, became the new centre of the Mesoamerican civilization and formed the bridge between the ancient Teotihuacán and the modern Aztecs who still ruled Mexico at the time of Cortès (1519). The Toltecs were wise, learned, experimented and tall as archaeology has shown. Their religion required human sacrifices. They fought war and practised cannibalism.

In 987 the God Quetzalcoatl was banished from Tula. Quetzalcoatl was the god of the Toltecs (and later the Aztecs).

Between 1110 and 1158 Tula was overrun by invaders –probably Chichimec raiders from the north. Its palaces and temples were burned to the ground. During the years of Tula’s decline, some Toltecas were sent south to Yucatan where they influenced the development of the Mayas. It is believed that Uxmal and Chichén Itza were similar to Tula in architecture and design. Other Toltecas went north to Texas and Louisiana on the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Toltecas most probably influenced and shaped the Hohokam societies in the Gila and Salt River drainage in Arizona, some of the Anasazi and the Mogollon of New Mexico.

The city of Texcoco was founded in the Mexico Valley around 1132. This City state would allies itself with the Spanish conquistador Cortèz.

The traditional date of the foundation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in the valley of Mexico is 1325. The Atzecs were initially known as “Mexicas” a tribe of mercenary from the Mexico basin in the north. They worked for the competing city-states around Lake Texcoco. They called themselves Atzecs for Aztlan, their legendary homeland in the north. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, told them that when they would see an eagle sitting on a cactus growing out of a rock their journey would end. There they should stop and build their city and call it Tenochtitlán. They found the site of their town in the swamp and marshy islands of Lake Texcoco. They filled the swamps and built irrigation canals to irrigate the fields.

Around 1400 the Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán became the preeminent city in central Mexico basin dominating older and more established cities. In 1402 Itzcoatl became its ruler and led it to great wealth and military power. With his nephew and royal counsellor Tlacaelel he built up the island city and a neighbouring one called Tlateloloc. He constructed temples and roads and great public squares. He built causeways across Lake Texcoco in all four directions linking the city-state with other islands and with the mainland. He put 100,000 people under arms and conquered tribes as far south as Guatemala. He ordered all old history books burned and had his own rewritten according to his wishes. For instance the new history books said that the Aztecs were descending from Toltec nobility of Tula. Like these so-called ancestors, the Aztecs were good artisans, devout worshippers and skilled tradesmen. They imposed the Toltec God Quetzalcoatl onto their own religion, on the same level that their own Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. Quetzalcoatl had to be fed precious food and human blood if not it was thought that he would die. The wealth of Tenochtitlán was due in large part to Itzcoatl’s conquests and strategic alliance with two other city-states, Texcoco and Tlacopán. The population of Tenochtitlán has been at least as high as 250,000 with many more in out-lying settlements. The city-state had beautiful gardens, great palaces and a vigorous social, religious, economic and political structure.

Itzcoatl died in 1440 and his nephew Tlacaelel remained as royal adviser to the new Aztec king Axayacatl. The city went on expanding and Tlacaelel reorganised the judicial system, the army, and the protocol of the royal court. He also built an immense botanical garden in the city.

Axayacatl died in 1459 and he was followed as king by Moctezuma I who himself died in 1469.

Tlacaelel died in 1481 after having been a councillor to the Aztec kings since 1438. After him the Aztecs continued their warfare policy against all the other city-states around the lake but without his strategy of building alliances. The generals had still 100,000 men under arms and did not see the needs of allies.