The Rise and Fall of the Aztec Empire: by Gabrielle Miranda


The Aztec People

The actual term Aztec is used all-inclusively to describe the people and empire, a short cut similar to the way Spanish speakers today are referred to as Chicano, Latino Hispanic etc., but spoke the similar language of Nuatl. The main ethnic group that ruled the empire was the Mexica [me-shee-ka} Indians who were said to have come from a region in North West Mexico called Atzlan-chicomoztoc (the place of herons) to the Valley of Mexico. According to legend, the Mexicas were banished from their land by their angry god Huilopochtli and wandered the land until around 1325AD when they found their promised land upon an island on lake Texcoco where they witnessed a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched on top, which was an ancient omen said to be given by the gods. It was named Tenochtilan (place of the cactus fruit). The Mexicas became highly efficient in developing a system of dikes and canals to control water levels and salinity of the surrounding lakes and therefore achieved efficient travel and trading routes and also natural protection from military invasion.
Around 1428, the Mexicas formed a triple alliance with fellow city-states Texcoco and Tlacopan, with whom they conquered the entire Valley of Mexico by 1465. This alliance was supposed to share the power and spoils of their conquests, but Tenochtitlan had become far superior to others and was continuing to grow. The Alliance eventually controlled 38 provinces, and with the highly diverse environment and cultural settings of their empire, the imperial powers received regular and predictable flows of tribute and goods to their regions in the forms of textiles, warriors costumes, food, maize, beans, chiles, cacao, bee honey salt, and human beings. Originally, the basic unit of Aztec society were the Calpulli who were groups of ‘direct descendant families’ from the ‘homelands’ (various regions in and around current mexico). Each clan regulated its own affairs, elected councils, declared war, dispensed justice and ran the school. As the Empire and its population grew, each leader of the Calpulli’s came together and elected four chief officials with one being selected as the Tlatoani (great lord). With Tenochititlan in the center and leader of Aztec civilization, it’s ruler held the position of ‘supreme leader’, was considered to be a descendant of the gods, and acted as military leader and high priest. The empire began to grow even more and the new centralization of power allowed for many small rebellions to break out in surrounding regions. In his attempts to subdue the rebellions and maintain control, Emperor Montezuma waged war on neighboring states and in 1440 ended up cutting off neighbor Tlaxcallans from external trade with the Aztec empire.
The religion of the Aztec empire took human sacrifice to new levels during its reign. They worshiped gods that represented the natural forces, which were vital to their agricultural and economy. Each city in the Aztec empire had giant stone pyramids topped with temples where the priests sacrificed humans to the gods because they believed human blood and organs; the heart in particular, was the gods’ sustenance. They firmly believed that by spilling human blood on the ground they were paying debt to the gods who then allowed the sun to rise, the crops to grow, and provided favorable weather. The Mexica Indians in particular developed the feeling and mentality that the needs of their gods were insatiable and must be constantly fed. aztecs40.gif
Due to the intensity and dependence of the Aztec culture on religion, their priests held a great deal of power and control. They determined which days to go to war, when to have religious ceremonies, and were guided by a 52- calendar cycle that incorporated their religious calendar and the solar calendar. A historical story from the Aztecs Mesoamerican past tells the tale of the fair-skinned bearded Toltic king that founded Tula in 950, who was also a priest of the god Quetzalcoatl (one of the four major gods) was exiled from his kingdom by his enemies but vowed to return in the year of “One Reed” depicted in the 52 year calendar. And he did, in the form of Hernan Cortez.

The Spanish Conquistadors

Around April of 1519 Hernan Cortez, then the chief magistrate in Santiago, Cuba, landed upon the eastern coast of Mexico in the town he dubbed Villa Rica de Vera Cruz with only 350 soldiers. He was originally placed as leader of this expedition, shortly after had his title revoked, but still continued inland regardless of his orders. Fortunately for Cortez, he came across native clans that really resented the Mexicas’ rule and the Tlaxcallans that were enraged with Tenochititlan for excluding them from Imperial trade systems. Hernan and his troop fought to defend their lives but were eventually approached by Xicotencatl the elder who sought to form an allegiance with the Spaniards against the Aztecs. In November of 1519 Cortez, his army, and the native rebels gathered arms and prepared to enter the city of Tenochititlan for battle. But, according to legend, the Spaniards were welcomed warmly by Emperor Montezuma due to the fact that they believed he was the god Quetzalcoatl, back in the form of the Ancient Toltic King as predicted by the Aztec priests in the 52 year calendar. The Spaniards were treated hospitably, but they remained wary, they were especially nervous about the giant pyramids and the popularity of human sacrifices. Fearing their future safety, Cortez and his men captured Emperor Montezuma and kept him captive so as to hold and maintain control of the Aztecs. Cortez had also realized that if he conquered all of Mexico he might not be punished as severely for disobeying his orders. In April of 1520, Governor Velazquez sent military forces to Mexico to capture Cortez and bring him back to Cuba. Upon discovering the Spaniards landing, Cortez was then forced to leave Tenochititlan and ambushed the Spanish camp on the coast where he gained control of some Spanish troops. But when he returned to the Aztecs, his soldiers had lost control over the natives and in the battle to regain control, Emperor Montezuma was killed, all control was lost, and Cortez withdrew from the city. He returned a year later with the help of the Tlaxacala people and permanently held the city with his control.
The fall of Tenochititlan marked the Spaniards total conquest of Mexico. 12 years later the Spaniards destroyed the great Inca empire in Peru, ending three millennia of indigenous civilizations in the Americas, with the exception of the Mayans whose deep jungle civilizations made conquest nearly impossible for the Spaniards. Nearly all of the ancient Aztec artifacts were destroyed by the Spaniards, either because they were gold or jewels, which the Spanish were hungry for, or as a symbol to show that the land was now ruled by the Spanish. The only artifacts that are left to prove the existence of the Aztecs are the looming stone pyramids and temples, probably because they were too large to fully destroy or the Spaniards were too afraid of them.