Geoffrey Fox

Work in progress

Here is a draft of another chapter of a forthcoming book, Before America, on the built environments of peoples in the Western Hemisphere in the millennia before European contact. The preceding chapters have been “The Olmecs to Teotihuacan” and “The Sacred Urbanism of the Maya.” Comments and critiques welcome; please e-mail me at Work in Progress.
(Illustration from Latin American Studies Organization website)

© Geoffrey Fox, 2015. Draft, not for quotation.

I.4 Tenochtitlan, City on the Lake


After Teotihuacan: The Basin of Mexico
Lagoon people
The coming of the Mexicas
Tenochca engineers
Sustaining the megalopolis
Urban layout of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco
The four quarters
The ceremonial center and the Great Temple
The tecpan
Collapse of Tenochtitlan
The view from the volcano


After Teotihuacan: The Basin of Mexico

Lagoon people

After the departure of part of their community to distant Yucatán, the main group of Toltecs remained at Tullan near modern Tula, Guerrero, in the Basin of Mexico.[i] There they built an urban area covering nearly 800 hectares (eight square kilometers or over three square miles). From the surviving ruins we know that they built at least one palace, two ball courts, and three flat-topped pyramid temples. The pyramids use the talud-tablero motif (sloping wall alternating with a flat table or shelf) that also appears in the Toltec-Maya pyramid at Chichen Itzá.

The pyramids at Tullan are not especially large but the largest of them is highly decorated. On its top the Toltecs erected huge stone columns carved to resemble stylized human figures. Because of their great size (4.6 meters or 15 feet tall) these figures have been called “Atlanteans”(after the Greek titan Atlas), though they actually belong to an entirely different mythical tradition, the cult of the bird-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. [Figures 1 and 2]

“Though small, the pyramid was highly decorated. The sides of the five terraces were covered with sculptured and painted friezes of felines, birds of prey devouring human hearts, and human faces extending from the jaws of serpents. A stairway on the southern side led to a highly ornamented, two-room temple at the summit. A distinctive feature of the pyramid’s base is the fact that its walls are covered with slabs of volcanic tuff, with bas-reliefs of jaguars and coyotes participating in a sacred procession. Other slabs display eagles and vultures devouring human hearts, the principal feature being a supernatural being, probably Quetzalcoatl himself, emerging from a fantastic animal that is a combination of jaguar, serpent and eagle. Between the reconstructed ball courts sits the Templo Quemado, or Burned Palace. Its dozens of ruined columns delineate what was once probably an important governmental building. Directly to the east is the restored Templo de Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, or Temple of the Morning Star.”[ii]

That center lived on until near the end of the 12th century, when it was sacked by invading tribes and ultimately abandoned. Meanwhile, other communities – probably including descendants of the once-great city of Teotihuacan – had settled around five interconnected, shallow lagoons or “lakes” in the low southwest area. Population can be estimated, very approximately, from such evidence as skeletal remains (which can be dated and can indicate diseases, diet and ages and causes of death), household remains (pottery shards, walls, etc.) which give clues to population densities, and the life-sustaining capacity of agriculture and fishing practices, in addition to testimony of the earliest Spanish soldiers to make contact.

The two largest villages in the central valley, thought to have had 6,000 to 8,000 people each, established themselves on the edges of the lagoons Xochimilco and Chalco, which had the freshest water. Smaller and poorer communities settled around the lagoons Xaltocan and Zumpango, whose greater salt and mineral content made their water less desirable for agriculture or drinking. All four of these drained into the deepest and widest lagoon, Texcoco, which had the greatest saline and alkaline content. People settled there, too, but they had to rely on rainwater and aqueducts from the higher surrounding land for drinking and growing maize and peppers.[iii] On the other hand, Texcoco was especially rich in edible wildlife – fish, insects and ducks – and thick with reeds used for manufacturing household goods of many kinds, war shields, housing and canoes. [See figures for map of the lagoon region]

The lagoon region’s population grew until by the 13th century, there may have been as many as 160,000 of them in villages spread over about 370 square kilometers, approximately the area of present-day Mexico City. The names of many of their villages survive in the neighborhoods and towns now standing on their sites, including Chapultepec, Texcoco, Coyoacán, Xochimilco, Culhuacan, and others.

They were all or mostly Nahuas, that is, speakers of Nahuatl, with shared deities and cultural practices. They traveled to harvest areas in the lagoons and from one village to another by reed canoes. [iv] They also frequently fought one another for dominance or for resources, as indicated both by their legends and the abundance of military paraphernalia that archaeologists have found in their sites. Two or more weaker villages might join in alliance to rebel against a stronger one that was demanding tribute or had otherwise offended them. Sometimes, to guarantee a truce, the leaders would arrange a political marriage of a princess of one town to the chief of another. Sometimes the victorious party would take children of the losing settlement’s nobility and keep them as more-or-less pampered hostages. Such truces were always unstable, however.

The coming of the Mexicas

Early in the 13th century, a group calling themselves Mexicas (or Mexitin, the Nahuatl plural of Mexica) appeared in the northern areas of the basin to which they would give their name (Mexico = “land of the Mexicas”). Recent ethnological research suggests that they were in fact of the same genetic stock as the other Nahuas of the valley, but according to their legends they came from much further north, where they had been driven off from an island named Aztlan (“land of white herons”). For this reason modern historians refer to them as “Aztecs” (“of Aztlan”), a name they themselves rejected.

When they came upon the ruins of Tollan (Tula), former home of the legendary Toltecs, still admired throughout the region as warriors and artisans, the Mexicas stayed for 19 years. They eventually found their way to the lower-lying and more prosperous lake area, to the consternation of the Otomis, Matlatzincas and other Nahuas already settled there, some of whom had themselves arrived from more northern lands only a generation or two earlier.

The Culhua of Culhuacan, on the tip of the Ixtapalapa peninsula between Lake Xochimilco and Lake Texcoco, who considered themselves descendants of the exalted Toltecs and thus highly cultured people, allowed the Mexicas to settle on land that they controlled in exchange for military service. However, the Mexicas soon provoked a confrontation.[v]

Around 1299, a military alliance of lakeside villages, led by Culhuacan, attacked the Mexicas and drove them to the heights of Chapultepec (now part of Mexico City), on the western shore of Lake Texcoco, which became their stronghold for the next 20 years. The neighboring towns tried again to expel them, and in (or around) 1325, they fled to a small, supposedly uninhabited islet in the Texcoco lagoon. Either because their war leader was named Tenoch, or – according to another popular legend – because of a mystic vision of an eagle lighting on a tenochtitli (nopal cactus), they called the islet “Tenochtitlan.”[vi]

Like the other Nahua communities, the Mexicas had organized themselves in family groups called calpultin (plural of calpulli) with a supposed common ancestor; the group that splashed across the lagoon to Tenochtitlan consisted of seven calpultin. In or around 1338, another group of Mexica capultin, apparently a secession from the main group, settled on the neighboring islet of Tlatel, calling it Tlatelolco. Around 1375, the heads of the seven Tenochtitlan capultin elected their first independent chief or tlatoani – literally, “he who speaks well” – a title reserved for the leaders of important towns. Their neighbors at Tlatelolco soon named their own tlatoani.[vii]

It is probably true, as the legend tells it, that the first task of the Tenochcas (people of Tenochtitlan) was the construction of a house of wood and reeds for their god Huitzilopochtli, supposedly on the very spot where the eagle had plucked the tenochtitli (nopal), or nipped the serpent, according to the version recorded on the Mexican flag, marking the place where they were to settle after leaving Aztlan.

Tenochca engineers

To survive on the islet, the Mexicas had to catch fish, frogs, polliwogs, ducks, small shrimp-like crustaceans (acociles) and the larvae of lake flies (moscos, still considered a delicacy in Mexico), using any surplus to exchange for stone and wood that was unavailable on the island and for maize, beans and peppers that they had little room to grow. Fresh water from the few wells was also scarce – the water of Texcoco was too salty to drink or water crops. Because of their economic dependence, they remained vassals, obliged to pay tribute in goods and military services, to the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the town on the western lakeshore that they had been fleeing.

To create more space and relieve their food dependency, the Tenochcas did what lakeshore peoples had been doing on a smaller scale for a long time, probably ever since the great 8th century drought. They constructed chinampas, agricultural plots that appeared to float on the water. To build them, they drove lines of stakes into the bottom of shallow areas of the lake near the shore, and then planted willows next to the stakes. Stakes and trees became the fence posts, linked by a barrier woven of reeds to make a kind of underwater basket that rose to just above the surface. The baskets were then filled with alternate layers of sediment dredged from the lake and vegetation, to about one meter (= 39.37 inches) above the water level. The Tenochcas built chinampas one behind the other, in rectangles that could be up to 200 meters long and l0 meters wide, though most were no more than twenty to forty meters by two to four. When built one next to another, the builders would leave a channel between them wide enough for a canoe to pass.[viii]

As the system grew, piers were built where Tenochcas could squat and defecate directly into a canoe below. The canoe pilot, a specialist, would then carry the load of human feces off to be spread over the reclaimed land. The chinampas, well watered by seepage and fertilized by dredged lagoon sludge and feces, produced as many as seven crops in a year.[ix] [Figure 7: Tending to chinampas]

The land-extension technique was not limited to agriculture. As the population grew, former chinampas were converted to platforms for housing, and perhaps some chinampa-like landfills were made expressly for that purpose. In Lake Texcoco, after a few years the topsoil would become so laden with salt that it was useless for agriculture, and would have to be scraped off laboriously and replaced – or else put to some other use such as a base for housing or other buildings. During the reign of Tenochtitlan’s third tlatoani, Chimalpopoca, 1415-1428, more marshland was converted to dry land, and solid stone and adobe houses began to replace earlier poor huts of reeds and mud.

The art of building chinampas may already have been ancient in the valley before the Mexicas got there.[x] What was new was the extent and regularity of their design in Tenochtitlan. By the 15th century the chinampas had extended the land around the original islet of the central city to compose a huge urban grid allowing for heavy canoe and barge traffic on a network of six major canals running approximately east-west and many more narrow ones intersecting and connecting to these.

It seems hardly credible that (as a minority of archaeologists maintain) this growth and regularity, with a grid of nearly straight canals throughout the system, could have resulted from the improvised landfill efforts of individual farm households. Rather, the growth of the chinampas appears to have been a centrally planned and supervised public works project carried out under several successive rulers of the Mexicas.[xi]

Some authorities believe that the chinampas produced half or more of the food consumed in Tenochtitlan.[xii] This raises another question: Was Tenochtitlan really one of the largest cities in the world in the 15th century? Or was it the world’s largest agrarian village?

The answer seems to be: both. Tenochtitlan was an enormous agrarian complex with decidedly urban characteristics. The urban traits are obvious: it was a center of communications and power, with highly specialized divisions of labor and status, transforming and importing both material goods and culture, and ruled by a literate elite.

At the same time, at least half its people throughout its history must have been devoting much or most of their energy to producing the maize, beans, gourds, peppers and other crops grown there, or catching the fish, ducks and larvae. This is true especially if we include besides the direct cultivators and hunters and gatherers all those crews transporting fresh feces and lake bottom sludge to spread as fertilizer. Almost everyone seems to have been involved in agriculture, as owner-cultivators, impressed laborers on the plots of richer households, or administrators. Nobles, merchants, artisans and others who did not personally work the fields had plots with tenant farm laborers, or mayeques, assigned to them. The best fields were for the tlatoani and his royal household, and outstanding warriors were rewarded with plots of land and their designated laborers. Those who did not have mayeques to do their growing for them, including those who were mayeques themselves, cultivated their own plots, including on their houses’ rooftops.

The chinampas were only part of a much larger engineering program, which was clearly directed centrally by the state. Before such an ambitious program could even be considered, the island population would have to free themselves from their bondage and tribute obligations to neighboring Azcapotzalco. One particularly severe annoyance was the refusal of the ruler of Azcapotzalco, Tezomoc, to allow them to rebuild the crude aqueduct of mud and wood that they had made to bring fresh water from the hills of Chapultepec. It continually broke apart, and the Tenochcas wanted to rebuild it of stone and lime. Because their island was in the largest, deepest and saltiest of the lakes, protecting the chinampas from flooding and guaranteeing a supply of fresh water for agriculture and all the other water needs of the population was a far greater problem than for their neighbors on the freshwater Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco. The Tenochcas induced Texcoco (the town across the lake) and Tlacopan to join in a rebellion against Azcapotzalco around 1427. After what is recorded as a 114-day battle, the victory of the Triple Alliance was total, and Azcapotzalco was reduced to a vassal state of its former vassals.

Thus the Tenochcas rose from tribute payers to tribute receivers. Their new tlatoani, Itzcóatl, Serpent of Obsidian (1428-1440), ordered the burning of all the old books, painted on folds of fig-bark paper, so that the story of his people might be retold to predict this triumph. Tenochtitlan would be transformed by the most ambitious hydraulic engineering projects ever attempted in the valley under Itzcóatl’s successor, Moctezuma I, “Angry Lord Fletcher of Heaven,” 5th tlatoani (1440-1469). The most important was the construction of the 16 km. long Dam of Nezahualcóyotl, to prevent recurrence of devastating floods like the one which destroyed the city in 1452, initiating a massive two-year famine. Moctezuma I, with the help of the lords of Texcoco, Tacuba, Ixtapalapa, Tanayuca and Culhuacan, mobilized nearly 20,000 men to construct the dike, which extended from Ixtapalapan in the south and almost due north to Atzacualco. It was made of stone and interlaced stakes, with floodgates for the passage of canoes and to control the salinity of Texcoco. In the rainy season, the floodgates were closed against the rising of Lake Texcoco to the east of the barrier. In the dry season, they were opened to allow inflow to Lake Texcoco from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco. The dike also served to create a reservoir of relatively fresh water, protected from the salt of Texcoco, around Tenochtitlan and its chinampas. Montezuma I’s other major projects were the widening of the causeways connecting the island with the surrounding land, which served primarily as dykes whose sluices allowed water flow control; the dredging and deepening of the canals; and the construction of a Great Square for the market and the tecpan, or house of the tlatoani. Nevertheless, new devastating floods in 1498-1499 would oblige one of Moctezuma’s successors, Ahuízotl, 8th tlatoani, to build another dike along the eastern side of and to raise the ground level of practically the whole island, requiring major reconstruction of the ceremonial center, palaces and other buildings.

Sustaining the megalopolis

Like any human settlement Tenochtitlan was a system requiring constant inputs to keep it “alive”—that is, to provide for the survival of its people and their component subsystems (military and other associations, the priesthood, etc.) and to project the power of its elite(s). The larger and more complex this system grew, the greater its demands for inputs from beyond its borders.

At the most basic level was the need for food. If it is true that the chinampas provided for half or even two-thirds of the city’s food needs, that still left at least one-third that had to be imported. And its consumer needs went far beyond food. It had to continue to import stone and wood for construction, obsidian for weapons and jewelry, other precious stones, featherwork, and many other practical or luxury goods beyond what it could produce from local materials or with local artisans. New styles and products and foreign-seeming housing arrangements and household goods that appear in the archaeological record indicate that ceramicists, goldsmiths, featherworkers and other artisans from distant places had arrived to meet the growing demands of Tenochtitlan’s military and priestly elites. The artisans had perhaps come voluntarily, but the state had also begun to forcibly relocate useful people from its conquered realms.

One essential input from abroad was human captives to be slain in ritual performances. The Tenochca nobility and priesthood needed many such captives to sustain their authority. Cihuacoatl (‘Woman Snake’), among other deities, required offerings of blood and human hearts in order for her to protect the community and bring good harvests. To appease Xipe Totec, “The Flayed Lord,” the “god of spring, fertility, and success in war,” a warrior had to dance in the flayed skin of a captive. The temples and ceremonial squares in each center were designed with an eye to performing such rituals in as public and visible a manner as possible. The overwhelming power of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco made it problematic for its nobility to find worthy enemies who could provide captives for ceremonial sacrifice, because the captives had to perform in dance or ritual battle prior to having their hearts torn out – something that foreigners, unfamiliar with or unaccepting of these customs, were generally reluctant or unable to do. To meet this challenge, the Tenochca elite arranged “Flower wars,” combats with other Nahuas fought for no other objective than to secure honorable captives.

Meanwhile, the continued independence of Tlatelolco must have been galling to the growing pride and power of the Tenochca elite. The smaller town had clearly benefited from Tenochtitlan’s growth, especially the construction of the great dike, and could be presumed to owe the Tenochcas for it. Whereas Tenochtitlan prided itself on its bellicosity, Tlatelolco prospered through its merchant caste, the pochtecas, famous for traveling far into foreign territories to acquire exotic goods, such as the much-prized cacao beans grown in the Maya territories. Tlatelolco’s marketplace was the busiest and richest in the region.

Finally, in 1473, Tenochtitlan’s sixth tlatoani, Axayácatl (“Face in the Water” or “Water-fly”), led a Tenochca force that attacked and overcame the defenders of Tlatelolco in a bloody battle, and the larger annexed the smaller town. Control of Tlatelolco and of its pochtecas gave the city a greater reach into the hinterland for supplying its wants.

The pochtecas wandered far, often leaving their wives in charge of the storehouse back in the city. Some of these women became powerful traders themselves, especially when – as sometimes happened – the husband did not return at all from his merchant adventures. These itinerant merchants had to know the languages and customs of the people through whose lands they traveled, by foot or by canoe, and sometimes traveled in disguise. Bernardino de Sahagún (d. 1590), an early priest and ethnologist who gathered many oral histories, tells of an exchange of presents between the ambassadors of the tlatoani of Mexico and local sovereigns. “On behalf of their lord, the merchants from Tenochtitlan bore rich cloths and gold jewelry. The lords of Xicalanco gave the ambassadors chalchihuites (chalchihuitl, jade), emeralds and other stones, rich feathers, shells, turtle shell rockers for sorting cacao and animal hides. But the merchants from Tenochtitlan also took to Xicalanco goods for the common people: ear ornaments of obsidian or copper, obsidian knives, rattles, needles, cochineal (beetles for making red dye), flint, rabbit skin and fragrant herbs. These may have been for them to sell in the local tianguis [markets]. It is said also that they took slaves ‘to sell.’”[xiii]

Urban layout of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco

Tenochtitlan, which had begun as a camp of reeds and mud on a tiny, flood-prone islet, became in less than 200 years one of the largest cities in the world. It occupied 12 square kilometers or more of dry land, and extended over a much larger area across its many canals. Jorge Hardoy offered the most conservative scholarly estimate of its resident, year-round population as 65,000, which would have made it at least as large as, or possibly larger than, Seville, then the largest city in Spain. Calnek estimated its population as between 150,000 and 200,000, roughly in the same league as Paris, the largest city in Europe, which is thought to have had about 185,000 inhabitants in 1500. Tens of thousands more people visited on major market days.[xiv]

Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco were both designed around their ceremonial religious and political center. “Designed” does not seem too strong a term: while the original improvised settlement was probably accomplished without much forethought, successive rebuildings of the city, and especially the reconstruction made necessary by the decision to raise the level of Tenochtitlan after the 1498-1499 floods, clearly followed a master plan. The central idea was a quincunx, that is, a five-part figure consisting of four quarters and an imposing center.

The four quarters

According to tradition, the seven capultin that settled on the islet organized themselves in four quarters or quadrants from the beginning. Whether or not that was the case, by the time the community became truly built up, these quarters were well established and defined by walkways running due north, east, south and west from the central plaza. The great temple was just off the plaza, in the corner of the southeast quadrant. Other temples and the tecpan, or house of the tlatoani, were also placed around the plaza.

The northeast quadrant was called Atzacoalco (“place of the floodgate,” at the northern end of the great dike).

The southeast was Teopan (literally, “site of the temple”).

Cuepopan (“where the flowers open their corollas”) was the northwest quadrant, and Moytlan (“place of the moscos,” the lake flies that were essential to the Mexica diet) was the southwest.[xv]

Only certain classes of nobles were permitted to have houses of two storeys. Commoners’ houses were usually inside a walled compound containing several households. These were not all of uniform design, nor even as similar as the apartment compounds in Teotihuacan. There seem to have been neighborhoods not only for those of a particular trade – featherworkers, for example, or pochtecas – but the trade specializations appear also to have correlated with ethnic differences, and different ethnic groups organized their homesteads somewhat differently.

Common people’s residences were mostly of adobe (except for the poorest and newest, made of mud and tules). A common housing form was for an extended family to have separate but conjoined houses pressed against one another in an L shape of roofed buildings within a larger square defined by a wall. The open part of the L served as a collective patio. The adobe structures were not treated as important or permanent. The threshold, however, had great symbolic importance. If for example a woman died in childbirth (proof of malignant spirits about, or of her own misconduct), her corpse would not be removed through the normal, everyday family entrance to the building. Instead, the young men would break a hole in the back wall and take her out that way, perhaps so the gods would not see, or more likely so as not to contaminate, or pollute, the main entryway. The adobe would be fairly easy to repair. [Figure 8: Modern reconstruction of the city layout, looking east.] [Figure 13: How Diego Rivera imagined it; mural in the National Palace, Mexico, D.F.]

The ceremonial center and the Great Temple

[Figure 6: Cortés’s Map of Tenochtitlan]

By far the most impressive structure in the ceremonial center was the great temple or Templo Mayor as contemporary Mexican historians call it, with its twin shrines on top of a tall pyramid. One shrine was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the sun, the Mexicas’ own peculiar tribal god who supposedly had led them from Aztlan to their present home. The other shrine was dedicated to the more widely revered Tlaloc, goggle-eyed ruler of rain and other weather. Perhaps we can take the first to represent the Mexicas’ urban vocation, or at least their vocation to become a powerful and respected power. The second, Tlaloc, can be taken to represent their agrarian obsession. Tlaloc, like his counterpart the Maya Chaac, was above all a god of farmers, dependent on the rains.

Archaeologists now have identified seven stages in the construction of the temple, from the primitive reed-and-mud “house” of Huitzilopochtli erected soon after the first Mexica settlement on the islet around 1325, to the final touches added about 1502, the year Moctezuma II began his reign. Each time the temple was enlarged, the earlier, smaller temple was encased within it, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the construction history by peeling off parts of one layer after another. The description that follows paraphrases the summary by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, coordinator of the Proyecto Templo Mayor (2002).[xvi]

Stage II, according to Matos Moctezuma, is thought to have begun around 1390, during the reign of the settlement’s first tlatoani, Acamapichtli (1375-1395). Already the top portion had two shrines at its top, one to Huitzilopochtli and another to Tlaloc, with their separate stairways. A glyph on the highest step on the Huitzilopochtli side, on axis with where a statue of the god would have stood, gives the date “2-rabbit,” i.e., 1390.[xvii] At the entrance to the shrine on the other side is a stone chacmool, a man-like figure lying on its back, knees and head upraised and with a container on the stomach. This is thought to represent Tlaloc. The burnt bones in one of two funerary urns are presumed to have been those of Chimalpopoca, the third tlatoani (1417-1427), since this urn, made of obsidian, also contained a golden bell and a small silver mask, and the other urn, of alabaster with an obsidian lid, held a golden bell and two small greenstone discs, ear ornaments and obsidian discs, all signs of royalty. The absence among the offerings of any stones, shells or other marine goods confirms the early date of this stage of construction, which must have taken place while Tenochtitlan was still subordinate to Atzcapotzalco, long before it extended its dominions to the distant coast.

Stage III is tentatively dated 1431, an interpretation of “4-reed” carved on a stone of the temple platform on the Huitzilopochtli side. This would have been very shortly after Tenochtitlan achieved its independence of Atzcapotzalco and began its rise as a regional power.

“This stage of construction completely covered Stage II and the various, seemingly unsuccessful, attempts that had been made to build the temple,” writes Matos Moctezuma.[xviii] He continues:

“Among the most significant finds here were eight sculptures – some life-size – recumbent on the stairway on the Huitzilopochtli side.” He believes they represent “Huitznahuas, warriors from the south against whom the god of war had to do battle,” because each one has “a cavity in its chest which contains a greenstone, like a heart.” The story of his battle with the Huitznahuas concludes with Huitzilopochtli eating their hearts. On the Tlaloc side recline stone figures brightly painted red and black and “a stone serpent with a face emerging from the jaws of an animal.” Among the offerings were found remains of fish bones, the saw of a sawfish and shells, indicating that Tenochca power now reached to the seacoast.

Stage IV(a) is dated to 1454, the midpoint of the rule of the energetic Moctezuma Ilhuicamina or Moctezuma I (1440-1469). Large braziers and serpents’ heads have been added. “The expansion of this stage… did not involve all four sides of the building, but only the main façade.” There are many remains of fish, corals and shells, and items from the Mezcala region (now the state of Guerrero) south of the city, as well as stone figures from Oaxaca.

Stage IV (b) is attributed to Moctezuma I’s successor, the sixth tlatoani, Axayacatl (1469-1481). His was a reign of conquests, begun with that of neighboring Tlatelolco and its absorption into the larger city. And during his reign, the Templo Mayor’s main façade was enlarged, with a new platform for the temple base. Its five-step stairway up to the temples

“is interrupted only by a small altar, in line with the centre of the Tlaloc side, which is known as the Altar of the Frogs because it is decorated with two of these animals linked to the god of water.” [xix] The most stunning discovery was on the Huitzilopochtli side, towards the middle of the steps: “an enormous sculpture of Coyolxauhqui,.” This is a carved volcanic stone, 330 cm. in diameter, showing the remains of Huitzilopochtli’s malevolent sister Coyolxauhqui (who had tried to kill him in his mother’s womb) after he had emerged and smashed her to pieces. Before the archaeologists found it, this great carved disk had never before been seen by anyone but the priests and their victims “on their way to their final performance, which would culminate in their having their hearts torn from their chests and their lifeless bodies tumbled down the many steps of the façade.” [Figure 9: Coyolxauhqui, sculpture from Stage IV of Templo Mayor project]

Bones found in the funerary urns of this stage of construction are thought to have been of “high-ranking soldiers injured in the war against the people of Michoacán and brought to Tenochtitlan to die…”[xx] This was one battle that the Tenochcas lost. Carved stone serpents’ heads are prominent here, and more offerings than have been found in any other stage of the temple’s construction, “showing that Tenochtitlan was at the zenith of its success and in full military expansion at this time. The number of tributary towns had increased and the contents of the offerings demonstrated this expansion, both in the types of animal sacrificed and in the objects deposited.”[xxi]

Stage V is dated 1482, during the reign of Tizoc, 1481-1486. “All that remains of this stage is the part of the main platform upon which the Templo Mayor sat.” It may have been in this period that a nearby building, the House of Eagles, with its clay sculptures of soldiers dressed as eagles, was erected north of the temple. The building contains a short corridor leading to an internal patio, with rooms at the north and south ends.

Stage VI is from around 1486, in the reign of Ahuizotl (1486-1502), the 8th tlatoani and the last one to precede Moctezuma II (Moctezuma the Younger), the last independent ruler of the Mexicas. The building was enlarged on all four sides, but very little of this work has survived the depredations of the Spanish conquerors. The earlier stages were protected by the later, but nothing but their own sturdiness protected the late, outer stages from being destroyed.

Even less remains of Stage VII, dated to around 1502, the year of accession of Moctezuma II. But we know from descriptions by the Spanish conquerors who, with their native allies, destroyed it in 1521, that by this time the temple was about 83 x 78 meters at the base[xxii] and 45 meters high. And that Bernal Díaz del Castillo counted 114 steps as he and Cortés climbed up to survey the city they would soon destroy.

The tecpan

Every town under Mexica control had a tecpan, which means literally “house of the teuctli,” the lord or governor of a settled community. The tecpan also served as a meeting space for important councils, functioning something like a “city hall.” The teuctli of the capital city, Tenochtitlán, was also the tlatoani, literally “he who speaks,” the supreme lord elected by the nobles of all the associated settlements, what we might call the “king” or “emperor” of a federation of Mexica settlements. The tecpan of Moctezuma II was much grander than that of a simple village headman. It occupied an estimated 2.4 hectares, or nearly 6 acres (28,693 square yards), which was 2 or 3 times the combined area of three closely related residential complexes adjoining the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the Ciudadela at Teotihuacán.[xxiii] From this it appears that in Tenochtitlan, unlike Teotihuacan, nobles outranked priests.

The palace was utterly destroyed in the conquest, but its design can be re-imagined based on drawings and the archaeological studies of the much more modest tecpans in outlying towns. A drawing from the 1540s has been preserved in the Codex Mendoza. The building appears to have had two storeys, with council rooms to the left and right of the entrance. Moctezuma himself is shown seated in a room opposite the entrance, presumably at a higher level. Where a village tecpan would have an open entry hall, the drawing shows a staircase with a “patio” on either side. Five discs above the lintel of Moctezuma’s room “may represent the fat ends of pumice cones (usually about 10 cm. wide and about 30 cm long) that have been daubed with plaster and embedded, tenon fashion, into the wall surface.”[xxiv] Or, judging by the appearance of similar disc images in other lintels, they may have been a decorative element signifying authority.

Another drawing (from the mid-1540s) of the royal palace of Texcoco [Figure 10] may give us an idea of what went on in Tenochtitlan’s tecpan. It shows the two famous “great tlatoanis” (huehueyntin tlatoque) Nezahualcóyotl (who came to the rescue of Tenochtitlan in the 1469 flood) and Nezahualpilli of Texcoco “facing each other in a room overlooking a courtyard,” opposite the entry. Their vassals appear in the courtyard, around which are rooms that seem to be on an upper level. Rooms to the left of the two rulers are for judges, and to the right are the armory and keeper of the arms. To the left is a space identified as the “hall of science, and in the lower left corner, the room where musical instruments were kept.” There is also an apartment said to have been reserved for the great rulers of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan. “The rooms to the right of the courtyard were devoted to the administration of tribute and finance, and in the lower right-and rooms the councils of war took place.” Kubler notes that the “plaza of modern Texcoco occupies the site of the largest patio of [Nezahualcóyotl’s] residence.”[xxv]

A village tecpan studied by Susan Evans had two temascales (sweat lodges) in the back, either for the teuctli’s personal household or other villagers; presumably the great tlatoani of Tenochtitlan would not have been without his own. “Use of the sweat baths was especially crucial to the health of new mothers,” she remarks, “and — considering the fact that complications in pregnancy were traced to sexual misconduct on the mother’s part — it was only natural that women would seek every assurance of safe delivery.”[xxvi]

Other, somewhat smaller temples to other deities marked the other boundaries of the Great Plaza. The plaza was where the tianguis, or market, was held at stipulated periods, which could be every five, nine or twenty days. It was strictly forbidden for anyone to trade outside the tianguis, where the market police closely watched transactions and, together with the market supervisors for each type of merchandise and the leaders of the pochtecas, formed a court that would convene and decide cases on the spot. The society had no centrally emitted money, so exchanges were made either by direct barter or by using goods as currency. The most common goods used to represent values and offered in payment for other goods appear to have been woven cloaks and cacao beans brought from afar by the pochtecas. The markets were always full of sellers, because every small producer brought his or her own products, so there was very little specialization – each farmer, or weaver, or ceramicist, brought much the same sorts of goods as others in that trade. The managers of the market also functioned as tribute collectors to gather the supplies needed for wars.[xxvii]

Apart from the tianguis, however, the main function of the plaza was as a performance space, for certain large-scale rituals, and more often as an audience space for performances that occurred on the steps and at the top of the pyramid.

In all cities, including modern ones, streets and other open areas are appropriated as performance spaces for personal or collective display. Tenochtitlan however was not a modern city, but one with stone-based technology and a very small literate minority. Tenochtitlan’s central complex of temples and plaza was, above all, a performance space for public ritual controlled by the state and the priestly and military orders that were its extensions. The rituals were meant to reaffirm humans’ relations to the cosmos (the gods), their own stratification system (the power of the warriors, then the priests, and separate power structures for merchants and for women of different categories), and to bring good fortune to the community. They particularly had to appease Tlaloc, who controlled the weather, so that they would have enough maize to eat, and Huitzilopochtli, who assured them victory in war.

Secondarily, and almost certainly as a completely unplanned (though perhaps welcome) consequence of the Mexicas’ agricultural and military successes (they needed both to dominate their region), Tenochtitlan was a communications hub. Its ceremonial center was the center for exchange of information, where all the most important trade deals were made in the tianguis and important political and military decisions in the tecpan.

The city was protected by its watery moat, and the broad walkways had drawbridges that could be raised in case of attack by that route, but it was not designed as a fortress to resist siege. Siege was simply not an acceptable military method. Wars were supposed to be fought on open ground, among equally matched foes, in which each individual would seek to strike and make captive an enemy or two or three. There were walls within, but no walls around Tenochtitlan.

Tlatelolco had been laid out on similar principles, with its own quincunx, so the combined city had some formal redundancy. Tlatelolco, like Tenochtitlan, had its own large ceremonial precinct associated with a tecpan, and each had a market. After the conquest of Tlatelolco, the Tenochcas continued to concentrate their commercial activities in its famous marketplace (today next to Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas), and even expanded it. Its size and activity continued to grow along with Tenochca regional power.[xxviii]

By the late 15th century, especially after the annexation of Tlatelolco, the power of the Triple Alliance, with Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco as the most powerful of the three, reached far beyond the valley of Mexico. Together, the Alliance could field a formidable military force, arrayed in impressive panaches and armed with flint and obsidian embedded staves, atlatls (dart-throwers), and spears. By the time of the accession of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, Angry Lordship the Younger, or Moctezuma II, ninth tlatoani, in 1502, the Triple Alliance commanded tribute from cities in a wide band from the eastern to the western ocean. By the end, the conquest by the Spaniards in 1521, the territory under Tenochtitlan’s domination had been “divided into approximately 38 large tributary provinces, each under authority of a hueilcalpixqui or “great steward” who resided in one of the important towns. He was directly subordinate to the petlacalcatl in Tenochtitlan and supervised lower-ranking caplixque assigned to smaller territories. That is to say, while local sovereigns retained civil authority in most matters, they were almost entirely bypassed by bureaucratic functionaries where the fiscal interests of the imperial centers were involved.”[xxix]

It was not a contiguous empire, or an empire at all in the European sense of a central authority imposing its law on foreign peoples. The tribute-paying towns were left with their own traditional leadership, languages and gods, and administered their own affairs, as long as they continued to meet the tribute demands of Tenochtitlan and its lesser allies. Each of these tributary cities had tributary towns and villages of its own, from which it extracted the wealth of its own elite and the tribute demanded by the center. The Tenochcas did not ordinarily interfere in the internal affairs of any of these cities, unless and until they met resistance to their demands for tribute. Then it was war.

And there were some important gaps in the territory dominated by the Tenochcas and their allies – notably Tlaxcala and Cholula, a few days’ march east of Tenochtitlan, which more or less successfully resisted the Tenochcas’ demands and would play a crucial role in their eventual downfall.

Collapse of Tenochtitlan

The view from the volcano

In the eighteenth year of his reign –1519 by the Christian calendar — Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, “Angry Lord the Younger,” ruler of the Mexicas and their empire, learned of a band of pale-skinned, hairy-faced barbarians who were approaching his capital city of Tenochtitlan. There were only a few hundred of them, but they had strange weapons and had gathered around them thousands of rebels from Moctezuma’s tributary towns, plus tens of thousands of Tlaxcalans, a people that had never submitted to the Mexicas. The barbarians had foiled Moctezuma’s plot to murder them in an outlying town. Now only Popocatépetl, “Smoking Mountain,” stood between them and Tenochtitlan. And Popocatépetl was angry, not merely rumbling and emitting sulfurous fumes as always, but belching flame and hot rock from its crown.

The bearded men with the strange weapons were the small company of Spanish soldiers commanded by Hernán Cortés. While Moctezuma fretted, one of Cortés’s captains, Diego de Ordaz, set off with two of his subordinate Spanish soldiers and some native Tlaxcalans to climb the smoking mountain. This would not have been easy even if the volcano had been calm. Popocatépetl, the second highest peak in Mexico, rises 17,883 feet above sea level, more than 2,000 feet higher than Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alps, and at the beginning of November 1519 it was on the verge of eruption. The Tlaxcalans prudently stopped at the temples on the lower slopes, built to appease the gods causing all the commotion, but the Spaniards made it to the top “and from there they saw the great city of Mexico and all the lagoon and all the towns that populated it.”[xxx]

A few days later, on November 8, 1519, the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies marched across a broad causeway across the lagoon into the city. Díaz could compare it only to the fabulous kingdoms in Amadís de Gaula, the adventure fantasy that had been printed a decade earlier and become Spain’s fiction best-seller.

“And when we saw so many cities and populated villas on the water, and other big towns on the mainland, and a walkway so straight and level as the one that led to Mexico, we were astonished, and we said that these were like the enchanted things that are told in the book of Amadís, because of the great towers and cúes [temples] and buildings that they had on the water, and all of stone and masonry … [we were] seeing things never heard of, nor even dreamed of….”[xxxi]

The conquered peoples were not happy with their subordinate status or the tribute demands, of lives and goods, imposed by the people from the place they called “Mexico,” or “land of the Mexicas,” and when in 1519 Cortés and his small force arrived with their horses, steel weapons, crossbows and firearms, they soon found many allies prepared to do battle against their overlords.

Moctezuma received the newcomers as cautiously as the Culhuas had received the Mexicas back in 1299, and for the same mix of reasons: he seems to have calculated that they were dangerous enough that it would be more prudent to make them allies than enemies, and since the Spaniards were so few – Cortés had started out with only 400 men and had lost some in battles on the way – he would be able to slay them when necessary. By tradition and quite possibly in fact, it was at the exact same spot where the eagle had plucked the tenochtitli, not quite 200 years earlier, that Hernán Cortés and his men first climbed the 114 stone steps of the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) to survey the capital of the most powerful political system that Mesoamerica had ever known.

On 12 November 1519, four days after he and his men and their horses – the strangest things of all in this place – had entered Tenochtitlan, Hernán Cortés asked his host, Moctezuma II, for a tour. Obligingly, Moctezuma invited him and the armed Spanish soldiers to climb those 114 steps to the twin shrines at the top of the great pyramid, where they could see where the great ruler of the Mexicas made his sacrifices to the city’s chief deities, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. Cortés however was mostly interested in the view below him.

Rows upon rows of white buildings, some of stone and two-storeyed and with temples on their roofs, the humbler ones of whitewashed mud with vegetation on their roofs, glowed in the sun. The city appeared to float on the lagoons, attached to the shores by three walkways, each perfectly straight and two or more leagues(about 10 miles) long, and by an aqueduct descending from the heights of Chapultepec to the west. Beyond the water was a ring of smaller, glowing-white cities, the whole urban system further connected by heavy traffic of freight-bearing canoes traversing the lakes and the canals that threaded through Tenochtitlan. Small drawbridges permitted pedestrians to pass over the canals.

Looking down to the base of the pyramid, Díaz marveled at “the Great Plaza and the multitude of people there, some buying and others selling, so that just the murmur and buzz of voices and words from there could be heard more than a league away, and among us were soldiers who had been in many parts of the world, and in Constantinople, and in all of Italy and Rome, and they said that a plaza so well traced out and with such harmony and of such size and filled with so many people was something they had never seen.”[xxxii]

Moctezuma had committed a costly error. In 1520, the hue tlatoani of Tenochtitlan lost his life and ultimately the great city of his ancestors.

After Moctezuma II’s murder by Cortés, the people rebelled and slaughtered many Spaniards. But, because of the horses, the steel weapons and battle strategy of the Spaniards, the Tenochcas and Tlatelolcas were unable to defeat them and their native allies on open ground. They then resorted to a new tactic, quite original in their military tradition: they retreated into the city itself, defending it house by house. The siege of Tenochtitlan by land and water – Cortés had ordered built a small fleet of brigs to attack over the lakes – is said to have lasted seventy-five days. As the conquering Spaniards advanced, they destroyed the houses from which the defenders had launched their arrows, darts and spears, and thus created open spaces for their cavalry and artillery. The city that Cortés had so admired was razed ring by ring to its center, where Huitzilopochtli had told the Mexicas they would be secure.

In 1521, after his conquest was complete, Cortés decided to make Tenochtitlan the site of his new, Christian headquarters — against the advice of his captains, who had picked out other sites much easier to supply with a horse-drawn transport system. Cortés had strategic reasons, however. Intending to keep it as the center of the broad regional authority the Mexicas had exercised for a little less than 100 years, he called the city by its old vernacular name, “Mexico,” but if it were to be the capital of the vast new colony he called “New Spain,” he would have to have it rebuilt. Instead of hauling stone across the water, the native laborers under Spanish command were ordered to quarry the great temple and tear down what was left of the other temples and the tecpan of the ceremonial center. The new city was built atop the old, and over time the lakes were drained and the chinampas abandoned, except in Xochimilco where the water kept coming back and the “floating gardens” continue to attract tourists. Only in recent years, through patient archaeology and anthropology and a better understanding of the accounts that survived the early years of the conquest, have we been able to comprehend what a complex, efficient urban-agrarian complex Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of waters, had inspired.



Armillas, P. (1971). “Gardens on Swamps.” Science 174.

Ayres, A. (2004). Histories: Xochimilco’s sunken treasure. New Scientist. 182: 50-51.

Calnek, E. (1978). The City-State in the Basin of Mexico: Late Pre-Hispanic Period. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 463-470.

Calnek, E. E. (1978). The Internal Structure of Cities in America: Pre-Columbian Cities; The Case of Tenochtitlán. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 315-326.

Carrasco, P. (1978). La economía del México prehispánico. Economía política e ideología en el México prehispánico. P. Carrasco and J. Broda. México DF, Editorial Nueva Imagen: 13-74.

Chandler, Tertius. Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census. Lewiston, N.Y: St. David’s University Press, 1987

Clendinnen, I. (1991). Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press.

Díaz del Castillo, B. (1632). Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España. México, Editorial Porrúa.

Evans, S. T. (1991). Architecture and Authority in an Aztec Village: From and Function of the Tecpan. Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico: A Two-Thousand Year Perspective. H. R. Harvey. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press: 63-92.

Matos Moctezuma, E. (2002). The Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of the Aztecs. Aztecs. F. Matos Moctezuma and F. Solís Olguín. London, Royal Academy of Arts: 48-55.

McCaa, R. (2000). The Peopling of Mexico from Origins to Revolution. A Population History of North America. M. R. Haines and R. H. Steckel. Cambridge; New York, NY, Cambridge University Press: 241-304.

Medellín, J. L. (1994). Desarrollo urbano y esplendor de México-Tenochtitlan. Ensayos sobre la Ciudad de México. I. Tovar de Arechederra and M. Mas. México DF, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. 1: Nuestros orígenes: 81-100.

Obregón R., M. C. (1994). Peregrinación mexica y fundación de México-Tenochtitlan. Ensayos sobre la Ciudad de México. I. Tovar de Arechederra and M. Mas. México DF, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. 1: Nuestros orígenes: 53-80.

Parsons, J. R. (1991). Political Implications of Prehispanic Chinampa Agriculture in the Valley of Mexico. Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico: A Two-Thousand Year Perspective. H. R. Harvey. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press: 17-42.

Popper, V. (2000). “Investigating Chinampa Farming.” Backdirt.



[i] The name “Tullan” comes from later Aztec mythology as a grand city that was a stop in their migration history. There is some controversy as to whether or not the archaeological site at Tula was what the Aztecs had in mind, though it seems to fit the legend.


[iii] {Parsons, 1991 #2665 @21

[iv] Population estimate for the basin of Mexica ca. 1200 is from
McCaa, R. (2000). The Peopling of Mexico from Origins to Revolution. A Population History of North America. M. R. Haines and R. H. Steckel. Cambridge; New York, NY, Cambridge University Press: 241-304..

[v] There are many versions of this story. This, which seems to me the most plausible, is derived from {Obregón R., 1994 #2419 @65-66}: The Mexicas asked the lord of Culhuacan to give them his daughter to make her a goddess, which he did – apparently misunderstanding the Mexicas’ intent. When the Culhua nobles arrived to witness the ceremony, the Mexicas’ high priest cut out the girl’s heart to offer to their god Huitzilopotchtli and another priest flayed her so that one of their warriors could dance in her skin, thus eternalizing her.

[vi] Possibly meaning “place of Tenoch,” because that was the name of their war-leader, or, according to another version, for tenochtli, “land of the wild nopal,” because their high priest had seen an eagle light on a nopal there and tear out its red fruit. The fruit was taken to represent a human heart to be offered to Huitzilopochtli, and thus a sign that their wanderings were over.

[vii] In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of much earlier settlements on both these islets, but whoever those earlier settlers were (possibly Tepanecs from Azcapotzalco, the important village on the nearby shore), they must have been overwhelmed and either displaced or absorbed by the newcomers.[vii]

[viii] Ayres, A. (2004). Histories: Xochimilco’s sunken treasure. New Scientist. 182: 50-51.;
Popper, V. (2000). “Investigating Chinampa Farming.” Backdirt.

[ix] Ayres, A. (2004). Histories: Xochimilco’s sunken treasure. New Scientist. 182: 50-51.

[x] “Although some researchers suggest that chinampa agriculture began as early as the Formative period, around 1400 bc, no fields have been securely dated prior to the Early Aztec/Middle Postclassic period (ad 1150–1350).” Popper, Virginia. “Investigating Chinampa Farming.” Backdirt (2000).

[xi] “Text [test?] excavations at four late Aztec lake-bed sites indicate that individual residences were consistently constructed atop preexisting chinampa ridges. Some years ago, Armillas convincingly demonstrated the rather uniform orientation and overall planned aspect of surviving traces of chinampa fields and canals. Our work implies that these fields were constructed prior to permanent residential occupation. The fact that Late Aztec lake-bed occupation is so typically in the form of very small, dispersed groups of one-three households may be taken as further evidence that the residential group was not the unit responsible for the initial drainage and field construction. This stands in marked contrast to the apparently piecemeal nature of Early Aztec lake-bed occupation and chinampa building. Our data thus support Armillas’s conclusion that large-scale chinampa construction dates to the Late Aztec period and was effected by direct state intervention and management.”
Parsons, J. R. (1991). Political Implications of Prehispanic Chinampa Agriculture in the Valley of Mexico. Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico: A Two-Thousand Year Perspective. H. R. Harvey. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press: 17-42; reference is to Armillas, P. (1971). “Gardens on Swamps.” Science 174..

[xii] {Parsons, 1991 #2665}

[xiii] Sahagún, libro IX, cap. 4. Quoted in
Carrasco, P. (1978). La economía del México prehispánico. Economía política e ideología en el México prehispánico. P. Carrasco and J. Broda. México DF, Editorial Nueva Imagen: 13-74.

[xiv] For the population of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, based on archaeological excavations and conservative assumptions of household size, v.
Calnek, E. E. (1978). The Internal Structure of Cities in America: Pre-Columbian Cities; The Case of Tenochtitlán. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 315-326.. Seville population figure is from
Clendinnen, I. (1991). Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press. Tertius Chandler’s population estimate for Tenochtitlan in 1500 is 80,000, which would make it a very large city for its time, but archaeological work since his data suggests that it must have been two, three or even more times that size.
Calnek, E. E. (1978). The Internal Structure of Cities in America: Pre-Columbian Cities; The Case of Tenochtitlán. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 315-326. Chandler worked out his estimates using a variety of data and a few Eurasian-based assumptions, e.g., ratio of total population to men-at-arm (7:1 in cases he could test), densities of cities at different stages in their lives, etc. V. Chandler, Tertius. Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census. Lewiston, N.Y: St. David’s University Press, 1987. For AD 1500 Chandler’s ten largest were:

1            Beijing, China            672,000

2            Vijayanagar, India            500,000

3            Cairo, Egypt            400,000

4            Hangzhou, China            250,000

5            Tabriz, Iran            250,000

6            Constantinople, Turkey            200,000

7            Gaur, India            200,000

8            Paris, France            185,000

9            Guangzhou, China            150,000

10            Nanjing, China            147,000

Calnek, E. E. (1978). The Internal Structure of Cities in America: Pre-Columbian Cities; The Case of Tenochtitlán. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 315-326.

[xvi] Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. “The Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of the Aztecs.” In Aztecs, edited by Fernando Matos Moctezuma and Felipe Solís Olguín, 48-55. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2002.

[xvii] The Mexica/Aztec calendar is far too complex to explain here. It used two interlocking cycles, a solar cycle composed 365 days (18 periods of 20 days plus 5 “unlucky” days) and a ritual cycle or tonalpohualli of 260 days divided into 13 periods of 20 days. The two cycles mesh – that is, reach their ending day at the same time – once ever 52 years, so that the 52-year period is the sacred cycle of the two cycles. A precise date requires naming the day in both sub-cycles. Acatl (Reed), Tecpatl (Flint), Calli (House), and Tochtli (Rabbit)—figure in the names of the 52 years that form a cycle with the tonalpohualli.

[xviii] Matos Moctezuma, E. (2002). The Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of the Aztecs. Aztecs. F. Matos Moctezuma and F. Solís Olguín. London, Royal Academy of Arts: 48-55.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.


[xxii] Medellín, J. L. (1994). Desarrollo urbano y esplendor de México-Tenochtitlan. Ensayos sobre la Ciudad de México. I. Tovar de Arechederra and M. Mas. México DF, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. 1: Nuestros orígenes: 81-100.;
Matos Moctezuma, E. (2002). The Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of the Aztecs. Aztecs. F. Matos Moctezuma and F. Solís Olguín. London, Royal Academy of Arts: 48-55. says “82 metres square.”

[xxiii] Calnek, E. E. (1978). The Internal Structure of Cities in America: Pre-Columbian Cities; The Case of Tenochtitlán. Urbanization in the Americas from its Beginnings to the Present. R. P. Schaedel, J. E. Hardoy and N. S. Kinzer. The Hague, Mouton: 315-326.

[xxiv] Evans, S. T. (1991). Architecture and Authority in an Aztec Village: From and Function of the Tecpan. Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico: A Two-Thousand Year Perspective. H. R. Harvey. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press: 63-92.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid. As for what constituted “sexual misconduct,” Clendinnen notes that among the Mexicas, “Women were expected to be virgins at marriage and some few – dedicated to the gods rather than to the social world – virgins for life, while priests refrained from sexual relations for their period service. But there seems to have been no value placed on male or female chastity as such, but rather the impulse, as in fasting and vigil, to free oneself for sacred engagement from the distractions of fleshly desires.” Clendinnen, I. (1991). Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press.

[xxvii] This paragraph is a paraphrased translation of
Carrasco, P. (1978). La economía del México prehispánico. Economía política e ideología en el México prehispánico. P. Carrasco and J. Broda. México DF, Editorial Nueva Imagen: 13-74..

[xxviii] Medellín, J. L. (1994). Desarrollo urbano y esplendor de México-Tenochtitlan. Ensayos sobre la Ciudad de México. I. Tovar de Arechederra and M. Mas. México DF, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. 1: Nuestros orígenes: 81-100.

[xxix] Calnek, E. Ibid.The City-State in the Basin of Mexico: Late Pre-Hispanic Period: 463-470.

[xxx] Díaz del Castillo, B. (1632). Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España. México, Editorial Porrúa. tr. Geoffrey Fox

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Díaz del Castillo, B. (1632). Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España. México, Editorial Porrúa.

Tenochtitlan plaza