Tenochtitlan: Definition & Facts

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  • 0:16 The Aztec Empire
  • 0:48 Founding
  • 1:42 Layout of the City
  • 2:32 Religious Center
  • 2:59 Downfall
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelley Munson

Kelley has taught high school social studies as well as Advanced Placement and has a master's degree in international relations.

Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztec Empire from the middle of the 1300s to the early 1500s. Mexico City was built upon some of the ruins of Tenochtitlan. In this lesson, you'll learn about this historic city, and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Tenochtitlan: An Ancient City

Situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan served as the capital city of the Aztec Empire from 1325-1521. Today, the city's ruins lie in Central Mexico City.

The Aztec Empire

The Aztecs ruled Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. They were fierce warriors who believed in human sacrifice. The Aztec Empire, also known as the Aztec Triple Alliance, was a coalition of three cities: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The empire ruled the Valley of Mexico and surrounding territories, whose citizens would pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of goods or money. The Aztec Empire lasted from the 14th century until it was conquered by the Spanish in 1521.

Founding of Tenochtitlan

Beginning in the 12th century, the Aztecs roamed what is now known as Mexico in search for a place to settle. For short periods, they resided in cities near Lake Texcoco, but these unwelcome guests were soon expelled. The leader of the Aztecs had had a vision telling him that the city should be built where an eagle is spotted on top of a cactus.

In 1325, the Aztecs spotted an eagle perched atop a prickly pear cactus on an island in Lake Texcoco. This was seen as a sign of where to build the capital city, and they named it Tenochtitlan, or 'place of the prickly pear cactus.' After seeing the eagle the leader said, 'Now we (Aztecs) have found the land promised to us. We have found peace for our weary people. Now we want for nothing.' Under the rule of the Aztec kings, Tenochtitlan would become a powerful political, economic, and religious center.

Layout of the City

The Aztecs built their city on the islands and swamps of Lake Texcoco. They built temples, public buildings, houses, and roadways made of stone. They also created links from the various islands to the mainland. The city was designed on a grid, which the Aztecs imitated from the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan that existed more than a thousand years earlier.

The city had a series of streets and canals that enabled the Aztecs to transport people and goods, as well as two aqueducts that brought fresh water to the city. The sacred district was in the middle of the city, which was bordered by palaces of kings and nobles along with important other buildings of the city, like gardens, aviaries, zoos, and various administration buildings. The commoners lived on the outskirts of the city and had their own local temples and marketplaces.

Religious Center

The sacred district was the religious and ceremonial center for the entire Aztec Empire. It was surrounded by a wall of serpents made of cement and could hold about 800 people. This was the place where religious leaders were educated as well as the home of Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Aztecs. The religious center also housed the religious temples and was the site of the human sacrifices.

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