Tenochtitlan: A Feat of Aztec Architecture & Agriculture
The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was at the height of its power when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes stepped foot on shore. Founded in 1325, Tenochtitlan was a hub of agricultural and architectural innovation, enjoying technological advancements unheard of in most other civilizations.
After the fall of the city, modern-day Mexico City was built atop of its ruins, sealing away its complex irrigation system below the earth. From floating gardens atop broad lakes to aqueducts that carried plague-free freshwater to homes and buildings, Tenochtitlan utilized a range of innovative technologies that supported its staggering population growth and separates it from any other major civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
Tenochtitlan, “The Floating City”
The actual size of Tenochtitlan is believed to only be about 5 square miles, situated on the western side of Lake Texcoco. The lake itself was connected to 4 other smaller lakes, some freshwater and some saltwater. How exactly were the Aztecs able to construct Tenochtitlan on top of a lake? Because Lake Texcoco was fed through springs, and not flowing rivers, the lake was shallow and its waters were calm. Over time, the Aztecs discovered how to create drainage systems and build artificial islands on that lake and on the surrounding bodies of water.
At 2,100 square miles, Lake Texcoco was not an easy environment to make livable. But the Aztecs converted much of the nearby freshwater lakes and swampland into agricultural zones, called chinampas, and enjoyed multiple harvests per year.
By the time Spanish conquistadors entered the royal palaces of Tenochtitlan, the city boasted between 200,000 and 300,000 residents, the highest concentration of people in Mesoamerican history. Unlike other societies at the time, most Aztecs were not farmers. Rather, they were merchants, craftsmen, warriors, clergy members and city administrators. In the most bustling part of the city, Spanish conquistadors were astounded by the sheer volume of goods transported into the city by canoe and aqueduct.
When describing the economic centers of Tenochtitlan, Hernan Cortes wrote, “This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying, and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords…”
In this same letter he wrote to the king of Spain, King Charles I, Cortes recounted all manner of goods and products in the city, from gold and silver, to birds and game, apothecary herbs and fine stone goods. “Painters’ colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades,” Cortes wrote. “Deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthenware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and an endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted.” Streets were divided by goods that Aztec merchants had for sale, with whole avenues dedicated to pottery, fish and fowl, jewels and precious stones.
Chinampas: Tenochtitlan’s Floating Gardens
When the Aztecs first established Tenochtitlan, they faced plenty of difficulties with growing food. There was erosion and flooding to contend with, as well as loss of soil fertility and steep slopes that didn’t support plant growth. Arguably, their biggest obstacle was the sprawling swamplands in the region’s lakes and rivers. So, how did the Aztecs figure out a way to feed approximately 500 people per square mile in Tenochtitlan with this kind of environment? Through constructing chinampas, or “floating gardens.”
Chinampa construction was a straightforward process achieved with simple tools and human labor. First, using a series of wooden stakes and plant material, Aztecs fashioned rectangular plots into the lake bed. Chinampas were uniform in size, with most at 98 feet long and 8 feet wide. These measurements ensured that canoes could fit between each floating garden. Aztec laborers then filled each chinampa with soil and vegetation until the pile reached the lake’s water level. Finally, they planted willows around the plots to keep the floating gardens in place.
In the early days of Tenochtitlan, flooding was a significant problem for these lake-dwelling gardens. To control the flow of water to the chinampas, the Aztecs built a complex irrigation system that included dams and gates that controlled waterflow. When the dry season hit in summer, laborers physically carried water to the plots. In total, the Aztecs converted 30,000 acres of marshland into farmable land.
Through this agricultural feat, the Aztecs didn’t have to rely on Earth’s natural seasons because they enjoyed multiple harvests throughout the year. The success of chinampa construction supported Tenochtitlan’s booming population, allowing it to become the most densely populated region in Mesoamerica.
Tenochtitlan’s Aqueduct System
The Chapultepec aqueduct was the primary source of freshwater to residents in Tenochtitlan. Carrying water from the Chapultepec springs, this aqueduct was a major architectural achievement because of its twin-pipe water distribution system. With two pipes transporting water, the Aztecs could simply divert water from one pipe, should it become dirty or damaged. As a result, Tenochtitlan always had access to freshwater.
The Aztecs also built a wooden walkway along the length of the Chapultepec aqueduct, ensuring it could be easily cleaned and maintained. Unlike the Roman aqueducts that carried pollution and disease, Aztec aqueducts were not plagued with, well, the plague. The water from the Chapultepec springs was used mainly for cleaning and bathing, as the Aztecs are believed to have bathed twice a day.
While an earlier version of the aqueduct was destroyed by extreme flooding in 1449, the Aztecs built another Chapultepec aqueduct with stone masonry, a much more resilient material. It rested on multiple, human-made islands for stability.
When Cortes was invited to explore the city, he noted how interwoven the aqueducts and canals were on the streets of Tenochtitlan. “All the streets at intervals have openings, through which the water flows, crossing from one street to another,” he wrote. “And at these openings, some of which are very wide, there are also very wide bridges, composed of large pieces of timber, of great strength and well put together; on many of these bridges ten horses can go abreast.”
Though it was the lifeblood that fed Tenochtitlan, the Chapultepec aqueduct proved to be the Aztec’s weakest link with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. It was destroyed during the Spanish conquest, and a new version was rebuilt along the original path some 200 years later. The only remaining piece of the colonial aqueduct can be found near Metro Sevilla in Mexico City.
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Fall of Tenochtitlan
In 1519, King Montezuma II greeted Hernan Cortes and his men in the Aztec palace that boasted unbelievable riches of gold, silver, gems and other precious resources. The Spaniards stayed in Montezuma’s palace for some months, until the Feast of Toxcatl, where scores of Aztec nobility were killed.
In the aftermath, Cortes held Montezuma captive in his palace, until he was killed. Because differing accounts blame each other for his death we may never know for sure how King Montezuma was murdered in his palace.
However, there are two accounts concerning King Montezuma’s murder that are widely accepted by historians. The first account says points the finger at rebelling Aztecs who were displeased with Montezuma’s rule, and killed him with rocks. A second account says it was the Spaniards, still holding the king hostage in the palace, who killed Montezuma in their eagerness to take control of the city.
In the bloody aftermath, Cortes barely escaped Tenochtitlan with his life. In 1521, he returned some time later with an army of some 70,000 troops, mostly Mesoamerican warriors from other societies with an interest in taking down the city.
Cortes’ forces destroyed the Chapultepec aqueduct, starving the city. At the same time, the Aztecs were hit with smallpox epidemic for which they had no immunity. Warriors were unable to walk, let alone fight in these conditions. Spain declared victory in August 1521, while the remaining armies sought to kill whomever remained alive in Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs are famous for their human sacrifice rituals, but there’s so much more to know about this civilization. Their ability to not only survive, but prosper, in a strange and difficult environment stemmed from technological innovations in irrigation, agriculture and architecture, most of which the world had never seen before. The Aztecs truly ensured Tenochtitlan was a city unlike anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, forever sealed away beneath Mexico City.