John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's


TENOCHTITLÁN  (circa A.D. 1325-1521)

In 1519, a band of 250 Spanish Conquistadors stood above Lake Texcoco and gazed upon Tenochtitlán, what is today México City. The Spaniards were dumbfounded and many of the soldiers wondered if what they were looking upon wasn't a dream. The more worldly veterans of Italian wars compared the city to Venice but were no less astonished to find such a metropolis on "the other side of the world". At the invitation of the Emperor Motecuhzoma, Hernan Cortés led his men across the great Tlalpan causeway into Tenochtitlán. He later described much of what he saw in his letters to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cortés marveled at the broad boulevards and canals, the temples dedicated to countless gods, as well as the magnificent residences of the lords and priests who resided with the emperor and attended his court. There was a central market where thousands of people sold everything from gold, silver, gems, shell and feathers to uncut stone, adobe bricks, and timber. Each street was devoted to a special commodity from clay pottery to dyed textiles and a special court of judges enforced strict rules of transaction. All manner of foods were bartered; dogs, rabbits, deer, turkeys, quail and every sort of vegetable and fruit.

Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was founded upon a small island located off the western shore of Lake Texcoco. Eventually the land mass was artificially expanded to cover over five square miles. The city was divided into four districts. Each district was composed of neighborhood wards of land owning families called calpulli, an Aztec term meaning simply "house groups". Most of the calpulli were inhabited by farmers who cultivated bountiful crops of corn, beans, and squash with an ingenious system of raised fields called chinampas, while other calpulli were occupied by skilled crafts people. Six major canals ran through the metropolis with many smaller canals that crisscrossed the entire city allowing one to travel virtually anywhere by boat, the principal means of economic transportation to the island. Scholars estimate that between 200,000 and 250,000 people lived in Tenochtitlán in 1500, more then four times the population of London at that time.

There were also three major causeways that ran from the mainland into the city. These were spanned with drawbridges that when taken up, sealed the city off entirely for defense. Freshwater was transported by a system of aqueducts of which the main construction ran from a spring on a mountain called Chapultepec on a promontory to the west. Even though the four districts had temples dedicated to the principal Aztec gods, all were overshadowed by the Great Temple, a man-made mountain constructed within the central precinct and topped by dual shrines. One of these was dedicated to the Toltec storm god, Tlaloc, and the other to the Chichimec war god, Huitzilopochtli. The surrounding precinct itself was a city within a city of over 1200 square meters of temples, public buildings, palaces, and plazas enclosed by a defensive bastion called the Coatepantli, or serpent wall - so named after the scores of carved stone snake heads that ornamented its exterior.

Image - A model reconstruction of the central ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán

A model reconstruction of the central ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán in México's National Museum of Anthropology. Click on Image for more detail.

Image - Tenochtitlán's market place

The Spaniards marveled at the goods bartered in Tenochtitlán's market place where as many as 25,000 people gathered daily. Merchandise and sales were strictly controlled by the state and judges presided over all disputes. There was no money "per se" but objects such as copper axes, cacao beans, and woven capes served as standardized units of value. Click on Image for more detail.

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