All About them Aztecs

Last post we talked about the Mayans, but what about the other famous civilization from Mexico? Well, grab a glass of fermented agave nectar and crank up Neil Young’s ballad of Cortez the Killer because we’re talking about the Aztecs.

Ancient Aztecs were a group of super tough warriors that arrived in central Mexico at about the year 1325 AD. They received a vision from one of their gods that said they should search the country until they found an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake. Once they reached present-day Mexico City, they saw this sight and decided to build the city of Tenochtitlán. By the way, the eagle and snake thing? That’s on the Mexican flag today.

An eagle fighting a snake outside the Anthropology Museum.
A Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace shows what Tenochtitlán looked like. In the foreground is a busy market and in the background is the city as it used to be: on a series of islands in a lake.

The Aztecs filled the power vacuum left by the Mayans and eventually took over much of Mesoamerica. They were fierce warriors and spent most of their time capturing new cities, extracting taxes and tribute, and sacrificing people to the gods.

The Aztecs discovered some of the cities that were abandoned by the Mayans and other cultures. These cities and sites had been left alone for hundreds of years and the forests had reclaimed some of them. When the Aztecs found the ancient temples they basically freaked out and thought that the gods created them because they were so amazing.

One of those cities is Teotihuacán. No one really knows who created that city but the Aztecs took it over and added some temples of their own, such as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.

The view of Teotihuacán from atop the Temple of the Moon. Here you can see the Avenue of the Dead in the middle and the Temple of the Sun on the left.
The Temple of the Sun is so massive that the Aztecs thought the gods must have made it. For you Bostonians, its almost three times the height of Beacon Hill!

Things were going well for the Aztecs until the year 1521 when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico.  Led by Hernán Cortés, the Spaniards were bent on finding gold and getting rich. The leader of the Aztecs made two grave mistakes at this point. First, he thought the Europeans were gods and invited them to the capital city. And second, since the Aztecs had long oppressed the other cultures in the area, those other cultures decided to team up with the Spanish to overthrow the Aztecs. History shows that wasn’t really a good choice.

Well, we all know what happened next. Cortés and his men arrived in the capital city, killed everyone and burned the place to the ground. Then they destroyed many of the Aztec and Mayan temples, built churches with the stones, and converted the survivors to Christianity. The moral of the story: never trust a conquistador.

Trying out some Aztec style at the Anthropology Museum. If you haven’t gotten the hint by now, let me just tell you that you should go to that museum!

One interesting note is that in a fair fight the Aztecs might have actually beat the Spanish. Their key mistakes were inviting Cortés to the capital city and allowing the other people in Mexico to ally with the Spanish. What would the New World have been like if the native people had driven back the Europeans? I wonder how history would have played out.

Even though the Spanish conquered the region, the Aztecs, like the Mayans, survived and their culture is still alive today. About 3 million Mexicans identify as Aztec and they have a big presence in Mexico City.

Traditional Aztec dance in Coyocan, Mexico City. This huge group gets together to dance every Sunday. This is not a tourist attraction collecting money but their own weekly cultural event.

Mexico has a long, rich, and complicated history and this is just one part of it. But understanding this is one key to understanding the country today. People here are very proud of their Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec cultures (just to name a few). Not everyone in the country speaks the same language or shares the same history. We like to think of Mexicans as one people and Mexico as one nation, but that isn’t the case at all.

In America we like to call ourselves a cultural mixing pot. But I think of Mexico as a big bowl of pozole, the Aztec soup made of corn, squash flowers, and vegetables. Each ingredient retains its own taste and texture, its own identity, but then floats around the soup bouncing into the other ingredients. From a distance it’s just one bowl, though up close it’s anything but.

And now I want some pozole. Mmmm….

Pozole is an ancient stew made with local ingredients like maiz and squash flowers.
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