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“It was like the enchantments in the book of Amadis, because of high towers, rues [pyramids] and other buildings, all of masonry, which rose from the water. Some of the soldiers asked if what they saw was not a dream” (Miller, 239) A Spanish soldier, Bernal Diaz del Castillo recorded his first visit to Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was arguably the greatest city of Mesoamerica. It was the capital of the Aztec Empire stretching from the gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, serving over millions of people. The city itself was 13 square km and had over 200,000 citizens. Through analyzation of Tenochtitlan’s flourish, we can understand the universality of different human civilizations” success and their flourish. We can see the flourish of Tenochtitlan by looking analyzing their success in infrastructure, agriculture, the complex social, political and economical structure as well as the unique religion and the military beliefs and success.
Understanding and analyzing Mesoamerican societies can be a very challenging task, as well as being extremely misleading. Fortunately we can better understand Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire due to the records of the city written by the Spanish conqueror Cortez and his soldiers, many artifacts including the remains of the templo mayor and the ability to understand the Aztec language unlike earlier Mayan societies allows us to be able to uncover and understand some aspects of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 by the Aztecs on two islands in the middle of lake Texcoco, it gradually became one Island as artificial land was built in between the two islands. The Aztecs settled in Tenochtitlan and with their extensive military conquests and success came to rule over millions of people. Many factors contributed to their Military success, one being the alliance they had formed with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan. By early 1400’s the Aztecs had became the dominant force and were the capital of the vast Aztec empire. Tenochtitlan’s flourish, same as the flourish of the Aztec empire lasted from the 15th century to 1519 when the Spanish arrived and both came to a sudden decline.
Firstly, to understand Tenochtitlan’s flourish and success we must be able to form an image of the city and understand how it was designed. Tenochtitlan was located in the marshes of lake Texcoco as mentioned before and covered 13 km of land. One very unique design of the city were the large causeways that connected the city to the surrounding farmlands and the shore of the lake. The four major causeways ran north, south, east and west, out of these 4 the 3 running east, west and north were made removable bridges. These three causeways were removed to let boats pass and then returned to their original form, the other purpose of these bridges was to limit invaders to only the south causeway which was only put in use when the Spanish conquerors came to the city. The island itself was laid out in a grid pattern with many canals running throughout the city for small boats and canoes. The streets of the city itself were very narrow as Mesoamerica didn’t have cattle or large animals such as horses or cattle and primarily relied on canoes and small boats for trade, hence these streets were meant for travel on foot.
Taking a look at the infrastructure and Architecture of Tenochtitlan we can further understand the flourish and connect the infrastructural advancements made by the Aztecs to those of the classical Romans and ancient Egyptians. Many of Aztec buildings were enabled to be built by the materials they made and used. The aztec infrastructural materials consisted of imported materials such lime plaster, clay and some sands, local building materials were wood, local soils, straw and a sun dried clay called adobe. This allowed for many great religious monuments to be built, for local buildings, multi story houses and normal houses. The results and height of Aztec infrastructure could be seen in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan with many impressive temples and pyramids. According to a spanish soldier on Cortes” army the central precinct held approximately 78 separate structures. The success of Tenochtitlan can bessen through the money solely devoted to the religious, ceremonial precinct. From the walled ceremonial precinct the city spread out into different residential quarters, one being vast palaces for the tlatoque (rulers), double story stone residences for nobles and officials and small adobe and reed homes for the lower class. Other than these quarters the city consisted of huge marketplaces, storerooms holding resources, closely packed areas of workshops and judicial chambers. The organization, variety and structure of the infrastructure in Tenochtitlan helps uncover how Tenochtitlan may have looked and understand how it was similar to many societies of the old world while they went about things in their own unique manner.
Tenochtitlan’s economy largely relied on the local markets and trade and extensive farming on chinampas and surrounding areas. Markets similar to many other societies were a key part of Tenochtitlan’s economy. Tenochtitlan had a very large market which consisted of many streets for many different products and were separated by the categories they fit in. Some of these streets had luxury goods such as gold and silver ornaments being as well as brass copper tin. Stones, shells, bones and feathers being sold, other streets had building materials such as cut and uncut stone, mud bricks, tiles and wood being sold. Some of the streets soley had barbershops, while others shops for food and drink. Shops for medicine and herbs were in large numbers. Items for household needs such as firewood, charcoal, earthenware, braziers, bedding and seats were present on seperate streets. All kinds of vegetables, alcohol and syrups were present on some streets. Some streets just had spun cotton in a great variety of colours and others had pottery of all shapes and sizes. These markets would usually have many canals near them for moving goods to peoples households or businesses. Porters were also available to take these goods to your desired locations, these porters would have small boats or canoes on which they would transport these goods for money. These markets can be seen to be very rich and similar to the large markets of classical Rome. This description of Tenochtitlan’s markets was provided by Hernan Cortes the Spanish conqueror who also adds that nearly 60,000 people traded at these markets everyday. These markets allowed for many different professions for the Aztecs and allowed for the economy to flourish as well as the merchants to become extremely wealthy. Cortes also described these markets to be very well run, incharge of that were the pochteca (powerful merchants) who were the judges of these markets, they regulated prices and made sure the markets ran smoothly. Many factors were in play that allowed for such successful markets but all of these factors show that Tenochtitlan was flourishing.
Similar to the markets agriculture was extremely important for Tenochtitlan’s economy as well as being very important to the local people of Tenochtitlan. Due to Tenochtitlan being limited to a small island in the middle of lake Texcoco, the Aztecs had to be very innovative in the way they cultivated. The Aztecs used chinampas to farm, although the idea of chinampas had been used before the Aztecs used these very extensively and at a larger scale than ever before. Chinampas were agricultural pieces of land built on the lake. One end of the Chinampa would be attached to the mainland and the rest would be in the river bed or lake. The chinampa plot would be constructed by staking out an enclosure 30 m in length and 2.5 m in width, into marshy lakebed in lake Texcoco. Then the area would be filled with mud and decaying vegetation to prevent the roots from becoming waterlogged and the fill would be brought higher than lake level to avoid flooding. The next plot would be constructed a few meters would be left for canoes to pass through in order to transport people and crops in and out of the area. Willow trees would then be planted around the area as they had deep roots and acted as anchors holding the chinampa in place. To avoid flooding of the Chinampas many canals, dams and sewage systems were made. On the Chinampas corn, beans, chilis, amaranth, tomatoes and flowers as they were used in many religious events in very large amounts were cultivated. This unique method of agriculture allowed a small Island in a middle of the lake to perform large scale agriculture while having a population of over 200,000 people, as well as building more land around the island through this method. This was essential to hold such a large population on such a small island.
Same as classical Rome, Ancient Egypt and nearly all successful civilizations or empires until recent times, Tenochtitlan had a state religion which had a large influence on social, political and economic structures as well as being the driving force for military expansion and in turn making the Aztec empire so vast. The Aztec religion was a polytheistic religion and the Aztec gods were divided into three categories, some were associated with creation, some were warrior gods and some were associated with rain and the weather. The Aztec religion largely influenced their military conquests as the warrior gods Tonatiuh and Huitzilopochtli promoted military conquest and expansion of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs dedicated their conquests to these gods and much of the expansion of the Aztec empire came through their religious beliefs. In many other polytheistic civilizations military conquests were dedicated to their warrior gods. Another Aspect of the Aztec religion that largely impacted the political and social systems and pushed for military expansion was human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was a political policy in tenochtitlan which would be performed atop the temples which would be located on pyramid like structures. Templo mayor was at the centre of the ceremonial precinct and was 60 m tall with two twin temples atop. One for the god of war Huitzilopochtli and the other for Tlaloc, the god of rain.
On these temples human sacrifice was a regular event, these humans that were sacrificed were usually captives for war which in turn pushed for military conquest and not as regularly slaves who had been sold three times were sacrificed. Hernan Cortes the Spanish conqueror estimated that at a temple the annual human sacrifices would be around 50 people annually. This would have meant that thousands were sacrificed in the Aztec empire as in Tenochtitlan itself more than half a dozen temples were present. This was a very unique part of the Aztec religion that hasn’t been seen in many other societies. Although the Aztec religion is very unique and different in comparison to the religion of other societies, the religion impacted Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire to become stronger and bigger as military conquest was promoted by the state and state religion allowing for more trade routes, more resources and more money was paid by the conquered people’s.
The social and political systems in Tenochtitlan were closely linked, they were influenced by religion and were very important for the stability of the city. The rulers of Tenochtitlan or any Aztec city state were called Tlatoque, although tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec empire, every city state had their own tlatoque but they all had to pay a tribute to Tenochtitlan. The tlatoque managed labour and tribute that was to be given by other Aztec city states to Tenochtitlan. The tlatoque also resolved cases not resolved in lower courts, he organized military activity and sponsored some religious celebrations as well as having to control his own land. The ruler lived in a large pleasant house, dressed elegantly and had many servants.. There were jugglers and acrobats to keep their households entertained. They gambled on ball games, drank chocolate and smoked beautiful cigars. They ate tortillas, tamales and sauces of all kinds and flavours, turkey, quail, venison, rabbitt, fish fruit and lobster. The tetecuhtin is the next form of nobility after the tlatoque. Trichotin controlled more restricted areas and activities than the rulers and received the title through success in war. They could hold political, military or judicial office. They owned and controlled agricultural lands. They were heads of houses to which lesser nobles were attached to. The Pipiltin were the children of rulers and chiefs. They would be attached to the chiefly house they were born in. The succeeded the ranks of tlaloques and chiefs when their positions opened. Otherwise they would become tribute collectors or live as nobles. the tolteca were metalworkers, engravers, painters of codices, feather workers formed along with merchants. The toltecas creations were highly esteemed and were reserved for the nobility. They had their own residential sections of the city, known as the capulli, they had their own education, deities and sermons while maintaining special relation with the state. These were the higher classes of Tenochtitlan as well as some merchants.
The merchant class was divided into their own hierarchy, the top were the principal merchants, called fathers and mothers, below this were slave dealers, below slave dealers were merchants who worked as spies for the ruler and nobility, below spies were state agents and at the lowest of merchant hierarchy were ordinary merchants. The merchant class was an extremely important part of the economy. The pochteca dealt in large quantities of a wide range of goods on an inter-regional scale. These merchants played key roles in the economy of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire. the macehualtin (commoners) were the majority of the Aztec population. The macehualtin worked as farmers, fished seas and rivers, specialized in certain crafts, served as soldiers in the Aztec army. The commoners were certainly not as rich as the nobles and lived in single story brick homes, they had few garments and their meals consisted of vegetables, chili, tortillas and a little bit of meat. They were grouped into different capulli(neighbourhoods) based on family ties and lived and owned on this land. The macehualtin worked other people’s farms as well as their own. the mayeque were rural workers, attached to the private lands of their owners(nobles) and could never leave. Although mayeque were paid for the work they did, they were similar to slaves in modern understanding of slavery and lived their lives like that. The tlacotin(slaves) were formed from the macehualtin who had done something to become tlacotin. These reasons included punishment for theft, gambling, or not being able to pay tribute or debts. These slaves usually lived in the cities and were usually attached to the nobles. A person could only become a tlacotin if they had acquired the role, children were born free. Slaves who weren’t cooperative received public warnings in front of witnesses and sold if they did not cooperate after, if they were sold three times they could then be sacrificed. This was usually not the case, as sacrificial slaves usually came from provinces for tribute or war captives. This complex social and fairly simple and smooth political system allowed for stability within classes and state stability through a simple succession system.
Analyzing the success of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire at its flourish we can learn about universal story of human civilization. Throughout the world history before 16th century course we have learned about many civilizations developing into very successful large scale empires and cities, although many of the ancient civilizations developed on their own, all these societies had some sort of trade routes within the old world and many developed languages which derived from other languages, many developed cultures which were derived from or were inspired by other cultures but the development of Mesoamerican societies has no influence from the civilizations of the old world and largely helps us understand the universality of human civilizations. The great success of the Aztec empire and Tenochtitlan came about in a unique way but a large scale successful society forming shows the universality of the human experience. This can be understood by going back to the neolithic revolution when humans evolved from hunter gatherers to agricultural societies, both Mesoamerica and Afro Eurasia went through this process of settling down and forming proper societies. From that both Afro Eurasia had many large scale civilizations and so did Mesoamerica, although the Mesoamerican civilizations aren’t as well recognized as the Afro Eurasian but some notable earlier civilizations are the Mayan and Inca. Inspired by earlier civilizations great empires then formed, from my example the Aztec empire in the mesoamericans and in Afro Eurasia great empires such as the Han and Roman empire formed. Although these Empires may not have formed at the same time or may not have had many similarities in policies, economics or religion, the Roman empire and Han China were the height of the classical age being extremely vast and successful empires and the Aztec empire was the height of the Mesoamerican civilizations.
In conclusion by understanding and the flourish of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire we can see the universality of the human experience and civilizations. We can see this through the similarities in the Mesoamerican and other civilizations.
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