Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztec empire that occupied highland central Mexico during the 14th through 16th centuries. The city was composed of a ceremonial and administrative core surrounded by palaces and residences of the society’s elite. Aztec urbanites, numbering as many as a quarter of a million, comprised a diverse array of ethnic groups that immigrated to the city from the distant reaches of the empire and represented a range of specialized occupations, including farmers, artisans, warriors, priests, and bureaucrats. The invasion and conquest of the city by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1521 brought world attention to Aztec culture. Since that time, archaeological and historical studies of Tenochtitlan have made significant contributions to anthropology’s understanding of pre-Hispanic urban-ism in the Americas.
According to Aztec oral tradition, Tenochtitlan was founded by the Mexica people in AD 1325 on an island and reclaimed swamp land near the western edge of Lake Texcoco in the Basin of Mexico. The city was connected to the mainland by three large artificial causeways, which extended from the lakeshore to the city’s central civic-ceremonial district that contained the major politico-religious buildings of the capital. These causeways, along with a complex network of freshwater aqueducts, canals, dams, and irrigation and sewer systems, made the city a technological marvel. Beyond the central district were the opulent palaces of the rulers and other bureaucrats, the houses of the nobility, and numerous buildings dedicated to administering the empire. The remainder of the city was composed of urban dwellings of the commoners, some of which were situated upon and surrounded by raised agricultural fields. Tenochtitlan’s layout and built environment established the city not only as the geographical core of the empire but also as the conceptual center of the universe.
The central ceremonial district of Tenochtitlan measured approximately 13 hectares and was enclosed by a 30-meter-thick wall called coatepantli (“serpent wall”) that was said to have been decorated with representations of serpents. The Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagun counted 78 different buildings in this district, although only 30 have been archaeologically identified to date. In addition to buildings, numerous sculpted monuments adorned public spaces and sacred places, populating the ceremonial district with representations of key players in Aztec cosmology. For example, the colossal statue of Coatlicue, the old goddess of the earth and mother of all Aztec gods, was erected as a powerful symbol legitimizing Aztec hegemony and rulership. Other monuments record notable events in Aztec mythohistory, such as the monument depicting the dismembered body of Coyolxauqui (representing the moon), who was slain by her brother, Huitzilopochtli (representing the sun), for attempting to kill their mother, Coatlicue. Together, buildings and monuments combined to form a microcosm of the social order and a blueprint of the composite natural/cosmic landscape encompassed by the empire, where worldview and beliefs were materialized and grounded in the physical realities of daily life.
In the center of the ceremonial district rose a giant platform, which served as the principal stage for state religious rituals, including human sacrifice. The raised platform supported a number of buildings: temples, shrines, a school and residence for high priests, a sanctuary for eagle warriors, a ball court, and a large skull rack (tzompantli) where trophy heads of sacrificial victims were publicly displayed. The largest building on this platform was the Templo Mayor (“Great Temple”), a twin-towered pyramid dedicated to the two most important Aztec gods, Huitzilopochtli (god of war) and Tlaloc (god of rain and fertility). The temple was constantly under construction and renovation during the 200-year history of the city, but reached its final height of 45 meters by the time the Spanish arrived in 1519. The building was covered with white lime plaster while the upper temples were painted bright red and blue. The pyramid and its precinct were clearly designed to impress the citizens of Tenochtitlan as well as foreign visitors. By conducting political and religious performances on the summits of monumental edifices, Aztec rulers visually and symbolically reinforced their position at the top of the social ladder. Thus, public celebrations staged within the milieu of the Templo Mayor and the ceremonial district allowed Aztec ruling nobles to capitalize on the physical hierarchy of spatial forms by transcribing the phenomenological sense of ordered spaces into social hierarchy.
Just beyond the central district were the administrative and public buildings, which included a courthouse for judges, a council chamber for war leaders, armories stocked with military arms and equipment, storage rooms for housing surplus from state-sponsored tribute, and residences for the royal retinue of artisans and entertainers. Surrounding this zone were the palaces and dwellings of the rulers, nobles, and the city’s social elite. This area also included extensive gardens and ponds, a library, an aviary, and a zoo.
The palace of the huei tlatoani (“great speaker”), the semidivine supreme ruler of the Aztec, measured 40,000 square meters and was finished with painted stucco. It housed his family and other nobles, as well as servants, visiting dignitaries, and government officials. Sahagun observed that the ruler’s palace contained rooms where gold- and silversmiths, coppersmiths, feather workers, painters, stone cutters, lapidaries, and wood carvers practiced their trades. The objects crafted by palace specialists were the exclusive prerogative of the ruler. As markers of social rank and status and as items of exchange, these luxury goods acquired importance as a type of politico-symbolic capital; the huei tlatoani used these items as gifts to reward clients and attract allies. Yet, as props and costuming, the crafted objects contributed to the strong sensory impression and emotional intensity of state political and religious ritual and confirmed the legitimacy of the huei tlatoani’s claims to being physiologically superior to other members of society.
Outside of the ceremonial and administrative areas, the city was divided into four sectors: Cuepopan, Teopan, Moyotlan, and Aztacalco. Each of these neighborhoods was subdivided into smaller socioresidential configurations called calpulli (“big house”)— a group of families related by kinship and friendship that acted as a landholding corporation. As equal and separate entities, the calpulli would contribute separately and more or less equally to common obligations of the state; each would separately deliver its part of a general levy in maize or other products to the designated common collection place; in time of war, each contributed a fighting unit under its own leadership. For ongoing duties, however, such as community labor or the delivery of products throughout the year, a scheme of rotation of the calpulli was in place.
Families that comprised each calpulli lived in walled or fenced compounds in which residential and other types of domestic buildings built of stone masonry enclosed a central patio space. Compounds were connected in various ways by formal streets, informal footpaths, and waterways (canals). This dense, orthogonal grid plan, emanating from the city’s center, ordered the residential and commercial zones. Some calpulli were home to specific occupational specialists such as weavers, potters, feather workers, lapidaries, or metalsmiths, while others housed farmers and other food service personnel. The houses of nonelite citizens, built of mud-covered reeds roofed with thatch, were usually located on chinampa agricultural plots alongside canals that edged the periphery of the city. Chinampas were rectangular raised plots of agricultural land formed of organic-rich sediments dredged from swamps and shallow lake beds. The thousands of plots that surrounded Tenochtitlan provided up to one half or more of the food consumed in the city. Indeed, there were so many plots and canals that the Spanish referred to Tenochtitlan as the “Venice of the New World.” With no plows or draft animals, Aztec farmers used pointed sticks called uictli to plant their primary crop, corn, as well as beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, and a wide variety of chilies and other cultivars.
The urban zone of Tenochtitlan absorbed the adjacent city of Tlatelolco, which was similarly structured with a central civic-ceremonial zone and several calpulli. Tlatelolco was unique, however, in that it was organized around the largest marketplace in central Mexico. The Spanish chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo observed as many as fifty or sixty thousand people buying, selling, and exchanging an astounding variety of foods; luxury goods made from gold, silver, jade, and turquoise; local and foreign polychrome pottery; cloaks, mantles, and clothing made from cotton or maguey fibers; and slaves exhibited in wooden cages.
By the time the Spanish arrived in 1519, the total area of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco encompassed at least 1,350 hectares and contained as many as 250,000 people (estimates of the entire population of the Basin of Mexico range from one million to almost three million). The dual city was composed of a highly diversified population, representing groups from all reaches of the empire. Growth of the city was mostly through immigration, a process actively supported by Aztec rulership with the aim of concentrating the empire’s specialist producers. The city’s expansion was abruptly terminated by Spanish conquistadors in 1521. In the succeeding decades, Tenochtitlan became Spanish colonial Mexico City, with Catholic churches placed atop or adjacent to the foundations of abandoned and demolished Aztec temples.
As one of the few examples of large-scale urban-ism in the New World for which detailed written records and material evidence exist, Tenochtitlan has made significant contributions to theory in urban anthropology. Archaeologist William Sanders has attributed the early development of urbanism in this region to intensive cultivation and specialized agricultural adaptations (chinampa farming), which developed as a result of population pressure on land and the resource base. Incorporating the ideas of V. Gordon Child, Julian Steward, Karl Wittfogel, and Robert Carneiro, Sanders and his colleagues posited a materialist, cultural-ecological model, arguing that circumscription, competition, and differential access to strategic resources served as the basis for the development of stratification and social classes, market exchange, tribute extraction, and political centralization in the Aztec empire. More recent research by Elizabeth Brumfiel, Michael Smith, Deborah Nichols, Leonardo Lopez Lujan, and others has demonstrated that the cultural-ecological model does not necessarily account for all of the variation in settlement type, size, and distribution. Instead, archaeologists now tend to approach Aztec urbanism from a regional perspective, emphasizing the dialectic between social and natural landscapes and the role of city-states, market dynamics, imperialism, and ideology and ritual.
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