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The Aztecs were an ornate, forward-thinking and often brutal civilisation. Sadly, they’re all dead. But today is their birthday, so we’re honouring their sacrifice in the first of our “Happy birthday, you’re…” series.
Today, March 18, is widely considered the anniversary of the day in 1325CE that the nomadic Mexica people founded the city of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec Empire and one of the largest cities in the world at that time.
At its height, Tenochtitlán had a population of about 200,000. It was the place to be, a thriving city with temples, palaces, markets, workshops, public gardens, built on an island near Lake Texcoco. It had a system of canals, bridges and causeways, and an aqueduct supplied the city with fresh water. The Templo Mayor (main temple) in the Sacred Precinct was at the city’s centre.
Reams have been written about the Aztecs and you can spend literally hours doing follow-up reading. Here’s the nutshell version.
The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, common throughout Mesoamerica. They had a sophisticated society, were politically astute and commercially and agriculturally canny (this is the empire that gave chocolate to the world). They had advanced mathematical and astronomical skills and were technologically competent. They were highly cultured but also highly aggressive, building their empire by ruthless force.
Ruthless force is easy when you have a top-notch army. Warriors were intensively trained, enjoyed the protection of padded cloth armour and hide-covered shields, and their weapons were state of the art, crafted from obsidian, bone and wood. Nobody messed with an Aztec warrior (although…well, just wait a few more paragraphs!).
By the fifteenth century the Aztecs were the dominant social and political force in what is now central and southern Mexico.
Once a city or town yielded to Aztec primacy, that whole community came under Aztec control. Total control! Vanquished tribes were forced to pay tribute to the Aztecs – harvests, raw materials, you name it. By the time Moctezuma II (aka Montezuma II) became emperor in 1502, the Aztec population was around five or six million people, with a further 12-15 million across the empire, so they were doing pretty well for themselves.
Art and culture were hugely significant to Aztec life. Art could certainly be utilitarian, but it always paid tribute to the gods in some way. It was part and parcel of religious observance.
Aztec temples were rather spectacular. They were in step-pyramid form, a wide staircase leading to the altar at the top. Theirs was a complex religious system, closely intertwined with all aspects of life. Their gods included Huitzilopochtli, god of creation and war; Quetzalcoatl, god of knowledge; and Tonatiuh, sun god and patron of warriors. The gods needed to be regularly appeased, so constant offerings were made to them.
Offerings included both animal and human sacrifice. It was all very gruesome. To get the most from human sacrifice, the priest would lie the captive across the altar, then cut into his chest and abdomen and rip out the living heart – apparently the gods’ preferred offering. The heart was then burnt, sometimes the captive was decapitated, and usually the body was shoved down the temple steps. In certain ceremonies, the captive’s flesh was eaten.
A warrior’s heart was especially prized. It seems a bit counter-productive to kill a valuable warrior and tear out his heart but the gods were evidently rather partial to this particular tribute. Such greedy gods! Historians come up with different figures all the time, but it seems there were anything between 20,000-50,000 human sacrifices each year.
Moving on to less bloodthirsty things.
Art and culture were hugely significant to Aztec life. Musical instruments were fashioned from shells, gourds, bones; carvings were created from semi-precious stones. Paintings, pottery, masks, metalwork, jewellery had intricate designs and vibrant colours. Poetry, music and dance were highly valued. Weaving, pottery, drawings – art could certainly be utilitarian, but it always paid tribute to the gods in some way. That’s the thing about Aztec cultural life – it was part and parcel of religious observance.
The Spanish rallied local indigenous tribes, cashing in on their long-term resentment of Aztec rule. Combine this with the superior weaponry and their “gift” of smallpox and it didn’t take long… No more “nittze tialli pialli”, it was “hola!” from now on.
The Aztecs developed two involved calendar systems. One had 365 days and was seasonally based, so everyone knew when and what had to be sown or reaped and what religious rituals were meant to accompany these activities to ensure good harvests. The other system had 260 days and was based on giving the gods equal devotion time across that calendar year – and presumably an equal number of sacrificial tributes. No favouritism – all the gods were kept happy.
Meanwhile back in Europe, imperialist powers were busy conquering the world in their never-ending quest for power and wealth. Spanish forces led by Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 intent on taking the land and its riches for themselves.
When Cortés and his conquistadors turned up in Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma II welcomed them, believing the Spaniard to be the personification of Quetzalcoatl, whose return had been foretold. This turned out to be a huge mistake because far from being a god, Cortés had come to conquer, not to mention pillage the area of its silver, gold, turquoise and other pretty baubles.
Many thousands of Aztecs were killed in 1519. Moctezuma was taken hostage and later died in custody. The new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, continued to resist the invaders but the Spanish had rallied local indigenous tribes, cashing in on their long-term resentment of Aztec rule. They willingly helped Cortés. Combine this with the superior weaponry of the Spanish and their “gift” of smallpox and other European diseases and it didn’t take long for the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs in 1521. That was it – the Aztec empire was no more!
In typical conqueror fashion, Cortés tore down Tenochtitlán and built Mexico City in its place. Construction was complete by 1525. No more “nittze tialli pialli” (Nahuatl for “hello”), it was “hola!” from now on.
The Aztecs had prospered for a mere 200 years, such a short time in the scheme of things, but their civilisation continues to be a rich hunting ground for historians and archaeologists, and an endless source of fascination for the rest of us. There are still Aztec descendants scattered around Mexico City. Although nominally Christian, they continue to practise some of the old traditions such as making offerings to the gods. Human sacrifice, luckily, has gone the way of the dodo.