Tenochtitlan, Ancient Aztec City Facts for Kids

The Ancient City of Tenochtitlan, also known as Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was situated on an island near the western shores of Lake Texcoco. Founded in 1325 CE, it became the capital of the Aztec Empire during the 15th century and remains at the heart of present-day Mexico.

History of Tenochtitlan 

According to legend, the Mexica, a group of Aztec people, embarked on a journey from their home in the city of Aztlan. Guided by Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, they sought an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, devouring a snake. 

The discovery of this symbolic sight on a small, swampy island in the middle of a lake led to the founding of Tenochtitlan. The name “Tenochtitlan” was derived from “tenochtli,” signifying “among the prickly pear cacti.” Today, Mexico’s flag and coat of arms bear this iconic eagle-eating snake imagery.

In the face of challenging terrain, the early Mexicas persevered, initially dwelling in huts and constructing a temple made of perishable materials. They were subjected to the control of the city of Azcapotzalco and had to pay tribute. 

Over the course of eighty years, this modest island city expanded by creating artificial islands using the chinampa system, effectively connecting the islands to the mainland through multiple passageways. 

Tenochtitlan also formed alliances, eventually breaking free from Azcapotzalco’s control and prospering. The wealth brought in through tributes attracted immigrants, leading to an estimated population of 350,000. 

The Mexicas gained political power and became the epicenter of the Aztec Empire, marked by wide, straight streets where approximately 60,000 people engaged daily in commerce, as described in Hernan Cortes’s correspondence to the king. The city began constructing impressive structures, notably the temple dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, gods of rain and fertility.

Tenochtitlan Society 

The social structure of Tenochtitlan was intricate, characterized by strict hierarchies determined by heredity. The upper class, known as “pipiltin” or nobles, included government and military leaders, high-ranking priests, and lords or “tecuhtli.” The priesthood had its internal hierarchy. The “tecuhtli” category encompassed landowners, judges, and military commanders who received tributes from commoners. This class was permitted to showcase their affluence through the donning of capes and jewelry.

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Education in the Aztec Empire came in two forms: “Telpochcalli” for commoners and “Calmecac” for nobles and exceptionally gifted commoners. Each “calpulli” maintained a “Telpochcalli” aimed at training young men as warriors, commencing at age 15. 

However, they had additional responsibilities, such as collectively tending to fields for their sustenance and participating in temple repairs. The “Calmecac” schools nurtured children for roles as priests and government officials, starting their training between ages 6 and 13. Misbehavior was not tolerated, particularly in the “Calmecac” institutions, where noble children were held to higher standards than commoners.

Spanish Conquest

In November 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan and was awed by the city’s architecture on land and canals. He described it as comparable in size to Seville or Cordoba and home to approximately 400,000 inhabitants, making it the world’s largest city at the time. However, the impending Spanish invaders were not placated by the gifts of gold presented by Tenochtitlan’s ruler, Motecuhzoma. Instead, they became more resolute in seizing the city’s riches. 

Upon Motecuhzoma’s death on July 1, 1520, Cortés decided to retreat. In May 1521, Cortés returned and began a siege of the city, reinforced by an army of 800 conquistadores and tens of thousands of indigenous warriors. He constructed 13 small ships equipped with cannons and encircled the city via the waterways, launching multiple assaults that cut off the Aztecs’ food and water supply. 

Over 93 days, Cortés’s coalition forces relentlessly attacked the Aztec defenders, gradually weakening them. Simultaneously, the Aztecs suffered from a smallpox epidemic introduced by the Spanish, leading to significant casualties. The inevitable Spanish victory arrived in August 1521, burying the Aztec Empire beneath the earth. Cortés subsequently established the Spanish capital of Mexico City among the ruins of Tenochtitlan.


Illustration of the city

European map of the city