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Tenochtitlán, capital city of Aztec Empire, center of present-day Mexico City. According to native histories, the Mexica founded Tenochtitlán in 1325. They were led by their god Huitzilopochtli to a spot where an eagle perched atop a prickly pear cactus, or tenochtli; Tenochtitlán means "By the Prickly Pear Fruits." This divinely ordained site was a marshy island in Lake Texcoco east of Chapultepec. The Mexica developed this marginal property by trading ducks, fish, and other edible lake products for wood and stone from the mainland. As the Mexica gained political power, eventually dominating what is now called the Aztec Empire, they were able to commandeer building supplies and labor and Tenochtitlán grew in size and population. At the time of the Spanish invasion it was the largest city in Mesoamerica, with a probable population of 125,000 or more.

A "Venice of the New World," Tenochtitlán was crisscrossed by canals that served for canoe transportation; moveable wooden bridges allowed for pedestrian passage. The basic layout of the city comprised four sectors, separated by major canals, surrounding the central political-ceremonial precinct (now the zócalo), where the rulers had their palaces and the major deities their temples—most notably the Great Temple of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. Within each residential sector lay a variable number of Calpulli, or "big houses," neighborhood units tending toward endogamy and occupational specialization. These served as administrative units for taxation and military draft; each had its own temple and schools. Toward the city's outskirts, raised fields, or chinampas, provided a local source of fresh vegetables and flowers. Causeways to the west and the south linked the city to the mainland; an aqueduct brought fresh water from Chapultepec because the lake water was too saline for drinking. Flood control, another major problem, was partly solved by means of a system of dikes.

Just north of Tenochtitlán lay Tlatelolco, originally an independent Mexica settlement but conquered by Tenochtitlán in 1473. The two islands were separated by a narrow waterway (today the site of the Lagunilla market). Tlatelolco boasted the principal market for the greater urban district. The two islands covered an area of about 3 square miles.

Although Cortés and his Spanish followers marveled at the beauty and orderliness of the island city, they and their native allies leveled most of it during the two-and-a-half month siege that led to Spanish control of the city and its transformation into the capital of New Spain.

See alsoAztecs; Huitzilopochtli; Mesoamerica; Mexico City.


Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (1961).

Diego Durán, The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain, translated by Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (1964).

Luis González Aparicio, Plano reconstructivo de la región de Tenochtitlán (1973).

Frances Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society (1982).

Johanna Broda, Davíd Carrasco, and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, The Great Temple of Tenochtitlán (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Carrasco Pizana, Pedro. The Tenochca Empire of Ancient Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

López Luján, Leonardo. The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Trans. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1994.

Solís Olguín, Felipe R., ed. The Aztec Empire. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004.

                                             Louise M. Burkhart

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Tenochtitlán the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, founded c.1320. In 1521 the Spanish conquistador Cortés, having deposed the Aztec emperor Montezuma and overthrown his empire, destroyed it and established Mexico City on its site.

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