Workers build a replica of the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo,  in August 2021. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

Workers build a replica of the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo, in August 2021. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

Aztec images adorn a building for the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

Aztec images adorn a building for the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

A man is dressed as an Aztec Caballero Águila (eagle warrior) during a commemoration of the fall of Tenochtitlán. (Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via AP)

A man is dressed as an Aztec Caballero Águila (eagle warrior) during a commemoration of the fall of Tenochtitlán. (Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via AP)

Crayfish, grasshoppers, and other local delicacies are displayed for sale in the market of Xochimilco, Mexico City. (AP/Marco Ugarte)

Crayfish, grasshoppers, and other local delicacies are displayed for sale in the market of Xochimilco, Mexico City. (AP/Marco Ugarte)

This map of Tenochtitlán from 1524 was based on the eyewitness account of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

This map of Tenochtitlán from 1524 was based on the eyewitness account of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Mexico City Marks Aztec Fall

Posted: November 1, 2021

Mexico City is a loud, busy place. Car engines roar, horns honk, people shout. There were no engine noises there 500 years ago. But there was an ancient Aztec city on the same land. On the five-century anniversary of its collapse, people in Mexico City want to remember. The Aztecs are part of Mexico’s heritage.

The Aztecs were once a powerful, ruling force in the area that is Mexico today. The empire’s capital city was called Tenochtitlán (TEN-ock-TEET-lahn). It was established in 1325 on swampy land. The Aztecs transformed that boggy ground into a magnificent city. Aztec builders constructed Tenochtitlán on manmade islands in Lake Texcoco. The city’s center held a temple complex. It had pyramids and a king’s palace.

“Tenochtitlán was a huge city. It had public institutions, a whole system of government, public servants, schools, public services. It was a totally organized city,” says Raúl Barrera Rodríguez. He’s an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Aztec society was sophisticated for the time. Politics, intelligence, and art were important. So were their gods—and war. The tribe entered battle often. Tragically, the Aztecs sometimes offered their enemies as human sacrifices to their bloodthirsty, imaginary gods.

In 1521, the Spanish conquistador (conqueror) Hernán Cortés and his army took over Tenochtitlán. Hundreds of thousands of people died in that epic battle. The Aztec empire fell. Many of the natives who survived the fighting died from diseases that the Spanish forces brought with them. The Spanish built their city—Mexico City—on the Aztec ruins.

Fast forward to today. A painted line on Mexico City’s streets will show the ancient boundaries of Tenochtitlán. A life-sized replica of the Aztecs’ twin temples stands nearby. Women sell corn tortillas and amaranth (an ancient grain) sweets on city streets, just as they would have in the 1500s. Street vendors offer artwork and artifacts. These remind people of the type of life that once thrived in Tenochtitlán. Plaques mark historical sites in the city. They serve as gentle reminders of a not-so-gentle history

Why? We study the ways the Aztecs shaped history—from their impressive inventions to terrible customs such as human sacrifice.