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The Aztecs By Rían
Around 1300 CE, a wandering tribe of Indians wandered into the Valley of Mexico. These people were called the Aztecs. When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, other tribes were already in residence. They had already taken the best land. The Aztecs had to make due with the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco. But this did not bother the Aztecs. Not only were they very clever people, but they had every faith that their main god had sent them to the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco, so obviously this place was perfect for them. They adapted to their environment. They built canoes, so they could fish and hunt birds that lived near the water. They created floating gardens for growing food. They created more land for agriculture by filling in the marshes. They built dikes to hold back the water. After they settled in, they began to conquer the neighboring tribes. They conquered first one tribe, and then another, and then another. Each conquered tribe had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of food, clothing, jewels, and of course, captives to feed the hungry gods. That made the Aztecs very happy and very rich. The Aztecs expanded and expanded until they had built an empire. One day, around 1500 AD, Spanish soldiers arrived in the Valley of Mexico. They were amazed at what they saw. One soldier said, “There were soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and Rome and all over Italy, who said that they had never before seen a market place so large and so filled with people.” The Spanish conquered the Aztecs. The arrival of the Spanish brought guns, horses, huge fighting dogs, and disease. Because the Aztecs were such fierce warriors, they might have had a slim chance of survival against guns and horses and huge fighting dogs. But they had no defense against disease. They had never been exposed to childhood diseases like measles. Many became ill once the Spanish arrived, and as a result, many died. The Spanish also received help from the other tribes in the area. These tribes saw a chance to get even, and perhaps even to rid themselves of the feared and hated Aztecs. These tribes did not expect to be conquered themselves, which they were. Nor did they know how harshly the Spanish would rule their people. By the mid-1500’s, the Aztec Empire had collapsed, and the Spanish had taken over the entire region. Today, there are around a million descendants of the ancient Aztecs living and working in Mexico. Human sacrifice is no longer part of their festivals, but the beautiful art and clever games the Aztecs created are still enjoyed today.
The ancient Aztecs believed in many gods and goddesses. Each god had a job to do. The sun god, for example, brought the sun up every day. The Aztecs believed it was important to keep the sun god happy. They truly believed if the sun god was not happy, he would refuse to bring up the sun, and the world would end. The ancient Aztecs spent most of their time trying to keep their many gods happy and well fed. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary. They used people to feed their hungry gods. Some of the people sacrificed were Aztecs. But most of the people they sacrificed to keep their gods happy were people captured from neighboring tribes. This did not make them popular with their neighbors!
Each time the Aztecs tried to settle down and build a city of their own, other tribes in the area would band together to chase them away. No one wanted the Aztecs for a neighbor. The Aztecs were very sad about this. They did so want a city of their own. According to legend, one day, the Aztecs were magically visited by their main god, the god of sun and war. He promised his people that they would have a city of their own some day, but they had to seek a specific and magically special place to build it. To find this special place, they were to look for an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake. "Not only that, but listen well," their main god told them. "When you find the magical place of the eagle, snake, and cactus, you are not to make war with your neighbors. You are to settle down peacefully until you gain strength, and use this peaceful time to build a glorious Aztec city, a city of your own, in honor of me." For the next 200 years, the Aztecs wandered in the Valley of Mexico. They never doubted their main god. They never gave up. They were always on the lookout for an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake in his mouth.
One morning, an Aztec priest was standing on the swampy shore of Lake Texcoco. He yawned and looked out across the lake. He could not believe his eyes. On one of the many small islands that dotted the lake, he saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, with a snake wiggling in its mouth. The Aztecs had found their home at last. As the people gathered and stared in wonder, the cactus grew into a comfy island. It was on that island that the Aztecs founded their civilization. They named the island Tenochtitlan, "the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus".
When the Aztecs settled at "The Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus", they tried very hard to get along with their neighbors as their main god had instructed them to do. They did not go to war. They did not capture people to feed to their many gods. Instead, they used their own people. It was an honor to be sacrificed. Everyone knew that. In a spirit of goodwill, the Aztec emperor sent a messenger to a nearby tribe. The chief of the tribe had been a bit unfriendly so far. The emperor was hoping that his message might help to make a new friend. The emperor's message was an invitation. He invited the chief's daughter to journey to the Aztec capital to meet his son. When the princess arrived at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, she brought with her many servants and attendants, along with a gorgeous wedding dress and presents for her new family. She spent a most enjoyable evening with the emperor and his handsome son. A few days later, when her father arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan, he fully expected to attend a wedding. Imagine his surprise when he learned that his daughter had been sacrificed with great ceremony, along with her many attendants and slaves. It was the highest honor the Aztecs could pay. Broken hearted, the chief hurried home to his people. That very day, he sent his army to wage war on the horrible Aztecs. The Aztecs won. They went on to conquer tribe after tribe in the valley. Each conquered tribe had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of food, clothing, jewels, and of course, captives to feed the hungry gods. That made the Aztecs very happy and very rich. Truly, the Aztecs were not worried that their main god might be angry with them for going to war a little sooner than originally planned. After all, they had tried to get along. And just as soon as they had conquered all the people in the valley, they would live in peace with their neighbors, exactly as their god had told them to do. Surely their main god would agree!
As the Aztec population grew, more food was needed. To solve this problem, Aztec engineers created “floating” gardens. First, they built a series of rafts and anchored each to the lakebed. Vegetation and reeds were piled on top of a raft. Then, they piled on enough dirt to be able to grow crops.
To further secure the floating gardens, mud retaining walls were built up around the raft to hold it in place. These also acted as walkways that connected the many floating gardens of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. The floating gardens were quite successful. The Aztecs used the gardens to grow chili peppers, squash, corn, tomatoes, and beans. The Aztecs created more land by filling in marshlands and swamps. They created even more by designing dikes to hold back the water.
EXPANSION Around 1400 AD, the Aztec government began conquering neighboring tribes. The Aztec population had grown. They needed many things to manage their growing population. They needed new cities to house their population. They needed new lands to feed their population. They needed new captives to feed their hungry gods. Schools needed to be run. Storehouses needed to be filled. Temples needed to be built. The government had its hands full trying to satisfy all these needs.
War was the answer. When the Aztecs conquered a tribe, they demanded tribute in the form of food, clothing, precious stones, building supplies, and captives. The first four the Aztecs kept for themselves. The last they gave to their gods. Other tribes hated and feared the Aztecs. Sometimes, they simply ran away in fear rather than fight.
The Emperor and Palace The Aztecs had an emperor, a king who ruled over all the people. The emperor lived in the imperial palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. The palace was huge. It even had its own zoo. The ground floor of the palace housed government offices and the shops of the most talented craftsman in the Aztec empire.
City-States City-States: As the Aztec empire grew, under the direction of government officials, Aztec engineers built many fine cities. A noble family controlled each city. Although the noble family was supposed to assist the emperor, the truth is that each noble family pretty much ran things in their own city the way they wanted. Thus, the Aztecs, like the Mayas, were governed by city-states.
Crime and Punishment With their own people, the Aztec rulers were quite severe. Aztec courts decided on the punishment those who broke the law would receive. Drunkenness was the worse crime. The punishment for being drunk was death. Thieves were put to death. Laws were tough, and they were written down. Codices warned of the punishment you would receive for breaking the law.