Five facts about Tenochtitlán

Built on an island in the middle of a lake, the Aztec capital grew into an awe-inspiring mega-city that stunned its European discoverers.

Five facts about Tenochtitlán © Getty Images

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325 when, according to legend, the Mexica people had a vision of an eagle eating a snake atop a cactus. They believed this was a sign from the gods that they had reached the spot where a great city was destined to be built.


Here are five facts about the Aztec mega-city of Tenochtitlán…



Despite being on a small, muddy island in Lake Texcoco, Mexico, an immense complex of temples, bustling marketplaces and sophisticated infrastructure was born. At its peak, Tenochtitlán was home to a quarter of a million people, making it one of the world’s largest cities.



The island where Tenochtitlán was built proved to be too small for the demands of the busy metropolis, so the Aztecs had to expand. By hammering stakes into the lake bed, lashing them together with reeds, and then piling in earth and rocks, they were essentially able to make land – allowing the city to continue growing.



Tenochtitlán’s 60m-high Templo Mayor was consecrated to Tláloc, god of rain and fertility, and Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. It was the site of tens of thousands of human sacrifices. Over the four-day opening ceremony in 1487, some 4,000 prisoners of war had their hearts removed (while still alive) to honour the temple.



The city was criss-crossed by a network of canals (similar to Venice) so the main form of transportation was canoe. Tenochtitlán was linked to the shore by three massive causeways, which were pivotal for trade.

The largest was 8 miles long and 20 metres wide. Bridges along each causeway allowed canoes to pass, and could also be pulled away as an effective defensive measure to protect the city from attack.



When Hernán Cortés and his men first arrived at Tenochtitlán, he was welcomed by its ruler Moctezuma II (who hoped to avoid war). He was staggered by the size and order of the city.


Yet tensions rose and Cortés – with 500 men and allies from other Mesoamerican tribes – laid siege to the city. After ten weeks, Tenochtitlán fell, with its people suffering horrifically from famine and a devastating smallpox epidemic. Cortés proceeded to destroy the city and build a new one for the Spanish colonists. That became Mexico City.

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of History Revealed.