A Brief History of Mexico – Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

History portrays Hernán Cortes as a brutal conquistador responsible for wiping out a once proud and highly-evolved indigenous society in Mexico. It turns out he had a lot of help.

The Aztecs worship gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs worshipped gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs did not start out as a powerful tribe. In fact, they did not have a homeland for many generations. They subsisted in what is now Central Mexico as mercenary soldiers. They were fierce warriors, and they were seldom defeated. On the other hand, they had no loyalty. Their warriors always fought for those who paid the most. They would even turn against their hosts if their enemies outbid them for their services.

Over a period of centuries the Aztecs had alienated every tribe in the region. The tribes of the central valley banished the Aztecs to a marshy island in the middle of the lake that once covered much of the valley where Mexico City now sits. Over time, the Aztecs built their strength and influence to the point that they threatened to attack any neighboring tribe that did not pay tribute to them. And indeed, those who resisted were wiped out. Over time the Aztecs dominated all of what is now Central Mexico.

An artist's portrayal of Tenochititlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

An artist’s portrayal of Tenochtitlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

Then, in 1519, Cortes showed up on the Caribbean shore. When he learned of the great nation of the Aztecs, Cortes set out with 500 men, 15 horses, and a dozen cannons to meet the Aztecs for himself. Cortes discovered the Aztec Nation numbered about six million people and held dominion over another 12 million. The cultivation skills alone needed to produce food for this many people were unprecedented. Cortes was going to need help. It turns out he had no difficulty finding it. Every indigenous tribe readily joined forces with Cortes when they learned his objective was to conquer the Aztecs. It took only two years for Cortes’ army to conquer the entire Aztec Nation. It turned out smallpox was the biggest killer. Over 90% of the indigenous population died from diseases brought from Europe to the New World.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

Cortes made his home in a village called Cuauhnáhuac, a native term meaning ‘near the forest.’ The closest word in Spanish was Cuernavaca, or cow horn, a term which bears no relevance to the place. Cortes had a palace built. It stands today as a huge museum bordering the central plaza in Cuernavaca. The Government Palace and the main cathedral are also located near the plaza.

Cuernavaca is now a metropolitan city of nearly one million people with numerous gardens, parks, museums and commercial areas. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, the climate remains pleasant throughout the year. All of which goes to explain why we made this our home, for now.

Note: This article touches lightly on the history and events spanning the centuries leading up to the Spanish Conquest. I have detailed nothing of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies which evolved simultaneously with post-Christian European societies. Any slight to the sophistication of these cultures is unintentional.
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