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The Aztecs were a tribe from the Nahuatl culture. They lived in the zone known as Mesoamerica between the 12th and 16th centuries. The people of the Nahuatl at some point began to call themselves Mexicas (pronounced meshicas) or Tenochcas (inhabitants of Tenochtitlan). The term Aztec means 'originating from Aztlán' which was the original tribal name of the Aztecs. The use of the term "Aztec" was initiated by the naturalist and German geographer Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th century. He used the term in reference to all the towns related to the Mexicas. He did this to distinguish the Aztecs from the present Mexicans. Since then its use has been generalized, although essentially it is incorrect.

HuitzilopochtliLike any ancient culture the Mexicas have legends surrounding their origin. They believe that they left mythical one Aztlán in 'place of the herons' or 'place of the whiteness' or 'place of the origin' (all translations from the Nahuatl tongue). They travelled for a long time waiting for a sign from Huitzilpochtli (a god like figure to the Nahuatl). It was said that Huitzilpochtli had killed his nephew Copil, and thrown his heart into a lake. It was believed that the new city should be founded on the heart of Copil. When they arrived at an island in a lake, they saw an eagle which was perched on a Nopal cactus full of its fruits (nochtli). (Due to a mistranslation of an account by Tesozomoc, it became popular to say the eagle was devouring a snake, but in the original Aztec accounts, the snake is not mentioned. One states that it was eating a bird, another indicates that it was only perched in the cactus, and a third just says it was eating something.)

This vision fulfilled a prophecy telling them that they should found their new home on that spot. The Aztecs built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site in Lake Texcoco, building a great artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This legendary vision is pictured on the Coat of Arms of Mexico.

TenochtitlanThe Aztecs founded the city, Tenochtitlan (the present day Mexico City) in 1325. As they extended the city they offered this work to the towns along the lake, in exchange for building materials. Eventually this island would lodge one of the largest cities of this age, with some 230.000 inhabitants.

Whilst the construction of Tenochtitlan was taking place the surrounding area was dominated by the Tepanecs a warring tribe already established in the region. However towards the end of 1430 the new Aztec ruler, Itzcoatl formed a coalition with the other lakeside people against the Tepanecs. This coalition brought an end to the Tepanec Domination of the basin of Mexico by sacking the city of Azcapotzalco, founded the empire of the Triple Alliance 'Obsidian Serpent'.

TlacaelelThe Aztec empire continued to develop after the demise of Itzcoatl. It’s two primary being the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I took the throne but it was Tlacaelel, who probably influenced the culture of the Aztecs more. Tlacaelel was responsible for reforming the history and the religion of the Mexicas. He ordered the burning of all old books and rewrote the histories of his people. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation; forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. He also elevated Huitzilopochtli, originally a semi-God to the Mexicas, to the level of the old God Nahuas. Huitzilopochtli was also associated with the sun creating the necessity for constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving. Another component of these reforms was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) this allowed the Mexicas to have trained warriors even in times of peace.

Tlacaelel gave to the Mexicas a historic conscience and the responsibility to maintain the existence of the universe through the human sacrifices. Tlacaelel always refused to become king but was the power behind the throne for three different reigns.

The Triple Alliance 'Obsidian Serpent' that the Mexicas had formed with Texcoco and Tacuba, allowed them to conquer the centre of Mexico, Veracruz, the coast of Warrior, part of Oaxaca as well as dominating the territory of Soconusco, just within Guatemala. Only a few towns managed to resist the Mexica push; for example the Purépechas (also known as purhépechas) and the Tlaxcaltecas.


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