Tenochtitlan was the capital city and center of the Aztec Empire. It was founded in 1325 and served as the capital until the Aztecs were conquered by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1520.
Where was it located?
Tenochtitlan was located on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco in what is today south central Mexico. The Aztecs were able to settle there because no one else wanted the land. At first, it wasn't a great place to start a city, but soon the Aztecs built up islands where they could grow crops. The water also worked as a natural defense against attacks from other cities.
Map of Tenochtitlan by Hanns Prem
Click picture for larger view
Causeways and Canals
Early on in the history of the city the Aztecs built causeways and canals for transportation to and from the city. A causeway is a raised road that allowed the people to easily travel over the swampy and wet areas. There were three major causeways that led from the island city to the mainland. There were also bridges built into the causeways that allowed small boats and canoes to travel under them. These bridges could be removed when the city was being attacked.
The Aztecs also built many canals throughout the city. The canals acted like water roads that allowed people to easily travel around the large city in boats. The city was well planned and laid out in a grid that made traveling around the city easy.
At the center of the city there was a large area where many of the public activities took place. The temples to the Aztec gods were built here as well as a court where they played a ballgame called Ullama. The largest temple was a pyramid called the Templo Mayor. It was the tallest building in the city in order to be closest to the gods. Other buildings in the city center included the priests' quarters, schools, plus a rack of human skulls called the Tzompantli.
There were markets throughout the city where people would trade goods and food. There was one main marketplace where up to 40,000 people would visit during feast days to buy goods and food for celebrations.
Why did the Aztecs settle on a swampy island?
When the Aztecs were driven from their valley home by the Culhuacan they needed a new place to stay. The priests said they had a sign from the gods. The Aztecs should settle where they saw an eagle holding a snake while standing on a cactus. They saw this sign on a marshy island in the lake and began to build a new town on the spot.
How big was it?
Tenochtitlan was a large city that covered around 5 square miles. Some historians estimate that nearly 200,000 people lived in the city during its peak.
Is it still there today?
Most of the Tenochtitlan's buildings were destroyed by the Spanish and Hernan Cortes. The current capital of Mexico, Mexico City, is located at the same location. Archeologists have uncovered the ruins of Tenochtitlan near the center of Mexico City.
Model version of how Tenochtitlan looked at its peak
Interesting Facts about Tenochtitlan
There were two aqueducts over 2.5 miles long leading into the city that provided fresh water to the people living there.
Large crowds of as many as 8,000 people would sometimes gather in the central area.
The city was divided into four zones and twenty districts.
The Aztec Emperors built their palaces near the temple district. They were large stone structures with as many as 50 rooms as well as their own gardens and ponds.
The Aztecs built a 10 mile long dike that sealed off a portion of the lake. It helped keep the water fresh and protected the city from flooding.