Aztec Environment

Aztec Environment
The Aztec livelihood began with the development surrounding their environment, for it provided nourishment from agricultural goods and guidance of seasonal changes for other cultural practices. The Aztec Empire was located in the central and southern regions of present day Mexico.  As the Aztec Empire grew in the 15th and 16th centuries, it stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

The empire consisted of city states with three allied capitals in the Basin of Mexico.  The capital city, however, was Tenochtitlan, (tay-nohch-tee-tlahn).  Tenochtitlan is located at the center of high-altitude valleys.  This region is at the same altitude as the Yucatan Peninsula. Tenochtitlan, which absorbed Tlatelolco in 1473, was located on islands or chinampas on Lake Texcoco (which was connected to a lake system at the bottom of the Basin of Mexico). 
The city of Tenochtitlan, though a low lying city, was surrounded by two of Mexico’s highest mountains, Iztaccihuatl and an active volcano, Popcatepetl, on its southeastern edge.  Although the Aztecs appeared to be isolated by their lake city and the mountains in the south, they still had the neighboring eastern kingdoms of Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo. Lake Texcoco consisted of fresh water lake systems and swampy lands.  In creating the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs dug up through the swampy fresh lakes and placed the mud and lake material on top of itself to create islands, canals, and drained fields called chinampas 
 This process created extremely fertile land to plant and even assisted in the population growth of the city of Tenochtitlan. The climate in this region of the Aztec Empire was very hot and humid. The Aztecs kept their city clean by keeping the canals full of fresh water which came from the mountain springs.  In periods of low rain and water, the city of Tenochtitlan would ask neighboring city states to open their canals and let the fresh water flow down.  This was dangerous, as the Aztecs learned one season.  These canals and lake systems were unpredictable and in one instance, the water kept rising in the city and they had to evacuate.  Since the Aztecs lived on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, they had to build causeways to get from the island onto dry land.  The designers of the city created three main causeways which were the entrances that led to the center of the city. The Aztec Empire had a great many resources and the people were able to farm many crops.  The valley rivers in the region allowed for fish, shrimp, and a pasta that occurred naturally called ahuatle.  Nature’s abundance reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico where they could find crabs, oysters, and fish.  The land provided rabbits, snakes, deer, and wild turkey.  Within the city, they were able to grow many crops with the formation of the chinampas such as cocoa, vanilla, bananas, squash, pumpkin, beans, chili, tobacco, onions, red tomatoes, green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, jicama, huautli and maize.  These resources were extremely valued as the Spanish discovered when they reached the city in 1519. [1]
“In the year of 2000 B.C Mexicans had come to depend on their planted fields of these crops, plus amaranth, avocado and other fruits, and chili peppers. The Olmecs lived in the jungle of the east coast of Mexico; their trade routes extended hundreds of miles, both to Monte Albán in western Mexico (modern Oaxaca State) and to the Valley of Mexico in the central highlands. The capital city covered some 21 sq km (some 8 sq mi) with blocks of apartment houses, markets, small factories, temples on platforms, and palaces covered with murals. By the 10th century in central Mexico, a new power the Toltecs began building an empire that extended into the Valley of Mexico and into Mayan territory. The Toltec Empire collapsed in 1168. By 1433, the Valley of Mexico had regained domination over much of Mexico because of an alliance of three neighboring kingdoms. This alliance secured the homeland from which one king, Montezuma I of the Aztecs, began territorial conquests. The land mass of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital founded on a small island off the western shore of Lake Texcoco, was artificially expanded until eventually it covered more than five square miles. The city became divided into four districts. Each district was composed of neighborhood wards of landowning families called calpulli, or 'house groups'. Most of the calpulli were inhabited by farmers who cultivated bountiful crops of corn, beans, and squash using an ingenious system of raised fields called chinampas, while others were occupied by craftspeople. Six major canals ran through the metropolis, with many smaller ones crossing through the entire city, making it possible to travel virtually anywhere by boat. Boats were also the principal means of transportation to the island. Scholars estimate that between 200,000 and 250,000 people lived in Tenochtitlán in 1500, which is more than four times the population of London at that time. There were three great crossings that ran from the mainland into the city. These were spanned with drawbridges that, when taken up, sealed the city off entirely. Fresh water was transported by a system of aqueducts, of which the main construction ran from a spring on a mountain called Chapultepec to the west. The four districts each had temples dedicated to the principal gods, though these were overshadowed by the Great Temple, a fabricated mountain constructed within the central precinct and topped by dual shrines dedicated to the Toltec storm god Tlaloc and the Chichimec war god Huitzilopochtli. The surrounding precinct itself was a city within a city of over 1,200 square meters of temples, public buildings, palaces, and plazas enclosed by a defensive bastion called the coatepantli or serpent wall, so named after the scores of carved stone snake heads that ornamented its exterior. The culture area of Mesoamerica: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, western Honduras, and western Nicaragua was one of farming villages producing maize, beans, squash, amaranth, turkeys, and other foods, supporting large city markets where traders sold tools, cloth, and luxury goods imported over long land and sea trade routes. In the cities lived manufacturers and their workers, merchants, the wealthy class, and priests and scholars who recorded literary, historical, and scientific works in native-language hieroglyphic texts (astronomy was particularly advanced). The empire flourished until 1519, until a Spanish soldier, Hernán Cortés, landed in eastern Mexico and advanced with Mexican allies upon the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. Internal strife and a smallpox epidemic weakened the Mexicans and helped Cortés conquer them in 1521. Cities were adorned with sculptures and brilliant paintings, often depicting the Mesoamerican symbols of power and knowledge: the eagle, lord of the heavens; the jaguar, lord of the earth; and the rattlesnake, associated with wisdom, peace, and the arts of civilization. [2]
            These elements of the Aztec environment provided to be a muse to other aspects of their everyday lives, for it influenced their artistic, scholar, religious, architectural, and political views

The Aztec Empire is remembered for many things, one of its most interesting qualities was its architecture and construction techniques. The Aztec Empire is not remembered by most people as a Mecca of technological and engineering skill. This is a misconception, the Aztecs built some of the most beautiful and ornate buildings to be found in South America. They continue to move the viewer of such masterpieces, as do all great buildings of the world.
The Aztec people had diverse architectural styles, they built everything from palaces, regular homes to the great pyramids. They are best remembered for the twin-temple style pyramid. This would either consist of two matching temples being constructed side-by-side, or one large pyramid with two temples on top. These buildings were beautiful and ornate triangular structures used to carry out the religious practices of the Aztec people. They usually had one or two main staircases leading to the temples on top. Unlike the pyramids of ancient Egypt, these temples were not huge coffins for the royalty, in this sense they were in a way accessible to the average citizen in the society they are built. The temples were usually set in a city center, there would usually be the temple, a palace, and several lesser shrines. There was no single style of temple that must be built in the Aztec empire. In the city of Calixtlahuaca The temple was built in a circular pattern. This is not the only thing special about the city, it is also known for its private homes “… all houses-commoner and elite-had well-constructed wall foundations of cut Stones”.  This shows the trend in Aztec cities to in some cases try and stand out in decadence, building and design. The Aztecs led there region in technology and engineering, this is in part due their city-state government and the competition they had between themselves to build the biggest and the best. The city of Tenochtitlan was by all accounts the largest and most grandiose, but the other lesser cities still felt the need to compete against each other. Which alongside their development of architecture the Aztecs established a base of their culture through their written and artistic world.   [iii] 

[1] Evans, Susan Toby. Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History
            Second Edition.  London: Thames and Hudson, 2008.

[2] Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Article: “American Indians”. World Almanac. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

[iii] Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.