The Aztecs

The Aztecs
By Rían
Around 1300 CE, a wandering tribe of Indians wandered into the Valley of Mexico. These people were called the Aztecs.
When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, other tribes were already in residence. They had already taken the best
land. The Aztecs had to make due with the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco.
But this did not bother the Aztecs. Not only were they very clever people, but they had every faith that their main god had
sent them to the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco, so obviously this place was perfect for them.
They adapted to their environment. They built canoes, so they could fish and hunt birds that lived near the water. They
created floating gardens for growing food. They created more land for agriculture by filling in the marshes. They built dikes to
hold back the water.
After they settled in, they began to conquer the neighboring tribes. They conquered first one tribe, and then another, and
then another.
Each conquered tribe had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of food, clothing, jewels, and of course, captives to feed
the hungry gods. That made the Aztecs very happy and very rich.
The Aztecs expanded and expanded until they had built an empire.
One day, around 1500 AD, Spanish soldiers arrived in the Valley of Mexico. They were amazed at what they saw.
One soldier said, “There were soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and Rome and all
over Italy, who said that they had never before seen a market place so large and so filled with people.”
The Spanish conquered the Aztecs. The arrival of the Spanish brought guns, horses, huge fighting dogs, and disease. Because
the Aztecs were such fierce warriors, they might have had a slim chance of survival against guns and horses and huge fighting
dogs. But they had no defense against disease. They had never been exposed to childhood diseases like measles. Many became
ill once the Spanish arrived, and as a result, many died.
The Spanish also received help from the other tribes in the area. These tribes saw a chance to get even, and perhaps even to
rid themselves of the feared and hated Aztecs. These tribes did not expect to be conquered themselves, which they were. Nor
did they know how harshly the Spanish would rule their people.
By the mid-1500’s, the Aztec Empire had collapsed, and the Spanish had taken over the entire region.
Today, there are around a million descendants of the ancient Aztecs living and working in Mexico. Human sacrifice is no
longer part of their festivals, but the beautiful art and clever games the Aztecs created are still enjoyed today.
The ancient Aztecs believed in many gods and goddesses. Each god had a job to do. The sun god, for
example, brought the sun up every day. The Aztecs believed it was important to keep the sun god happy.
They truly believed if the sun god was not happy, he would refuse to bring up the sun, and the world would
The ancient Aztecs spent most of their time trying to keep their many gods happy and well fed.
The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary. They used people to feed their hungry gods. Some
of the people sacrificed were Aztecs. But most of the people they sacrificed to keep their gods happy were
people captured from neighboring tribes. This did not make them popular with their neighbors!
Each time the Aztecs tried to settle down and build a city of their own, other tribes in the area would band
together to chase them away. No one wanted the Aztecs for a neighbor. The Aztecs were very sad about
this. They did so want a city of their own.
According to legend, one day, the Aztecs were magically visited by their main god, the god of sun and war.
He promised his people that they would have a city of their own some day, but they had to seek a specific
and magically special place to build it. To find this special place, they were to look for an eagle, perched on
a cactus, holding a snake.
"Not only that, but listen well," their main god told them. "When you find the magical place of the eagle,
snake, and cactus, you are not to make war with your neighbors. You are to settle down peacefully until you
gain strength, and use this peaceful time to build a glorious Aztec city, a city of your own, in honor of me."
For the next 200 years, the Aztecs wandered in the Valley of Mexico. They never doubted their main god.
They never gave up. They were always on the lookout for an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake in
his mouth.
One morning, an Aztec priest was standing on the swampy shore of Lake Texcoco. He yawned and looked
out across the lake. He could not believe his eyes. On one of the many small islands that dotted the lake,
he saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, with a snake wiggling in its mouth.
The Aztecs had found their home at last. As the people gathered and stared in wonder, the cactus grew into
a comfy island. It was on that island that the Aztecs founded their civilization. They named the island
Tenochtitlan, "the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus".
When the Aztecs settled at "The Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus", they tried very hard to get
along with their neighbors as their main god had instructed them to do. They did not go to war.
They did not capture people to feed to their many gods. Instead, they used their own people.
It was an honor to be sacrificed. Everyone knew that.
In a spirit of goodwill, the Aztec emperor sent a messenger to a nearby tribe. The chief of the
tribe had been a bit unfriendly so far. The emperor was hoping that his message might help to
make a new friend. The emperor's message was an invitation. He invited the chief's daughter
to journey to the Aztec capital to meet his son.
When the princess arrived at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, she brought with her many
servants and attendants, along with a gorgeous wedding dress and presents for her new family.
She spent a most enjoyable evening with the emperor and his handsome son.
A few days later, when her father arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan, he fully expected to
attend a wedding. Imagine his surprise when he learned that his daughter had been sacrificed
with great ceremony, along with her many attendants and slaves. It was the highest honor the
Aztecs could pay.
Broken hearted, the chief hurried home to his people. That very day, he sent his army to wage
war on the horrible Aztecs. The Aztecs won. They went on to conquer tribe after tribe in the
valley. Each conquered tribe had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of food, clothing,
jewels, and of course, captives to feed the hungry gods. That made the Aztecs very happy and
very rich.
Truly, the Aztecs were not worried that their main god might be angry with them for going to
war a little sooner than originally planned. After all, they had tried to get along. And just as
soon as they had conquered all the people in the valley, they would live in peace with their
neighbors, exactly as their god had told them to do. Surely their main god would agree!
As the Aztec population grew, more food
was needed. To solve this problem,
Aztec engineers created “floating”
gardens. First, they built a series of
rafts and anchored each to the lakebed.
Vegetation and reeds were piled on top
of a raft. Then, they piled on enough
dirt to be able to grow crops.
To further secure the floating gardens,
mud retaining walls were built up around
the raft to hold it in place. These also
acted as walkways that connected the
many floating gardens of the Aztec
capital city of Tenochtitlan.
The floating gardens were quite
successful. The Aztecs used the gardens
to grow chili peppers, squash, corn,
tomatoes, and beans.
The Aztecs created more land by filling
in marshlands and swamps. They created
even more by designing dikes to hold
back the water.
Around 1400 AD, the Aztec
government began conquering
neighboring tribes. The Aztec
population had grown. They needed
many things to manage their growing
population. They needed new cities to
house their population. They needed
new lands to feed their population.
They needed new captives to feed
their hungry gods. Schools needed to
be run. Storehouses needed to be
filled. Temples needed to be built.
The government had its hands full
trying to satisfy all these needs.
War was the answer. When the Aztecs conquered a tribe, they demanded tribute
in the form of food, clothing, precious stones, building supplies, and captives.
The first four the Aztecs kept for themselves. The last they gave to their gods.
Other tribes hated and feared the Aztecs. Sometimes, they simply ran away in
fear rather than fight.
The Emperor and Palace
The Aztecs had an emperor, a king who ruled over all the people. The
emperor lived in the imperial palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. The
palace was huge. It even had its own zoo. The ground floor of the palace
housed government offices and the shops of the most talented craftsman in
the Aztec empire.
City-States: As the Aztec empire grew, under the direction of government
officials, Aztec engineers built many fine cities. A noble family controlled each
city. Although the noble family was supposed to assist the emperor, the truth is
that each noble family pretty much ran things in their own city the way they
wanted. Thus, the Aztecs, like the Mayas, were governed by city-states.
Crime and Punishment
With their own people, the Aztec rulers were quite severe. Aztec courts decided
on the punishment those who broke the law would receive. Drunkenness was the
worse crime. The punishment for being drunk was death. Thieves were put to
death. Laws were tough, and they were written down. Codices warned of the
punishment you would receive for breaking the law.

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