Who were the Aztec, really? It’s complicated.

Before their defeat by the Spanish in 1521, the triple alliance ruled Mesoamerica through complex trade networks—and warfare.

The Mexica priest Cuauhtlequetzqui points out the place where his people should found their city in around 1325. The prickly pear evokes the story that the name Tenochtitlan means “place among the prickly pears.” Mexican artist José María Jara painted the scene in 1889. National Museum of Art, Mexico City.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAGLI ORTI/AURIMAGES

Following the fall of Tenochtitlan, an Aztec poet composed a searing account of the capture of the capital city. Written in the Nahuatl language, using the Latin alphabet of the Spanish invaders, it is the earliest native account of the sufferings of the Aztec people and their defeat 500 years ago in 1521: Our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead. The shields of our warriors could not save it. We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses; we have eaten lizards, rats and worms…

Today what remains of Tenochtitlan lies underneath Mexico’s thriving capital, Mexico City, one of the most populous cities in the world. Surrounded by modern architecture, the archaeological site of Templo Mayor is revealing more and more about the Aztec city and its inhabitants—a reminder of the people and culture who were subdued and absorbed by the colony of New Spain.

Many European chroniclers focused attention on the conquistador Hernán Cortés, but renewed focus on the events of 1521 is placing more attention on the Aztec themselves. What has unfolded is a compelling, complex story of how an alliance among Mesoamerican city-states quickly rose to power, only to lose it.

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