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How did the Aztec rise to power over other cultures?

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May 11, 2011 7:14PM

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The Valley of Mexico is part of the central highlands and lies at an altitude of about a mile and a half. At the low point of the Valley there is a large lake that made human life sustainable in the generally dry country. Long before the Aztecs came to the Valley of Mexico the land had seen the rise and decline of a number of other tribal groups. One of these groups built the great city of Teotihuacán. From Teotihuacán its people built an empire. This was during the period of the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D. About 600 A.D. the empire of Teotihuacán was overthrown. Centuries later another empire was created by the people of the city of Tollan (Tula), known as the Toltecs. Their empire lasted from about the tenth to the twelfth century. Near the end of the twelfth century Tula was captured and burned by its enemies. The Aztecs did not come to the Valley of Mexico until the fourteenth century.

Despite the rise and fall of empires there was a continuity of culture in the Valley of Mexico. Agriculture and other technologies were passed down from generation to generation. A religion evolved as each dominant group absorbed the gods and rituals of their predecessors. The temples often survived the collapse of an empire. The pyramidal temples of Teotihuacán were honored and utilized by the Aztecs seven centuries after the demise of the Teotihuacán empire.

Many gods survived in the culture of the Valley of Mexico but one particular one is of special historical interest, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. Depictions of Quetzalcoatl are found in Teotihuacán. The Toltecs also worshipped Quetzalcoatl and one king was identified with Quetzalcoatl. That king, personifying Quetzalcoatl, was apparently driven from power and journeyed with his supporters to the Gulf Coast sailed away vowing to return one day to claim his kingdom. That legend survived several centuries and was a part of the culture of the Aztecs when Cortez and his conquistadores appeared on that same coast.

The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico as homeless wanderers about 1300 A.D. They had to eak out a precarious existence by allying themselves with more powerful tribes in the area. They finally settled on a marshy island in the Lake. The Aztecs were successful in retaining this site in part because it was generally an undesirable location and in part it was at an intertice of local empires. Any tribal group considering capturing the Aztecs and their territory risked provoking their more powerful neighbors into a major war.

So the Aztecs were left to build their island and a city upon it. They literally built the island in the sense that they extended the island. They did this by driving stakes into the lake bed around an area and lashing the stakes together then filling the enclosure with mud dredged up from the lake bed. The space between the enclosures then served as canals which facilitated the transport of material within the city. The city of Venice was created by a similar process of refugees settling on the sandbar at the mouth of the Po River.

The Aztecs called their city Tenochtitlán after a name the Aztecs used for themselves, Tenochca. The other name they used for themselves was Mexica. They did not call themselves Aztecs.

The founding date of Tenochtitlán was 1325 A.D. The Aztecs of this early Tenochtitlán had accepted the overlordship of the Tepanecs of the city of Azcapotzalco. The Tepanecs were expansionists and defeated the rival empire of Texcoco, but over-reaching leaders of the Tepanecs brought into existence a coalition of peoples who defeated the Tepanecs and restored Texcoco. That coalition included the Tlaxcalans from outside the Valley, a people who were later the crucial allies of Cortez. From the political turmoil following the collapse of Tepanec power the Aztecs emerged as an independent force. They acquired some territory on the shore of the Lake and formed an alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopan, the Triple Alliance. The terms of the Triple Alliance called for the division of any spoils of war into five parts, two parts of which would go to Tenochtitlán, two parts to Texcoco and one part to Tlacopan.