The Valley Of Mexico And Aztec History.

"For over three thousand years the Valley of Mexico has been an area of human habitation and civilisation. Pre-hispanic Mesoamerican culture was a "truly advanced culture capable of producing writing, great works of art, complex mathematics, calendrics and monumental architecture.

Mexico's pre-hispanic societies were constantly menaced by natural phenomena: earthquakes, famines, droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions. These conditions conspired to give the people of Mexico a unique view of creation and life. Religion became the manifestation of each society's desire to give order and reason to natural occurrences otherwise unexplainable.

Religion in turn spawned evocative and wondrous exprexxions in art and architecture that were developed to exalt the natural world.

A rich pantheon of gods was created to serve as guides in every phase of life. This collection of holy beings was crowded with deities for every function, from the rising of the sun to the appearance of certain planets, to planting and sowing, to birth and death. All created things were explained or rationalised by strict obedience to religious dogma. These societies were largely theocratic in structure. Authority rested with an elite class of high-priest rulers. Nonetheless, strong family and kinship bonds constituted the basis of most cultures, as is true even today. The Pre-Colombian cultures of Mexico are generally broken into three periods:

PRE-CLASSIC: 2000 b.c to 200 a.d

Here the main patterns of Mexican civilization were formulated, including stone architecture, technology (weaving, pottery, stone and wood-carving), social differentiation, hieroglyphic writing, and calendrics, the establishment of trade and inter-regional commercial dealings.

Thanks to improved agricultural methods, rapid population increase was possible, as rural villages turned into towns. Ceremonial centers began to emerge which also served as trade and commercial centers.

Best examples of this period are found at the sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes (State of Veracruz) and Cuicuilo (Mexico City).

CLASSIC: 200 a.d to 900 a.d

This period witnessed a transition from formative rural cultures towards more urbanized centers of innovation and political hegemony. This was a period of monumental architecture, advanced urban planning, and awesome intellectual achievement.

It was also the "golden age" for artistic expression. Well organized trade patterns and a highly stratified, theocratic society gave rulers large empires from which to extract resources and labor.

Best examples of this period are found at the sites of Teotihuacan, Cholula (Central Plateau), EI Tajin (State of Veracruz), Monte Alban (Oaxaca), Tikal (Guatemala), Palenque, Bonampak (Chiapas), Dzibilchaltun, Labna, Kabah and Sayil, Chichen Itza, Uxmal (Yucatan Peninsula).

POST-CLASSIC: 900 a.d. to 1521 a.d.

The period was marked by the evolution of many societies from theocratic to militaristic rule. There were great changes in several important ceremonial centers (Cholula, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan), some of which ceased to exist, while others flourished. As some cities fell into decline, nearby there were new centers that arose and took their place.

This period was dominated by the great Aztec Empire, and a resurgence of the Mayan civilization near Chichen Itxa and Uxmal.

Best examples of this period are found at the sites of Xochicalco (State of Morelos), Tula (State of Hidalgo), Tenayuca, and Tenochtitlan (Central Plateau), Yagul and Mitla (Oaxaca), Chichten Itza, Tulum and Coba (Yucatan Peninsula).


There were five major civilisations in the history of Mexico:

The Olmecs

The Olmecs, Mexico's first established culture, developed in the coastal states of Veracruz and Tabasco. This was a particularly influential culture, since subsequent groups borrowed heavily from the Olmec's religious, architectural and artistic traditions.

Despite the absence of a local supply of stone, they developed massive buildings (La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes). They also created an advanced calendar that included the concept of zero. This culture is particularly mysterious, since we know little about its origin, political structure, or reason for disappearance. The Olmec period is believed to be 1200 B.C. until 200 B.C.


First appearing in about 1200 B.C. this culture developed in three distinct periods, each corresponding to a different region of Central America and Mexico. The Mayan are most noted for their complex systems of mathematics and astrology, prolific city-building and Baroque architecture. By 1400 A.D. the Mayan state had splintered and almost disappeared, leaving an incredible collection of ceremonial centers and ancient cities.


First appearing in the valley of Oaxaca in around 900 B.C. the Zapotecs were great city builders and artisans who created notable temples, burial chambers, pottery, and metal work. The Mixtec (pronounced "MISH-tec") culture conquered the Zapotecs and developed around Mitla and Yagul. They revived Monte Alban, though it was only used as a site for burial tombs. By the early 1400's the Mixtecs became vassals of the mighty Aztec empire. These two cultures continue their existence today in the State of Oaxaca, which is inhabited by some 2 million of their descendants.


These mighty warriors occupied the northern reaches of the Valley of Mexico from around 950-1300 a.d. They built one of Mexico's most impressive cities (Tula), were master craftsmen, and strongly influenced later Mayan and Aztec cultures. This culture is believed by some to have developed from the magnificent Teotihuacan culture of Central Mexico.

The Aztecs.

This civilisation dominated Mexico for nearly 200 years (1345-1521) and was flourishing when Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. The aztecs used an elaborate system of taxing and patronage to subjugate an enormous empire that stretched well into Central America.

They were master builders and imitators of Mexico's previous cultures. They borrowed heavily from their Olmec, Toltec and Mayan predecessors to develop a complex linguistic, religious, artistic, architectural and military heritage.

The mighty empire came to a sudden and tragic end in 1521, though much of its influence is still evident today in the culture of the Central Plateau region.


The Spanish.

The Spanish Conquest.

The Aztec civilization flourished, in all of its bloody glory, until the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. In April of that year Hernán CortŽs landed at what is now La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The Spaniards began their trek inward, on November 8, 1519 gained their first view of magnificent Tenochtitlán.

Bernal Diáz del Castillo gives us his first impression of Tenochtitlán: During the morning, we arrived at a broad causeway and continued our march toward Iztapalapa, and when we saw so many cities and villages built into the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell us of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues and building arising from the water and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not in a dream. (Castillo 190-91)
The history of the interaction between the Spanish and Aztecs is one of misunderstanding. Upon the arrival of CortŽs at Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma initiated an exchange of 'gifts.' However, these 'gifts' were actually statements of Aztec dominance: gestures of wealth and unmatchable generosity made glorious by the humility of their giving. CortŽs, however, took these as offers of submission, or perhaps attempts of bribery. "To the next flourish-- a golden disk as big as a cartwheel, a silver one even bigger, golden ornaments, crests of fine plumes -- the Spanish leader riposted with three Holland shirts and a Florentine cup" (Clendinnen 269). CortŽs eventually seized Moctezuma as a hostage and puppet, and the Aztecs, outraged, drove the Spaniards from Tenochtitlán with terrible losses. Moctezuma was killed during this forced exodus. The Aztecs thought themselves victorious, free of the European scourge; then, a more subtle and even deadlier result of the Spanish occupation ensued: smallpox. Eventually the Spaniards laid siege to Tenochtitlán, which lasted for four months. During the siege, CortŽs saw, to his dismay, the valuable prize he had promised his king reduced to rubble. When Tenochtitlán finally fell, Aztec women and boys were branded as possessions, Aztec men were forced to raise a new Spanish city on the ruins on the once-glorious Tenochtitlán, and a special fate was reserved for the priests: they were torn apart by dogs (Clendinnen 273). The new Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, promised honor in defeat by CortŽs, was tortured. When Cuauhtemoc would not reveal the location of the Spanish treasure lost after the first expulsion from Tenochtitlán, he was hanged. Thus, the downfall of Aztec society was assured.

Spanish Colonial Domination: 1521-1810.

After the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1521, Spain embarked on a period of exploration and conquest to consolidate its control of the rest of Mesoamerica. Millions of natives fell victim to western disease, for which they had no resistance.

Spain and the Catholic church imposed their authority to create an extractive economy that reflected many of the worst features of colonialism and religious authoritarianism (including the Inquisition). Spain and its European creditors derived tremendous wealth from their Indian work force, which worked on enormous agricultural estates and huge mining operations. Colonial society was broken into a tight caste system reminiscent of European feudalism."(