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Legends say the Aztecs came from northern Mexico. In 1168, on the instructions of their god Huitzilopochtli, they began to migrate. Perching on a cactus, an eagle ate a snake. To the Aztecs, this omen marked the place where they were to settle. So, in 1325, they founded the city of Tenochtitlan in the valley of Mexico; less than 200 years later, their empire of sprawling towns stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ruled by the god-Emperor Montezuma, the very hard-working Aztecs enjoyed healthy trade, magnificent architecture, and complex feats of engineering such as aqueducts, canals and causeways (raised roads). Then, in 1519, the Aztec world was suddenly destroyed by strangers from a distant land.

In 1325, the first settlers began the Aztec empire as an island community in Lake Texcoco. Land was scarce, so farmers drained lakeside marshes and floated large baskets full of earth into the marshland to build platform-mounted fields called chinampas for growing crops like corn. Then they planted trees to keep the artificial plots in place. Active volcanoes fringed the lake basin. In addition to planting corn, they hunted for fish and birds and bred turkeys. They made a chocolate drink from cocoa beans, also using the beans as money. In addition, they grew chilis, tomatoes, peanuts, avocados, limes, pineapples, peppers, sunflower seeds, and beans. None of these were known in Europe until they were taken back by explorers in the 16th century. Cocoa gradually became a popular drink in Europe.

The Aztecs had not discovered the wheel, and they had no pack animals, so boats were vital for transport. Members of the Aztec royal family were carried round on litters. No one was allowed to look at the emperor and if they did they were risking death. The Aztecs used a pictographic code to communicate. The pictographs were painted on strops of paper (codex) made from birch bark, and the strips of paper were assembled into books. Aztec farmers needed to know when to plant and harvest. They divided a 365-day year into 18 months of 20 days, and a further five days which were very unlucky. The calendars were carved in circular stones, which had a picture for every day.

Tenochtitlan's first ruler was a priest-king called Tenoch, who is thought to have died in about 1370. To protect their new settlement from attack, the Aztecs forged alliances with powerful leaders of local warring tribes, sometimes offering their services as mercenaries. In 1426 the Aztec king, Itzcoatl, formed an alliance with the two adjacent states of Texcoco and Tlacopan and overthrew their powerful neighbours the Tapanecs. Before long the Aztecs were rulers of a vast empire. They were great traders and operated a network of trade caravans controlled by a merchants' guild, the 'pochteca'. The temple at Tenochtitlan was the absolute centre of the empire and a holy place. After a military campaign, as many as 20,000 sacrifices might be made there in one day. By 1500 this settlement had grown into a mighty city, Tenochtitlan (place of the cactus). The site had over 250,000 inhabitants and was divided into four quarters, within which were separate districts for each family group, and its armies ruled an area as big as Great Britain with five million inhabitants. While few of these were Aztec, they all had to pay taxes (called tribute) to the capital in the form of household goods, food such as corn, beans and cocoa, or trinkets and gold, silver and jade for the Aztec craft workers. Tenochtitlan teemed with people who came to worship, labour in craft workshops, or trade in the markets. Food merchants sold a favourite delicacy - slugs with avocado dip. Traders brought turquoise from the Pueblo Indians to the north of the Aztec empire, while from the south came brightly coloured feathers. The feathers were used to make elaborately decorated capes, fans, shields and headdresses.

Warrior knights were an important elite in Aztec society, and the jaguar and eagle knights, who wore jaguar pelts or eagle feathers, were among the most powerful. All boys had to serve in the army from the age of 17 to 22. Some stayed on longer than this, because even a peasant could rise to be an army commander if he tried hard enough. When they invaded a city, the main job of the Aztec warriors was to take prisoners for sacrifice to their gods. They captured thousands of young men, leaving the city too weak to fight. However, the Aztecs were then surrounded by peoples bent on revenge.

The Aztecs believed that they lived in the world of the 'Fifth Sun' and that one day this world would be destroyed. To postpone this evil day, their gods, and in particular the mighty sun god Huitzilopochtli, had to be kept content and fed daily. Aztecs believed that it was their sacred duty to provide the sun god with 'chalchiuhuatl', a precious form of nectar found in human blood. Without the blood they thought the whole universe would cease to function. To the Aztecs the human heart was the symbol of life itself, and Huitzilopochtli needed to be fed both blood and human hearts so he would not wreak his anger on the Aztec people. Feeding the sun was the warriors' business. Their continual conquest of neighbouring peoples in the search for more victims to feed their god was regarded as a quest of honour; they were empire building in the name of Huitzilopochtli, who was also the god of war. The Aztecs had several thousand priests and several different gods, including gods of wind and rain. They played the religious ball game of tlachtli. The players used their elbows, knees, and hips to hit a rubber ball.

The Emperor, Montezuma II, lived at the heart of Tenochtitlan in a 300-room palace adjoining the main place of worship, the Great Pyramid. From here he controlled the nobles and priests who ruled his empire. Priests were especially important, since the Aztec people worshipped sun gods, and believed that without the nourishment of human blood, the sun would stop shining. On top of huge stepped pyramids, priests killed their sacrifices by tearing open their chest with a stone knife and plucking out their heart. The bodies were fed to zoo animals. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, was one of the chief Aztec gods. He was worshipped for having brought civilization and education, and he prophesied that high winds would cause the destruction of the world. To mark one religious festival, priests stripped the skin from their victims and wore it like clothes for 20 days. When a comet appeared in the sky over Tenochtitlan, Aztec astrologers interpreted it as a sign of the turmoil to come.

In 1519, the enemy appeared in the form of Spanish soldiers led by Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), a Spanish soldier and explorer who came from Cuba to search for gold (in pursuit of the myth of 'El Dorado') and spread Christianity. They were determined to convert the people by persuasion or, failing that, by force. Indians who abandoned their old gods were usually burned to death.

When Cortes conquered the Tlaxcalan people, sworn enemies of the Aztecs, they joined his march to Tenochtitlan. As the army of 700 soldiers and 3000 Tlaxcalans approached the city, Aztec princes met them and led them to the main gates, where Montezuma was waiting to greet them. Cortes was amazed at the sight of the huge capital, with its palaces, temples, and wide streets. The poet Keats wrote of the wonderment felt by 'stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/He star'd at the Pacific... / Silent, upon a peak in Darien'. (In fact it was Vasco de Balboa, not Cortes, who was the first European to see the Pacific.) Montezuma and Cortes exchanged gifts of necklaces; the Spaniard's offering was made of glass beads, while the emperor's was pure gold. When he had heard descriptions of Cortes, Montezuma had mistaken the Spaniard for the god Quetzalcoatl, who was thought to have a pale, bearded face. The natives had never seen horses, so at first they thought the mounted Spaniards were half human, half beast. Cortes' native mistress Marina was his interpreter.

Despite this friendly welcome, the soldiers marched towards the capital, using steel weapons and firearms to defeat large native armies on the way. To make sure his troops would follow him, Cortes sank his own ships.

Montezuma knew these warriors could not be defeated in battle, so he was forced to treat them like gods while they plotted his downfall. In 1519 the Spanish took Montezuma hostage, making him a 'puppet' ruler under their control. They looted his treasure and built a Christian altar on one of the pyramids. When soldiers massacred scores of religious revellers, the Aztecs finally fought back. Montezuma tried to intervene, but his people stoned him. Soon after his stoning, Montezuma was found dead. No one knows if he died of his injuries, or the Spanish murdered him. In the fierce fighting that followed the emperor's death, Spanish soldiers captured the Great Pyramid and burned the sacred shrines at the top.

The Aztecs were after Cortes' blood. They organized a revolt in 1520, when Cortes was away. When he tried to escape, they blocked his way by removing the drawbridges from the gaps in the main causeway. Cortes' men responded by building a portable bridge, but local women collecting water spotted them and alerted warriors, who launched an attack. Aztec arrows killed hundreds of panicking Spaniards, but greed killed many more; laden with looted gold, they fell in the water and sank like stones.

Although Cortes survived, he lost half his own men and thousands of his native allies. Spanish soldiers taken prisoner were quickly sacrificed. The Aztecs put up a fierce fight despite the Spanish advantages of horses and guns. The Spanish called this the Noche Triste (night of sorrow). Fleeing to the coast, Cortes trained more natives and built 13 new ships. His men took these to Lake Texcoco in pieces, then assembled them. With both native and Spanish reinforcements, Cortes sailed across the lake. He and his men marched on the city of Tenochtitlan and slaughtered thousands of Aztecs.

The capital fell on 13 August 1521, and the rest of the empire soon followed. The Aztec empire became the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535, and later included parts of California, Arizona and New Mexico. Many people from Spain went to live in the new Spanish empire. The colonies were ruled by the Council of the Indies based in Spain. Many of the laws made for the colonies show that the Spanish government tried to make sure that the Native Americans were not ill-treated. But it was impossible to prevent the ruling Spaniards from treating them very cruelly. The Native Americans were forced to mine silver and to work as slaves.

The conquistadors and colonists were followed by Spanish missionaries. They destroyed the existing temples and idols and set up Roman Catholic churches in their place. They tried to force all the Indians to become Christians. In less than a century, European diseases, such as smallpox, and brutal torture, murder and slavery slashed the population so that 19 out of every 20 natives died. In 1519, the population of Mexico was 25 million, but had fallen to just over 1 million in 1600. The pride modern-day Mexicans feel for their Aztec past, however, is represented by the snake-eating eagle on their flag.

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