Arts Curriculum

The Aztec Empire

October 15, 2004 – February 13, 2005

“With such wonderful sights to gaze on we did not know what to say, or if this was real that we saw before our eyes.” –Bernal Diaz, a 26-year-old conquistador (Spanish conqueror), who fought in Cortés’s army.


The Aztecs were a mighty civilization that flourished in Central America between 1325 and 1521, when they were forced to surrender to an invading Spanish army led by Hernán Cortés. From their magnificent capital, Tenochtitlan, they governed a vast empiresacrifice that stretched from present-day Mexico to Guatemala, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. They are often remembered as a fierce and bloodthirsty race, aggressive in battle and engaging in human to appease their various gods. However, as this exhibition shows, the Aztecs were also extremely civilized and sophisticated. They produced highly skilled and sensitive art, conceived perhaps the most advanced calendar of their time, and built extraordinary temples in clean and well-organized cities.

Themes

Mexican Bestiary
Mexican Bestiary
Noble Life and Everyday Life
Noble Life and Everyday Life
Gods and Rituals
Gods and Rituals
Manuscripts and Calendars
Manuscripts and Calendars
Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs
Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs
The Tarascan Empire
The Tarascan Empire
The Twilight of the Empire
The Twilight of the Empire

Exhibition Overview

The Aztecs, or Mexica(as they called themselves and are referred to by historians), migrated through Mexico in search of land to settle. According to the myth, the Aztecs’ tribal leader, Huitzilopochtli, foretold that his people should settle where they saw an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its beak. After a long journey, the Aztecs arrived at a lake, called Lake Tetzcoco, in Mexico’s central highland basin. In the middle of the lake was an island, and on this island they saw the strange sight that Huitzilopochtli had predicted.

Having arrived at their promised land, the Aztecs claimed the islandand its surrounding fertile land, and, in 1325, founded a city they named Tenochtitlan, “the place of the stone cactus.” They built a temple in the center of the city (later called the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, by the Spanish), which they dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, their patron god. In time, Tenochtitlan would grow to become a beautiful and prosperous city of about 250,000 inhabitants, the heart of a vast Aztec empire. When the Spanish arrived to conquer the Aztecs in 1519, they were awestruck by the great pyramids towering over the sacred center, the dazzling palaces, and colorful markets selling a bewildering variety of food and luxuries.

Fearless warriors and pragmatic builders, the Aztecs created anempire during the 15th century that was surpassed in size in the Americas only by that of the Incas in Peru. As early texts and modern archaeology continue to reveal, beyond their conquests, there were many positive achievements:

• the formation of a highly specialized and stratified society and an imperial administration

• the expansion of a trading network as well as a tribute

system

• the development and maintenance of a sophisticated agricultural economy, carefully adjusted to the ecology

• and the creation of an intellectual and religious outlook that held society to be an integral part of the cosmos.

The yearly round of rites and ceremonies in the cities of Tenochtitlanand neighboring Tetzcoco, and their symbolic art and architecture, gave expression to an awareness of the interdependence of nature and humanity.

When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs they destroyed much of Tenochtitlanand rebuilt it as Mexico City, the capital of modern-day Mexico. The legacy of the Aztecs remains, however, in the form of archaeological ruins such as the Templo Mayor, the heart of Aztec religious activity and the symbolic center of the empire.

Today’s Mexicans are very proud of their Aztec past and continue toremember the traditions and practice the art forms of their ancestors. More than two million people still speak the indigenous language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. However, perhaps the most poignant reminder of the Aztecs is the Mexican national flag, which features the legendary eagle, cactus, and snake emblem of the long-buried heart of the mighty Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan.