Aztec Civilisation

Having migrated from present-day USA, the Aztecs were great architects and artisans, known for ritual sacrifices, who fell to Spanish hands.

Somewhere around 1345, a large group of hunter-gatherers from Aztlan, then located in present-day United States of America, moved south into Mesoamerica and settled there, succeeding the Toltecs civilisation. The Aztecs were known for trade and agriculture, art and architecture and also for their lifestyle and mode of worship.

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Priya Narayan

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BUILDING THE EMPIRE

After settling down, the Aztec civilisation expanded into a vast empire with a strong military which recruited men from allies, from conquered states and from elite warrior groups such as Eagle and Jaguar, claiming the territory around them and taking the captives back to their capital of Tenochtitlan for sacrificial purposes.

The warriors wore armour made of padded cotton and carried a wooden shield for protection. The elite warriors, to signify their rank, even wore feathered and animal skin costumes and striking headgear. The primary weapons were sword-clubs, spears, darts and bow and arrows. To keep the conquered territories together, the Aztecs appointed officials and the military. They also conducted inter-marriages and ceremonies, built grand monuments and crafted fine artwork. Within Aztec society, people were divided into the local rulers (teteuhctin), the nobles (pipiltin), the commoners (macehualtin), the serfs (mayeque) and the slaves (tlacohtin).

THE FALL

Despite all its grandeur, the empire fell to Spanish invaders led by Hernan Cortes in 1521. The Spanish destroyed Aztec artefacts in order to loot their gold and silver and plundered their wealth. What little remains of the empire are the great pyramid mounds of the temples at various locations. However, it is believed that many people in present-day Mexico can still trace their ancestry back to the Aztec civilisation.

HUMAN SACRIFICE

Religious sacrifice was an important part of the Aztec empire, which regularly offered to the hundreds of gods and goddesses they believed in. Many of the sacrifices were of war prisoners and children because the Aztecs believed that human blood gave strength to the gods and appeased them when they were angry. For this purpose they also built large temples. Ceremonies conducted for coronations and for the harvesting season too included human sacrifice. Hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificed each year in ceremonies.

TRADE AND ART

Trade was another important aspect with the empire which imported and exported large amounts of precious gems, cotton, tobacco, pottery, weapons, maize, beans and even slaves. Gold was abundant in the Aztec empire and was often used in art and clothing. It was the huge supply of gold that led the Spanish to Mexico eventually resulting in the decline of the empire.
It was partly because of trade that a variety of materials became available to the Aztec artisans to produce fine art using gold, silver, amethyst and even exotic feathers. Turquoise was another important stone which when used in mosaics created fantastic art work such as the mask of Xuihtecuhtli. Other forms of metal work, wood carving and sculptures depicted animals, plants and gods especially those related to fertility and agriculture.

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ARCHITECTURE

In addition to art, the Aztecs were also known for their elegant yet bold architecture especially found in their capital city of Tenochtitlan. Builders used stones, chisels and blades as tools and a colourful volcanic stone called tezontle to form a strong base for their structures which were otherwise susceptible to sinking because of the damp climate. For the main structures, they generally used rubble and limestone. Their buildings often depicted symbols and figures such as an eagle (to represent the sun and warriors), serpents (to represent water or fire) and conch shells (to represent fertility).

They constructed grand temples, pyramids and shrines to be closer to their gods. The temples consisted of a block for sacrifices and were also decorated with paint and carefully-carved statues on the inside. One of the largest and most famous Aztec temples is the Templo Mayor (the great temple) in present-day Mexico City. They also built palaces for the emperor. These multi-storeyed palaces consisted of large courtyards. The interiors were decorated with gold panels, paintings and carvings. There was a reception area for guests, a meeting room with the throne, and a storage room for gifts given to the emperor in addition to his own extravagant room. They also built ball courts for sports, floating gardens and a ceremonial plaza surrounding the great temple.

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5 FUN AZTEC FACTS

1. The Aztecs had mandatory schooling for boys and girls. While boys were taught subjects like history, astronomy and art, girls were taught domestic duties such as cooking and weaving.
2. They had an advanced system for writing and record-keeping in which they used charcoal to write on paper made of bark or deerskin. They even wrote poetry.
3. The Aztecs had interesting burial rituals in which they would bury the dead in or around their house and often even kill a dog and bury it along with the person to guide the person in the afterlife.
4. They had two calendars – one was a 365-day calendar called xiuhpohualli which followed the solar year and the other was a 260-day calendar called tonalpohualli which mentioned their rituals.
5. The Aztecs never actually called themselves ‘Aztecs’. It was a name given to them by the Spanish invaders.

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