In 1315, the Aztecs were forced to flee their home in the Valley of Mexico, and legend has it the god Huitzlipochtli told them to build their new civilization where they found an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus with a snake in its talons. After an immense search, they found the sacred scene on an island in Lake Texcoco. Using the complex math, science and engineering skills developed in their society (many of which have been lost due to the Spanish conquistadors decimating written records of Aztec culture), they built a city on the lake and named it Tenochtitlan. Today, we call it Mexico City.
The nearly 10 square kilometre city was connected to the mainland by causeways and bridges that could be retracted in defence of an attack. Travel around the city worked by an interlaced network of canals, and the residents travelled by canoe.
In the mid-1400s, the Aztecs redirected a mountain stream into Tenochtitlan, ensuring the water surrounding the city was clear and pushing away the brackish water of Lake Texcoco. They also built two 4 kilometre-long terracotta aqueducts from the springs at Chapultepec, ensuring the residents had abundant clean water for drinking and bathing.
Two brothers, Tlacaelel and Montezuma I, ruled the Aztec empire from 1440. While Montezuma I concentrated on construction and expansion of the civilization, bloodthirsty Tlacaelel ordered the desecration of the Aztec’s true historical documentation and commissioned a new one depicting the culture so grandiose it verged on mythological. He also instigated trained warriors and ritual sacrifices, claiming they were necessary to continue the movement of the sun.
Although some facets of the culture appear cruel, the empire spread far beyond even the physical borders of its states; when the Aztecs conquered other nations, the conquered native rulers were typically reinstated to govern, provided tributes were made regularly to the Aztec emperors.
The standard currency was cacao beans, harvested and imported from lowland farming areas. Markets occurred weekly in smaller cities, and daily in larger areas, including Tenochtitlan. Education was mandatory and society valued poetry and the arts as much as it did science, astronomy, theology and architecture.
The vast, incredible achievements of this society were nearly tangible as I travelled down a canal in the old city of Tenochtitlan, marvelling at the rich soil and crops still cultivated there, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Mexic-OH! fact The fabled scene of an eagle on a cactus clutching a snake is depicted on the Mexican flag.
Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita premieres on Thursday 13 Feb at 7.30pm on SBS ONE.