How Marrying a Princess Built Aztec Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs, once a barbaric, wandering group, found their home on islets in the Texcoco lagoon around 1370 AD. Their journey to greatness, propelled by prophecy, political maneuvering, and the pursuit of refuge, eventually led to the rise of Tenochtitlan.

How Marrying a Princess Built Aztec Tenochtitlan
Image of the Tenochtitlan's majestic ruins, once home to the wandering Aztecs. Credit: INAH

In the annals of history, there are tales of civilizations rising from the ashes, emerging from the shadows of obscurity, and soaring to great heights. Yet, the story of the Aztecs, who arrived on the scene in 1215 AD, is not your typical Cinderella story. Far from it! Their journey to greatness was marked by barbarian roots, bloody sacrifices, and a lot of wandering.

Imagine, if you will, a ragtag group of predatory and pugnacious individuals, led by the bloodthirsty priests of Huitzilopochtli, their fearsome god. These were the Aztecs, and as you might guess, they weren't exactly welcome in the cities dotting the valley. The locals considered them to be false and treacherous – not the kind of neighbors you'd invite over for a cup of cocoa.

The Aztecs, a group with no fixed abode, found themselves in a perpetual game of musical chairs. One moment they were in Tipazán, known as the “site of the snakes,” and the next, they were atop Chapultepec, or the “mount of the langostas” (chapulin in Nahuatl). However, the xaltonecas and the culhúas soon gave them the boot, leaving the Aztecs with no choice but to seek refuge on islets near the western coast of the lagoon of Texcoco. It was a bit like a reality show, but without the comfy couches and voting-off ceremonies.

The lagoon islet life suited the Aztecs just fine, or so they thought. In what can only be described as a Toltec inheritance makeover, they embraced urban living. The date of their “grand” relocation varies depending on whom you ask, with some suggesting it happened in 1325 AD and others claiming 1370 AD was the real deal. The truth is, nobody can seem to agree, but that's part of what makes their story so fascinating.

The Aztecs decided to christen their newfound home “Tenochtitlan.” The name's origin is another point of contention. Some say it was named after their leader, Tenoch, while others insist it meant “nochtli,” the Nopal cactus, on “tetl,” the stone. The priests had prophesized the end of their journey once they found an eagle perched on a nopal, clutching a serpent in its beak. It's like they got the ultimate bingo card and decided to settle down for good.

But, and here's where the plot thickens, the Aztecs didn't just decide to move to these islets on a whim. They were running from something. Specifically, they were running from the furious Culhua people. You see, the Aztecs had done something that wouldn't exactly win them the “Neighbor of the Year” award – they had sacrificed the daughter of the Culhua chief. As you can imagine, that didn't go over well, and a hasty escape was in order.

A  mural depicting the Aztec's migration and the prophecy of the eagle and the serpent.
A mural depicting the Aztec's migration and the prophecy of the eagle and the serpent.

Of course, a people as historically significant as the Aztecs couldn't just set up shop without protection. They cleverly alternated their allegiance between the lords of Azca-Potzalco and Culhuacan, a.k.a. the Tecpanecas and Culhúas. These lords had the upper hand in the valley, and the Aztecs knew how to play their cards right.

As the Toltec dynasty's prestige loomed large in the valley, the Aztecs, in a stroke of political genius, asked the lord of Culhuacán for one of his offspring to become their chief. It was like asking for the keys to the kingdom, or in this case, the islets. Acamapichtli was the chosen one, and he became the first tlatoani, which roughly translates to “the one who speaks or gives orders” of Tenochtitlan.

With Huitzilihuitl succeeding Acamapichtli, Tenochtitlan flourished over the next two decades. The city grew in population and influence, while the Aztecs enjoyed a harmonious relationship with their neighbors. Perhaps this was because Huitzilihuitl married a Tecpanec princess, sealing the deal with Azcapotzalco.

And thus, the fate of Tenochtitlan became irrevocably intertwined with that of Azcapotzalco. The story of the Aztecs is not your run-of-the-mill history lesson, but that's what makes it fascinating. From the depths of obscurity, they ascended to become a force to be reckoned with, leaving an indelible mark on the pages of history.

So next time you're exploring the vibrant streets of Mexico City or gazing at the ruins of Tenochtitlan, remember that this mighty civilization was once a band of wandering misfits who managed to rise against all odds.