Tenochtitlan: how the capital of the Mexica empire was built and developed

Hernán Cortés had to decide between destroying Tenochtitlan or building something new in the European style. This is what he did.

Tenochtitlan: how the capital of the Mexica empire was built and developed
Tenochtitlan: how the capital of the Mexica empire. Image: Wikipedia

On March 14, 1519, Hernán Cortés and his troops arrived in the imposing city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica empire, whose architecture and urbanism made them doubt whether they should maintain their majestic buildings and wide canals, or erect a new city in its purest form European style.

As described in the 16th-century chronicles prepared by Spanish friars and military, the territory that today occupies part of Mexico City was perceived as the Venice of America, in which the conquerors found cult buildings up to 40 meters high, dimensions that few constructions of the world reached at that time. It had to be hard to decide between destroying it or doing something new. Hernán Cortés lived a conflict.

Despite this, Spaniards soon realized that a population that based its urbanistic organization on temples and sacred constructions and that relegated the habitable spaces to a second plane could not fulfill the requirements of a European city. They could have thought the same about the territory where the Mexicas decided to settle in 1325: a small, inhospitable islet that had not been inhabited in centuries surrounded by lakes and wetlands. Quite contrary to what Europeans could imagine as the origin of an empire.

However, that is precisely what the Mexicas saw, a prophetic place where they can build a city in their way. What they saw was that conception of having found the place, the prophecy. And, since they were skilled, they find how to make the islet habitable. From its arrival until the entrance of the Spaniards, in 200 years the Mexicas built a very developed Tenochtitlan, a very interesting urbanistic site.

The Mexicas enjoyed urban discipline: the city was divided into four parts, each with its ceremonial center, as well as the great main temple at the junction of the two great north-south and east-west axes. They also had ditches and a sophisticated water control system. The inhabitants of the city had developed great mastery of the lakes surrounding the islet, some were saltwater and freshwater, so they had to get saltwater does not to flood the city while channeling the drinking water for human consumption. They had great hydraulic engineering, very adapted to the natural environment; They were the first sustainable urbanists.

It was precisely this development, one of those that the Spanish conquistadors tried to perpetuate, along with the reticular urban layout, based on the cosmogony, or the division into four parts. They take advantage of the above and experiment with a renaissance urban layout more adapted to European lifestyles, with patios, rooms, and more massive construction.