Mexico City is a massive sprawling metropolis founded on the ruins of the ancient Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. In its day, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world and was home to around 200,000 people.

The Spanish sought to erase the name and city of Tenochtitlan and replace it with their own. In that, they have largely succeeded. Next time one is in the historic center of Mexico City, try to imagine that it was once an island in a large lake and underneath the streets lays the once proud and massive city of Tenochtitlan.


Founding and History Of Tenochtitlan

According to the legend, the Aztecs (better called "Mexica people"), founded the city after leaving their homeland of Aztlan in accordance with the wishes of their god, Huitzilopochtli. The god instructed them to build the gleaming city where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake.

The legend goes that they saw this exact scene on an island in Lake Texcoco. The island was a defensible place to build a city - but also one that has proven an engineering nightmare (in the last 100 or so years, Mexico City has sunken by around 10 meters).

It was built on two islands but they merged and the area was enlarged using chinampas small, artificial islands created above the waterline. Over time their fledging city grew and was extended.

At its peak, Tenochtitlan grew to reach an area of over 13 square kilometers or 5 square miles. The city in the middle of the lake was connected to the mainland with a network of causeways that also doubled as dikes. They also separated freshwater from saltwater.

  • Size: 5 Square Miles
  • Population: Around 200,000

Related: 24 Weird Aztec Discoveries That Should Have Stayed Buried (And 1 We're Grateful For)

The Towering Templo Mayor

At the center was the massive temple area of Huitzilopochtli. This area contained temples for other gods as well as the palaces of the emperors and rulers. At the center of this magnificent city arose the massive "Templo Mayor" (Spanish for "Main Temple").

  • Templo Mayor: The Main Temple Of Tenochtitlan

Templo Mayor was the main temple of the people of Tenochtitlan and one of the few remains of the old city that can still be seen in Mexico City today. This huge pyramid dominated the Sacred Precinct.

The Aztecs called the temple "Huēyi Teōcalli" in their Nahuatl language. This massive monument served not one, but two gods - Huitzilopochtli the god of war, and Tlaloc the god of rain and agriculture. Each of these important gods had its own shrine at the top of the pyramid complete with separate staircases. The spire there was also dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.

  • Name: The Aztec Name Was "Huēyi Teōcalli"
  • Dedicated: It Was Dedicated To Both Huitzilopochtli (The God of War) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain and Agriculture)
  • Visit: One Can Visit the Ruins of Templo Mayor Today

If one had visited this temple when it was functioning one would have been greeted with scenes of bloodletting (offering one’s own blood) and human sacrifice.

  • Size: Approx. 100 x 80 Meters or 328 x 262 Feet

The temple that the Spanish saw was the latest of a long line of six temples having been built and rebuilt there since 1325.

  • Destroyed: It Was Destroyed By the Spanish in 1521 As They Built The Metropolitan Cathedral

The site of the Templo Mayor was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is open to the public today.

Related: 10 Aztec Structures And Sites You Can Visit In Mexico Today (5 Mayan)

Arrival Of the Spanish and Destruction

When the Spanish arrived, it was something of a young city in its prime. It is believed to have been founded in around 1325 AD making it not even 200 years old when the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Spanish were impressed with the beauty and layout of the city. The city was divided into four sectors (separated by four canals) and each includes its own services including craftsmen, weavers, potters, and religious precincts.

The glory days of the city of Tenochtitlan came to an abrupt end after the Spanish conquistadors and their allied tribes stormed the city (not all the tribes in the region liked the sometimes oppressive reign of the ruling Aztec tribe). The city fell on August 13, 1521, after 93 days of siege.

  • Fell: Tenochtitlan Fell On August 13, 1521

In the aftermath, Tenochtitlan was destroyed, looted, burned, and buried under Mexico City that rose on its ruins, while the lake was drained and Mexico City spread to fill its former basin.

Today any good Mexico City itinerary will include visiting the ruins of Templo Mayor. Templo Mayor is part of the larger Tlatelolco archaeological excavation site where one can see the remains of Tenochtitlan (including other lesser temples as well as palaces).

Next: This Historic Cathedral Just Could Be The Most Impressive Building In Mexico City