The Legacy of the Aztecs

The Aztecs have been the ori­gin of in­no­va­tion in mul­ti­ple spheres, and some of their dis­cov­er­ies and in­ven­tions are still used in the world to­day

Distinguished Magazine - - Contents - MADHUSUDHANAN SRIDARAN

An­cient Me­soamer­ica is a cul­ture steeped in mys­tique and poignant tragedy. How­ever, the legacy that its peo­ples have left be­hind stands tall to this day, as a proud and somber re­minder of this re­gion’s hey­day. The Aztecs have been the ori­gin of in­no­va­tion in mul­ti­ple spheres, and some of their dis­cov­er­ies and in­ven­tions are still used in the world to­day. How­ever, their defin­ing achieve­ments are un­doubt­edly their mag­nif­i­cent ar­chi­tec­ture, and agri­cul­tural in­no­va­tions.

Tenochti­t­lan is the apex of Aztec ar­chi­tec­ture and civ­i­liza­tion. The en­tire city was built on top of a swamp, and this fact makes it an engi­neer­ing marvel to this day. The Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors who de­stroyed the city were awestruck by its bril­liance, go­ing as far as, ques­tion­ing its very re­al­ity.

The an­cient cap­i­tal was home to 1,200,000 in­hab­i­tants. Of­ten re­ferred to as the Venice of the an­cient world, the city fea­tured nav­i­ga­ble canals and float­ing farms (chi­nam­pas)—com­bined with the city’s swampy foun­da­tion, and mag­nif­i­cent tem­ples, the Aztec cap­i­tal was a sur­real float­ing utopia.

Tenochti­t­lan had a sys­tem of canals and in­tri­cate cause­ways. Aqueducts sup­ply­ing the city spanned miles, and pro­vided the hun­dreds of thou­sands of cit­i­zens a con­stant sup­ply of fresh wa­ter. Aztec houses re­sem­bled moun­tains. This style of hous­ing pro­tected the in­te­ri­ors dur­ing times of heavy rain­fall. Due to the hi­er­ar­chal na­ture of Aztec so­ci­ety, only the aris­toc­racy was per­mit­ted to have two-storey homes, and any com­moner who de­fied this law was ex­e­cuted.

The Aztecs were deeply re­li­gious, and su­per­sti­tions dom­i­nated every as­pect of their lives. A ma­jor­ity of the build­ings were tem­ples, or cer­e­mo­nial com­plexes. The stepped pyra­mid was a very com­mon Aztec con­struc­tion. Chief of these was Tem­plo Mayor, ded­i­cated to Huitzilopochtli (The God of Sun and War) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain, Light­ning, and Thun­der). Tem­plo Mayor stood 90-feet tall, and was made up of two stepped pyra­mids placed ad­ja­cent to each other, seated atop a plat­form.

Just like every other Aztec pyra­mid, tem­ples were placed on top. Images of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc adorned the walls of these tem­ples. Hu­man and an­i­mal sac­ri­fice were com­mon oc­cur­rences in Aztec rit­u­als, and Tem­plo Mayor was no ex­cep­tion. How­ever, arche­o­log­i­cal re­search shows that the tem­ple was used for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses as well. The Aztecs be­lieved that blood (es­pe­cially hu­man blood) was divine wa­ter, and they wanted to ap­pease their gods with a con­sis­tent sup­ply of this macabre elixir. In their minds, fail­ing to do so would have cursed them with ru­ined har­vests, and de­feat in bat­tles. The worst-case sce­nario? The Aztecs be­lieved that with­out sac­ri­fice, the sun would lit­er­ally stop shin­ing, plung­ing the world into eter­nal dark­ness.

Women and chil­dren were not spared from these acts of bar­barous ap­pease­ment, and were of­ten sac­ri­ficed dur­ing dances, and to the rain god Tlaloc. Hu­man be­ings were im­mo­lated alive to ap­pease their fire god. In a grue­some twist, the Aztecs con­sumed the flesh of their sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tims, be­liev­ing it to be god’s own flesh.

A few high-minded ide­olo­gies can also be ob­served, stand­ing in stark con­trast to their bar­barous ways. One can wit­ness the foun­da­tions of mod­ern democ­racy in Aztec ide­ol­ogy; ed­u­ca­tion was of­ten re­stricted to the so­cial elite in a ma­jor­ity of his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties. How­ever, the Aztecs in­stated a com­pul­sory and free ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem for their cit­i­zens—re­gard­less of rank and sta­tus in life.

In­ter­est­ingly enough, the Aztecs played a game which had a strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity to mod­ern foot­ball. Par­tic­i­pants were al­lowed to use their hips, knees, and el­bows to put a small rub­ber ball through hoops; these were placed on tall walls which sur­rounded the play­ing area.

The game was re­stricted to the aris­toc­racy and had a few pe­cu­liar twists. Teams suc­cess­ful at scor­ing were per­mit­ted to at­tempt to rob the au­di­ence. (Yes, the au­di­ence, and not the score­less team! Weird, right?) The float­ing gar­dens of an­cient Mex­ico, chi­nam­pas, were sim­ply put, an agri­cul­tural won­der. Nar­row, square shaped is­lands 6 to 10 me­ters wide were built us­ing lay­ers of veg­e­ta­tion, dirt, and mud. Lake Tex­coco served as a nat­u­ral ir­ri­ga­tor and fer­til­izer of these chi­nam­pas with its sup­ply of or­ganic waste. Trees were planted around the chi­nam­pas, which an­chored these float­ing gar­dens to the lakebed.

Tenochti­t­lan is still alive to­day, in a way. The ru­ins of this once proud city are lo­cated in and around mod­ern-day Mex­ico City. Teoti­huacán stands just out­side Mex­ico City, with var­i­ous Aztec ru­ins pep­pered around the State of Mex­ico. While the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors may have de­stroyed the Aztecs in body, their spirit is alive and well in the form of their proud mon­u­ments, and their con­tri­bu­tions to the world. Pop­corn, choco­late, xo­coatl (the pre­cur­sor to co­coa), and chew­ing gum (chi­cle) are just a few of these con­tri­bu­tions. Gone, but far from for­got­ten, the Aztecs are the sons of the Mex­ico Val­ley—and one of the crown­ing achieve­ments of civ­i­liza­tion.

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