One of the largest and most advanced pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztec empire flourished for centuries. Over that time, the Aztecs developed a complex and highly organized society centered around an equally intricate system of religious beliefs. The social and religious practices of the Aztecs remain a strong influence in Mexican culture to this day.

Historical Foundations

The Aztecs emerged in what is now central Mexico in the middle of the first millennium CE. Originally a semi-nomadic group of hunter-gatherers, they adopted the lifestyle of the more advanced civilizations they found there, becoming sedentary agronomists. However, despite these changes, they retained much of their own culture, including the Nahautl language and their own religion. The Aztec empire rose to prominence with relative speed, rapidly assimilating the city-states around them over the course of a few centuries. By 1450, they were the dominant power in the region via a series of strategic alliances with key neighbors. At the time of the Columbian conquests, they had achieved a sophistication and standard of living comparable to any nation on earth. One of Cortez' soldiers wrote that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was as grand as any city in Europe and larger than any he had ever seen in Spain. The fall of the Aztec Empire came with the arrival of the Spanish. Religious confusion, in which many Aztecs mistook the Europeans for deities, divided the Aztec response, as did the arrival of European diseases. The Spanish made careful use of the Aztec's neighbors, making allies who supported their military conquest of the empire.

Society and Culture

The Aztec world was a study in contradiction. Sophisticated agricultural techniques fed the empire's multitudes and advanced construction had built a large, sophisticated city on a filled-in lake. However, the wheel was completely unknown to them and they had few domesticated animals. Aztec society was highly complex and deeply stratified. Family heritage determined one's social status to a great degree, with prominent families able to trace their heritage to the ancient past, often with a connection to the divine. Within this social framework, the basic unit of political organization was the "calipulli." A poorly understood term, calipulli seems to refer to an organizational unit, similar to a parish or an agricultural collective. Written evidence also suggests that some urban calipulli were trade guilds, focused around a particular job. Above the calipulli were the "altepetl," a city-state or region composed of several calipulli. The altepetl were responsible for social services -- the Aztecs were the first nation in the world to institute mandatory universal education -- as well as being the basic unit of military organization. While rivalry and warfare took place between them, the altepetl combined to form the Aztec Empire.

Religion

Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Aztec religion occupied a central role in the life of the empire. Featuring many annual festivals, it formed the basis for their calender and to some degree their system of agricultural planting. Made possible by an advanced understanding of astronomy, their cosmology divided creation into the upper and lower worlds. Each had its own deities, cosmic forces and symbolic celestial objects. The latter included the sun, moon, earth, the planet Venus and the North Star, all of which were especially revered by the Aztecs. At the heart of their beliefs was the concept of "Teotl." Often translated as "god," it can also mean a divine energy that permeates all things. Teotl was the foundation and creator of life, sustaining all things in all levels of the cosmos. Beyond this overarching concept, the Aztecs worshiped a complex and ever-expanding pantheon, featuring often-conflicting deities that ruled over one or more aspects of the natural or spiritual worlds. Perhaps most famous among them was Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who embodied rain, wind and the planet Venus.

An Ongoing Legacy

Red chili peppers

The Aztec heritage is alive and well in Mexico today, a key component of the national character. The Aztec language, Nahautl, is the second largest in Mexico with 1.5 million speakers. Aztec art is the basis of the colorful and complex Mexican artistic tradition, inspiring public mural displays to this day. Aztec cuisine, which gave the world chocolate, chili peppers and the tortilla, is a vital component of Mexican food even now. Mexico City itself is built on the old Aztec capital, centered around the great temple that stood at its heart.