Ambling Beyond Our Normal Bounds
In this amble, we go beyond two of our usual boundaries — the one that focuses us on the still-vital, originally indigenous pueblos and barrios of Mexico City and the boundary of the City, itself. We go a short distance north and west of the City's most northern delegaciones/alcaldías, Azcapotzalco and Gustavo A. Madero, into el Estado de México, the State of Mexico, which surrounds the City like a lopsided horseshoe on the west, north and east. Our destination is two Mesoamerican archeological sites, Tenayuca and Acatitlán.
Our opportunity to visit the sites was provided by Arqueología viva México, led by archeologist Gerardo Orozco, who, via its Facebook page, organizes excursions to sites in and around Mexico City, as well as elsewhere in Mexico. We have wanted to see Tenayuca and Acatitlán since our early days in Mexico City, but were not able to negotiate the complexities of public transportation, via Metro and Metrobus, to get to the sites on our own. Sr. Orozco led the way, as well as sharing his professional knowledge of the sites.
Via Metrobus, we cross into the State of Mexico, an invisible line obliterated by the continuous, modern urban sprawl that has spread from the city and filled the Valley of Mexico since the late 20th century to form the Greater Mexico City Metropolitan Area. Crossing the line, we recall that before the huge expansion of the boundaries of the former Federal District in the mid-19th century, much of what is now part of the City belonged to the State of Mexico.
After Mexican Independence was won in 1821, the new government initially defined the state's boundaries to be the same as they were as a province under the Spanish. The state and preceding Spanish Province of Mexico encompassed a much larger territory than the present state. It included what are now the states of Hidalgo, to its north, and Morelos and Guerrero to its south, which were created in 1869 by President Benito Juárez. (See our page: How Mexico City Grew From an Island Into a Metropolis.)
|The State of Mexico|
is the red area.
Mexico City is the small, white triangular shape within its embrace.
The state of Hidalgo (large) is to the north.
The states of Morelos (small) and Guerrero (large) are to the south.
Boundaries in the Valley Before the Spanish Arrived
Thus, the boundary between Mexico City and the State of Mexico is highly arbitrary. The natural boundary is made up of the mountains that surround and form the Valley of Mexico (See our post: Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part I: Giants on All Sides). When Hernán Cortés, his troops and indigenous allies he had made while traveling west from Veracruz on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico arrived in the Valley in November 1519 (five hundred years ago this year), he found it filled with hundreds of indigenous cities, villages and hamlets, all interconnected parts of one socio-cultural, civilized, Nahuatl-speaking world.
They were not however, what historians traditionally called the "Aztec Empire". The Valley was politically and economically divided into eight tribal altepetls, city-states. Among these eight entities, the Mexica/Azteca altepetl, based in the city of Tenochtitlan, on an island in a southwest bay in Lake Texcoco, was only one among many. Moreover, it had been the dominant altepetl for just under a hundred years, since 1428. Before that, various others of the altepetls had striven for and been dominant for various periods of time since the Nahua tribes had entered the Valley between the 7th and 13th centuries.
|Tribal boundaries in the Valley of Mexico|
at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.
From Gibson, Charles, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule,
Stanford University Press, 1964.
The Triple Alliance
Three of the altepetls were the most powerful, having formed the Triple Alliance in 1428. It was this Triple Alliance that constituted what has been called the "Aztec Empire". In 1519, it dominated the other altepetls in Valley and other tribal city-states far beyond the Valley in what is now central Mexico. All the others paid tribute to one or another of the three. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were the most powerful of the three and received the most tribute, but the other two were autonomous in regards to their internal government. They were the:
- Acolhua, with their capital at Texcoco, on the east side of the lake. The second most powerful member of the Alliance, they did not pay tribute to the Mexica. Its territory is now in the State of Mexico.
- Tepaneca, with their capital at Tlalcopan (called Tacuba by the Spanish), on the west side of the lake. Tacuba is now the cabecera, government headquarters, of Delegación/Alcaldía Miguel Hidalgo in the City of Mexico.
The Triple Alliance was formally created after the Mexica, the Acolhua and the leaders of the Tepaneca town of Tlalcopan defeated the Tepaneca rulers in 1428. The Tepaneca had been the dominant force on the west side of Lake Texcoco for more than a hundred years. Their capital had been Azcapotzalco, which was destroyed in the war, so the capital was then moved a short distance south to Tlalcopan. They thereafter remained subordinate to the Mexica, but the rulers of their towns were allowed to continue to control internal matters and collect tribute — part was used to support themselves and part was shared with Tlalcopan.
Two other large tribal groups were the
The Other Altepetls
Two other large tribal groups were the
- Xochimilca, in the south, with their capital at the island city of Xochimilco, on the lake of that same name. They were among the earliest Nahua tribes to settle in the Valley, around 900 CE. They had been defeated, in turn, by the Culhua (see below) at the end of the 13th century, by the Tepaneca in the 14th century and, finally, by the Mexica in the early 15th century and their territory reduced. Their capital is now the cabecera of Delegación/Alcaldía Xochimilco.
- Chalco, to the southeast, with their capital at Chalco-Atenco on the east end of Lake Chalco. They were subjugated by the Mexica but rebelled from time to time. It is now a municipality in the State of Mexico.
- Culhua, with their capital, Culhuacán, at the west end of the Iztpalapa Peninsula, between Lakes Xochimilco and Texcoco. They had been a dominant force, controlling more territory, until they were defeated first by the Tepanecas in the 14th century, then by the Mexica in the 15th century. Culhuacán was then left controlling only three other towns, Iztapalapa and Mexicaltzingo on the tip of the peninsula, and Huitzilopochco (now the barrios of Churubusco), across the channel connecting the two lakes, in what is now Delegación/Alcaldía Coyoacán. Culhuacán is now divided into Pueblo Culhuacán in Delegacion/Alcaldía Iztapalapa and the adjoining Pueblo San Francisco Culhuacán in Coyoacán.
- Cuitlahuaca, whose capital occupied an island dividing Lake Chalco from Lake Xochimilco. They never controlled much territory beyond a few nearby towns on the north and south lakeshore. It is now the cabecera of Delegación/Alcaldía Tláhuac (a shortened form of Cuitlahuac) which includes the pueblos it formerly controlled.
- Mixquica, whose capital, Mixquic, on the south shore of Lake Chalco was all they controlled. It is now Pueblo San Andrés Mixquic incorporated into Delegación/Alcaldía Tláhuac.
Tenayuca means "walled place" in Nahuatl. The archeological remains of Tenayuca are located in the originally indigenous Pueblo San Bartolo Tenayuca in the municipality of Tlalnepantla de Baz, in the State of Mexico. At the time the Spanish arrived, it was under the control of the Tepaneca (see above map of tribal territories), which it had been for some time before the Mexica became "the first among equals" in the Triple Alliance.
lay at the northern-most end of the southwest bay
of Lake Texcoco.
During the time of Mexica/Azteca rule,
it was at the end of a long causeway
Archaeological remains recovered from Tenayuca indicate that the site was first occupied in the Classic Period (100 to 600 CE), when Teotihuacan, in the northeastern part of the Valley, dominated the area. Its population increased in the early Postclassic (600-1100 CE) during the reign of the Tolteca based in Tula, outside the valley to the northwest.
It continued to increase after the fall of Tula (1150 CE), when, with the lack of a central dominating power, many nomadic tribes, generically called "chichimeca" [a pejorative term used by settled, agrarian peoples with urban centers, hence, "civilized", to denote nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes from the north] moved through the area formerly controlled by Tula and entered the Valley that was called Anahuac.
According to the Codex Xolotl, Tenayuca, itself, was founded in 1224 CE by Xolotl, ruler of a Nahuatl-speaking chichimeca tribe whose actual name is unknown. Xolotl was succeeded by Nopaltzin who married Atototztl, a Tolteca princess, in order to establish a linkage with the royal lineage of Tula, seen by all the new tribes as the epitome of a civilized society. When Nopaltzin died, his son, Quinatzin, transferred the seat of power to the east side of the lake that came to be known as Lake Texcoco and founded the altepetl (city-state) of Coatlichán. Quinatzin left a maternal uncle, Tenacacaltzin, to be lord of Tenayuca.
On or about 1337, another tribe, the Acolhua, defeated the chichimeca of Coatlichán and made Texcoco their capital city (see map of tribal boundaries above). Tenayuca allied itself with the Acolhuas, who dominated the northeast region of the Valley of Mexico in the mid-14th century.
However, in the late 14th century, Tenayuca was conquered by the Tepaneca of nearby Azcapotzalco. About a hundred years later, in the 1430s, after the Mexica of Tenochtitlan and their allies, the Acolhuas and Tlalcopan, conquered Azcapotzalco, bringing the Tepaneca under the control of the Triple Alliance, Tenayuca came under the control of Tlalcopan. It remained so until the Spanish came and conquered the entire Valley in 1521 (modified from Wikipedia).
The Temple of Tenayuca
Temple architecture that was built during the period of Mexica/Azteca dominance is based on that which originated at Tenayuca. It consists of a pyramidal base supporting two temples. The Mexica/Azteca adopted this innovative style for their own main temple, now known as the Templo Mayor, in the center of what was Tenochtitlan.
|Pyramid of Tenayuca|
with its stairway leading to what were two temples.
|Southwest platform of skulls and crossed bones.|
The last phase of construction probably dates to 1507 and measures 62 meters (203 ft.) wide by 50 meters (164 ft.) deep. Mexica/Azteca influence is apparent from the third stage, built in 1351, only twenty-six years after they founded Tenochtitlan. All the following stages were purely Mexica/Azteca in style, as demonstrated by the sloping, multiple tiers of the pyramid rather than the vertical walls apparent in the earlier stages.
|Stages of enlargement of the pyramid|
On-site Museo Xolotl
|Painting of how the pyramid looked at its final stage in the early 16th century.|
Wall of the Serpents
The pyramid base is surrounded on three sides by its most notorious component, a coatepantli (Nahuatl for a wall of serpents), a low platform supporting 138 stone sculptures of snakes. Their bodies were once covered with plaster and painted in a variety of colors, with their scales painted black.
|Coatepantli, the Wall of Serpents|
Two hundred meters (about 220 yards) from the main pyramid of Tenayuca are the remains of what appears to have been an elite residential complex, with surviving plaster floors in some rooms. This area has been labeled Tenayuca II by archaeologists and appears to have gone through various phases of construction. Wikipedia
About three kilometers (a little less than two miles) from Tenayuca, in the Pueblo of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, is another archeological site. It consists of a small, reconstructed pyramid that was originally one of the earlier stages of construction that became enclosed within a larger pyramid. It was reconstructed in the 1960s.
|Pyramid of Acatitlán|
Acatitlán was evidently a site subsidiary to Tenayuca. It is believed that after the Mexica took control of the area in the 15th century, the temple was dedicated to their god, Huitzilopochtli.
While we were visiting the site, there was a man standing on top of the pyramid, engaged in an indigenous ritual of venerating the four cardinal directions, the sun and heavens above and the earth below.
Like virtually all indigenous temples in Mexico, this one was destroyed by the Spanish. The stones of the outer layers were used to construct the church of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, which stands nearby. So here, in Acatitlán, we encounter a rare literal demonstration of the so-called Spiritual Conquest, the transformation of indigenous society into a Catholic Hispanic one, which we have been exploring since 2016.
|Church of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán,|
built in the 16th century.
A Glimpse at Indigenous Civilization in the Larger Valley of Mexico
Since we began our ambles in 2015, we have stayed within the boundaries of Mexico City for practical reasons of proximity and preservation of our limited energy. We have been well aware that there are still existing originally indigenous villages and archeological remains outside those arbitrary boundaries, all over the larger Valley of Mexico. We have, of course, been to the monumental site of Teotihuacan, one of the premier archeological sites in the entire world. It is located in a side valley to the northeast of the main Valley. Twenty-five years ago, during our first visit to Mexico, we went to the smaller, but still impressive site of Tula.
Today, in our visit to Tenayuca and Acatitlán, we have encountered smaller sites, but ones barely outside the City. They are also sites that, unlike Teotihuacan and Tula, were still functioning communities when the Mexica/Azteca became the last people to dominate the Valley before the Spanish Conquest brought Mesoamerican civilization to an end. The Mexica/Azteca of Tenochtitlan took note of their strategic location at the north end of the bay which their city dominated in Lake Texcoco (see map of bay above) and incorporated them directly into their urban structure via a causeway connecting them to their capital.
The archeological reconstructions of their prehispanic pyramids, set within the still-vital pueblos of Pueblo San Bartolo Tenayuca and Santa Cecilila Acatitlán, provide — like the Templo Mayor in the midst of Centro Histórico and the site of Tlatelolco, next to the Church of Santiago Tlatelolco — glimpses of the indigenous world that existed before its military Conquest by the Spanish and vivid examples of the dramatic transformation of that world that was the Spiritual Conquest that followed.