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The Ancient Island City Of Tenochtitla'n

By James Donahue

Mexicaltitan is a village of about 1,300 people on a small island in central Mexico. It is all that remains of one of the oldest great cities of the world. Its buildings rest on the ruins of Tenochtitla'n, the heart of the ancient Aztec civilization that existed in the region more than a thousand years ago.

That city was constructed on an island with a perimeter of no more than a mile, in the heart of a snake-infested marsh. The very location, in a sense, defies logic. That the land is so low and swampy has remained a problem for historians and archaeologists who literally dig through muck to examine the ruins.

Another problem with this particular archaeological dig is that the town, a cluster of concrete block houses, is built like a solid wall along the sidewalks. It is difficult to find good places to dig into the ancient ruins buried below them.

According to legend, the Aztecs founded Tenochtitla'n at this site after receiving instructions from Huitzilopochtli, a patron god of the sun, to build their city where they find an eagle eating a snake perched on a cactus growing from a rock surrounded by water. They found this location on the island in the center of Lake Texcoco and began to build their city about the year 1325 AD.

In spite of its forboding location, on an island in the midst of a snake-infested swamp, Tenochtila'n flourished. It grew to an estimated population of 200,000 until there was no longer room for expansion. After that, the city expanded literally into the lake. It was said there were floating gardens, comprised of mud stacked on rafts of bunched twigs.

The site is accessable today by boat from La Batanza. But in its day, the Aztecs connected to the mainland by three causeways. The causeways were constructed along dikes that were built to separate the fresh water of Lake Texcoco from salt water seeping in from the nearby Pacific. The dikes also served as protection for the floating gardens.

Tenochtitla'n stood until Hernandez Cortez and his Spanish army invaded the region and captured the city in the year 1521. Cortez destroyed the buildings and constructed a new Spanish city on top of the rubble. He built his home on top of Montezuma's palace and a Catholic cathedral on top of the Aztec temple. After a battle in 1692, the Spanish destroyed most of the Aztec art . . . all in the name of Christianity.

The ruins remained buried until 1790 when excavation for water pipes uncovered two important Aztec sculptures, the Sun Stone and the Statue of Coaticue. Since then, archaeological work has been slowly opening portions of this once great city for historical record and for public view.

In 1978 electric company workers uncovered the carved relief of a dismembered woman, believed to the the Goddess Coyolxauhqui. The massive stone, three and a quarter meters in diameter, once rested at the base of the stairway at Templo Mayor. It is said it was there to stop the bodies of sacrifice victims as they rolled off the alter hovering above.

The discovery spurred a major archaeological excavation of Templo Mayor. The work has been done under the direction of Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

This dig is going on near the town square in a community called Zocalo. This temple was believed to be the central religious center for Tenochitila'n. The structure also is known as the Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli.