After the Mayan empire declined in the 9th century following about 700 years of power in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico fell into a feudalistic period in which a number of peoples established various hegemonies. The most prominent of these were the Toltecs, who built their power between 900 and 1200 A.D. north of the Valley of Mexico (which is near the center of modern-day Mexico, including Mexico City). The Toltecs are believed to have migrated from the north, and were known as both harsh rulers and adept traders, particularly in obsidian. The Toltecs’ major city was Tula, which was home to about 40,000 people, but their empire spread to smaller cities which were expected to pay tribute to their rulers…and woe betide those who didn’t.
The Toltecs ruled central Mexico until the 12th century, when Tula was sacked and collapsed. Before that occurred, a number of Toltec people are thought to have moved south to the Yucatan, where there remains influence of their presence through the legend of a prince-god named Quetzalcoatl, who is depicted as a feathered serpent (also known as Kulkulcan) and the remnants of Chichen Itza, a city of 55,000 not far from present-day Merida which claimed both Mayan and Toltec roots. However, after being overthrown by nearby rivals in about 1200 AD, the Toltec culture faded.
One more major Mesoamerican dynasty appeared in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs. Like the Toltecs before them, the Aztecs are said to have migrated from their northern homeland of Aztlan in the 1300’s, settling in what was to become the city of Tenochtitlan after they saw an eagle devouring a snake atop a cactus, a scene depicted on the Mexican flag. Within a century, the Aztecs became the dominant culture in central Mexico through military conquest and development of agriculture. While they had been a loosely confederated tribe upon their arrival, the Aztecs became a highly-developed imperial system as notable for their ruthlessness as for their power. Great temples were built where sacrifices involving the feeding of beating hearts to the gods were the norm. In one such place, Templo Mayor, over 20,000 prisoners are said to have been sacrificed at its dedication in 1487. Five years later, Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World from Europe, and things changed drastically afterward.
When Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes arrived in 1519 near what is now the city of Veracruz, his troops should have been no match for the Aztecs, who were in decline but still outnumbered the Spaniards by the thousands. However, Cortes formed an alliance with the Tlaxcalan people, who’d been dominated by the Aztecs and wanted revenge. Cortes and his unified troops marched to Tenochtitlan for a final conquest. However, instead of meeting stiff resistance that could have crushed him, Cortes met Aztec king Moctezuma II, who viewed the fair-skinned marauder as a god and welcomed him. The result of Moctezuma’s hospitality was the brutal decimation by Cortez of the Aztec empire, the enslavement of the Aztec people and the beginning of over 300 years of the colonization of Mexico.
NEXT WEEK: The Colonial Era, Revolution and Independence