The Mexica or Aztec people were told by an oracle to build their city where they saw an eagle (the god Huitzilopochtli) eating a snake on a cactus. In 1325 they saw this in a swamp, and there they built Tenochtitlán. When Cortés defeated the Aztecs in 1521 he razed their capital, and Mexico City arose in its place.

The swamp was turned into canals, irrigation, and arable fields, approached over Lake Texcoco on four great defensible causeways. It was a gigantic city, with a population in the hundreds of thousands, possibly the largest city in the world; divided into four quarters, each with its great temple. In the centre was the supreme Templo Mayor, on which site the Cathedral now stands.

It was apparently rebuilt in 1428 with conscious homage to the ancient cities of Teotihuacán and Tula.

Capital of the mighty Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán sat on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Anahuac high in the mountains of Mexico.
"Huitzilopochtli appeared to one of the leaders in a dream and told him: When you followed my orders and killed my nephew Copil and ripped out his heart and threw it away into the lake it fell on a stone, and from this stone a nopal cactus grew and on this an eagle now is perched. Go and find it and there you will establish the city which I name Tenochtitlán. And Huitzilopochtli called it Tenochtitlán because tetl is stone, nochtli is nopal, tlan is place, so that the name comes to mean the place of the rock and the nopal.1"
Sometime around 1325 AD, in a marshy playa lake surrounded by high mountains and volcanoes, the wandering Mexica tribe, also known as the "Aztec"s, found the manifestation of Huitzilopochtli's prophecy.  Islands were built up, canals were dug, temples were built, maize was planted.   The valley became a Venice in the middle of the vast lake on the valley floor, albeit on a far larger scale.

For two centuries, the Aztecs terrorized neighboring tribes from Tenochtitlán, eventually building up a mighty empire.   The city swelled to 250,000 inhabitants, larger than any city in Europe, larger than all but a few others in the world.  From all the various corners of the empire, captives were led to the heart of the city, to the temples of the rain god Tlaloc, and the sun god Huitzilopochtli, and many lesser gods, to have their living hearts cut out, lest the Sun fail to come up the next day.

Then came the year in which Quetzalcoatl had promised to return.  A figure came out of the sea in the East, with white skin and and a beard, matching Quetzalcoatl!  The emperor Moctezuma received Quetzalcoatl and his servants with lavish gifts.

Little did the emperor realize that his guests were less than divine; in fact a band of adventurers.  Men with a lust for gold, surrounded by a city many times richer than anything at home. Men barely kept under control by their leader: Not the mighty Quetzalcoatl after all, merely Hernan Cortes, who made Moctezuma a prisoner in his own palace, demanding ever larger ransoms of gold.

The rest of this tragedy is well-known: Cortes went away to Cuba, and his men had free rein throughout the city.  They murdered the priests of Tlaloc, causing a riot. Moctezuma was murdered in the melee; Cortes' men barely escaped with their lives.  Cortes, returning from Cuba, met his men in Veracruz and began enlisting the help of the The Texcocans, the Chalca, the Tepanecs, and all the other tribes eager to return a measure of misery to their overlords.

Tenochtitlán fell on August 13, 1521, after a siege of three months and a smallpox epidemic.

On top of Tenochtitlán's ashes grew the heart of New Spain, the city of Mexico.  On top of Huitzilopochtli's temple rose a Roman Catholic cathedral, home to symbolic human sacrifice. Slowly, over the intervening centuries, Lake Texcoco was filled in as the city grew.

And now, oddly, the site of Tenochtitlán is again one of the largest cities in the world, the temples are being excacvated, and the priests of Tlaloc are dancing again.

1Codex Ramirez, filtered through http://www.umich.edu/~proflame/texts/mirror/fundaron.html

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