The Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was surrounded by Lake Texcoco and connected to the mainland by bridge-like roads.
In the years before the Spanish invaded the Americas, some thirty civilizations rose and fell in Mesoamerica, each with its own distinct languages, religious customs, and artistic styles, but still sharing in many general Mesoamerican traditions. The first of the civilizations to arise, as far as scholars know, was the Olmec (pronounced OLE-meck) culture, which flourished from about 1200 B.C.E. to 1200 C.E. (some new evidence suggests that it may have arisen much earlier). The Zapotec people of ancient Oaxaca (pronounced wah- HAH-kah), Mexico, existed at about the same time as the Olmec. A people known as the Teotihuacáns (pronounced TAY-uh-tee-wah-KAHNS), or lords of Teotihuacán, began building the first true city in Mesoamerica around the first century C.E. The great, peaceful cultural center of Teotihuacán (Place of the Gods) survived for about six centuries before it collapsed sometime after 750 C.E. One of its outstanding features is the 200-foot-high (61- meter-high) Pyramid of the Sun, the largest stone pyramid in all of pre-Columbian (existing before Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492) America and the third tallest pyramid of the ancient world.
The Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal, Mexico, is a stunning example of Maya advancement in architecture.
The Maya (pronounced MY-uh) civilization of Mesoamerica grew out of a very early agricultural way of life, beginning around 2500 B.C.E. The Maya built great cities with stunning temples and pyramids throughout southern Mesoamerica. Maya priests and scholars, both men and women, were numerous, and they studied such subjects as astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. They developed the only complete writing system, in which the written text could fully reproduce the spoken language, in the ancient Americas. Most of the Maya civilization had collapsed before the Spaniards arrived in Central America and Mexico in the early sixteenth century. What was left of the great civilization was destroyed by the Spanish, who demolished Maya cities, burned the written records kept by the Maya, and forced the people to convert to Christianity. The Maya people still live in Central America in the twenty-first century, retaining their culture as farmers and artisans.
In about 950 C.E., the Toltecs (pronounced TOHLtecks), a warlike people, took control of many of the Maya regions and other parts of Mesoamerica. They brought with them the culture of the earlier Teotihuacán peoples. Then, in the thirteenth century, the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, a huge, oval basin at about 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) above sea level in north central Mexico, covering an area of about 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) and consisting of some of the most fertile land of Mexico. They were such a nuisance with their raiding and stealing that the residents of the valley banished them to an island in the center of Lake Texcoco, which they fortified and used as a base of operation. On the island they built their own magnificent city, Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs continued to wage war on the other communities in the Valley of Mexico, and eventually established an empire that extended well beyond the valley. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II (pronounced mohk-the-ZOO-mah; 1466–1520) ruled over a very large and powerful Aztec empire.