One of the most beautiful Mexican legends recounts that the people of Aztlan, north of what is today Mexico, had to leave their homes by orders of their gods in search of the promised land.
It is believed that the Aztecs, whose name means the people of Aztlan, began to emigrate in the 6th century.
The future Aztecs or Mexica, formed by the Nahua peoples, on orders of their god Huitzilopochtli, the Sun and War god, had to abandon the place where they lived and start a pilgrimage to find a place where an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, devouring a snake would be.
Huitzilopochtli told the Aztecs that when they found the eagle it would be the signal that they had reached land where they would build the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica, Middle America.
After years of traveling from place to place they finally arrived at the Lake of Texcoco, where they saw in the distance, on a small island in the middle of the lake, an eagle on a cactus devouring a snake. It was here that their arduous pilgrimage would finally end.
It is believed that this moment of divine revelation took place in the year 1323. By 1325 they had founded the great city of Tenochtitlan.
The characteristics of this area were essential for their survival. Because of its natural isolation it offered military and economic advantages.
The water and the chinampas they built were very fertile. Chinampa comes from the Nahuatl chināmitl /tʃiˈnaːmitɬ/ and is a method by which small rectangular areas of fertile land grow on the shallow lakebeds of the Valley of Mexico.
Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs became one of the most important and influential cities of their time. They became the most powerful empire that dominated most of Mesoamerica.
The city grew so much that it came to have more than 2 000 inhabitants per square kilometre, and covered an estimated 8 to 13.5 km2 (3.1 to 5.2 sq mi).
More than 70 temples and buildings were constructed on the city over the lake of what is now the Zocalo of Mexico City.
The main marketplace was in Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister city. Cortés the conqueror estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people trading daily.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who was a foot soldier in the army of Hernán Cortés that conquered the Aztec empire in 1519-1522, described the moment when the Spaniards first saw the great city of Tenonchtitlan.
“And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.”
It is so that the eagle perched on a prickly pear tree-nopal– devouring a snake came to be one of Mexico’s most important symbols. It is the fundamental element of the coat of arms or national shield as well as an essential part of the flag of Mexico.