In the year 1325, a tribe of people, known as the Mexicas, were wandering Central Mexico, looking for a place to settle. Legend has it that they were awaiting a sign from Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, sun and human sacrifice, to guide them home. They were directed to look for an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus. (A variation on the legend includes the idea that the eagle has a snake in its mouth.) The prophecy was fulfilled when the symbolic sight appeared on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The Mexica people, who would later become part of the mighty Aztec empire, believed that their God had directed them to the location where they should build a great city.
It defies logic to imagine how an ancient civilization, with none of the technology, equipment and tools we use in construction today, was able to accomplish such a feat. To build a giant city in the middle of a lake and make it accessible to the mainland required a huge amount of resourcefulness and creativity.
The Mexicas began by building a series of causeways for foot traffic, and canals, called chinampas, for canoes and other water vessels. They extended from the north, south and west, and connected the island to the mainland. Bridges were placed strategically on the causeways to allow water traffic to pass, and they could also be lifted to block entrance to the city for protection. Thus the city of Tenochtitlan was founded.
Initially, there was just a tiny island surrounded by swampland that wouldn’t have been sufficient to house and feed the population. Using the chinampas system, the Mexicas began building small, farm islands in the surrounding area, which would eventually help to dry out the land and increase the size of Tenochtitlan. If you were to look at it from above, you would see a large, complex expanse of interconnected “neighborhoods” with the main city in the middle. It housed the city center where up to 60,000 people would come to shop at the open air markets.
Today, Tenochtitlan has become Mexico City, sitting squarely in the middle of the long-ago dried out bed of Lake Texcoco. There are still chinampas in and around the city that serve as both tourist attractions and working farms. Ecologists have studied this ancient civilization’s model of farming, because it successfully operated without destroying any of the area’s natural ecosystem. And if you’ll notice, in the middle of the Mexican flag there’s an eagle sitting on a cactus holding a snake, a nod to one of the greatest civilizations in its history.