Intensive agricultural practices supported Tenochtitlán’s large and concentrated population. Not only were lakeside fields farmed, but crops were grown on the water, as well.
Chinampas, cultivated fields created on platforms on the lake’s surface, were the basis of Tenochtitlan’s highly productive agriculture.
Most of the farmers who cultivated the chinampas and the mainland fields lived not within the city proper but rather in the surrounding suburban and cultivated areas on the mainland.
Canals and dikes kept the fresh water that springs fed into Lake Texcoco separated from the lake’s own salty water, and terra-cotta aqueducts conveyed more fresh water into the city.
Three broad causeways linked Tenochtitlan to the community on the mainland; a Spanish account claimed that these causeways were wide enough for 10 horses to cross abreast.
Within the main part of the city the population was composed mainly of priests, warriors, administrators, and craftspeople who produced (among other goods) pottery, textiles, featherwork, and stonework. Tenochtitlán’s vast whitewashed palace complexes included hundred of rooms, offices for bureaucrats, libraries, justice halls, and workshops.
The emperor and other nobles maintained luxurious gardens, aviaries, and zoos on their properties, which were located near the main religious sanctuary. The common people resided in distinct, relatively self-contained neighborhoods called calpulli. As the population grew and Tenochtitlan became the region’s economic and political center, its administrative structure expanded and was divided into specialized departments for such interests as the military and taxation. Very little is known, however, about the specific procedures of the government’s operation.
The city contained hundreds of temples and many religious complexes, including two major ones located in Tenochtitlán itself and in Tlatelolco. At the Tenochtitlán complex, walls measuring 1,200 feet in length surrounded a variety of religious structures, including pyramids painted red and blue, courtyards, living quarters for priests, a ballcourt, and a holy pool and grove.
The main pyramid, called the Great Temple or Templo Mayor, stood 100 feet high and was decorated with giant serpents carved in stone; it was consecrated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc.
Atop the pyramid were two separate temples dedicated to each god. Such offerings from Tenochtitlán’s vassals as pottery, jade, shells, and textiles were buried within the pyramid’s precincts.
Near the Great Temple was the huey tzompantli, an enormous rack that displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims on horizontal poles.