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Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC MARKETS

Mexico has always been a land of markets. Today there are thriving big and small weekly markets in towns all round the country. The Mexica (Aztec) people relied on markets to move goods between growers and consumers. They had a massive empire, so it’s no surprise that their main market was colossal too... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Diego Rivera’s mural showing the Tlatelolco market and Tenochtitlan in the background
Diego Rivera’s mural showing the Tlatelolco market and Tenochtitlan in the background (Click on image to enlarge)

Just about every community, from village to capital city, within the Aztec empire held a weekly market, in an actual marketplace kept for the occasion. In the Aztec calendar system a week lasted five days, so markets took place every 5 days. In the capital, the market was so big and important, it never stopped! Day and night there were at least 20,000 people, and on the major weekly market days this number rose to nearly 60,000!

Artist’s impression of the Tlatelolco market by Felipe Dávalos
Artist’s impression of the Tlatelolco market by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

What’s hard to imagine is the NOISE - Spanish chroniclers wrote that they could hear the sound of the main market at Tlatelolco a league away (that’s around 2-3 miles!) - and the SMELLS: strong-smelling foods being cooked, flowers, the aroma of fruit, leather goods, herbal medicines, live animals for sale, and so on.

Part of a large model of the Tlatelolco market in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Part of a large model of the Tlatelolco market in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

We know the main market at Tlatelolco was highly organised - each type of product or service had its own section (so, for instance, all the sandal sellers were to be found in one row, like a street) - and that there were market police on duty all the time. It was a serious offence to steal from or to short-change someone in the market; if caught, you would be hauled before a court to be judged and punished... Usually your family were called and had to pay for your crime.

An Aztec father and daughter buy refreshment in a market; illustration by Felipe Dávalos
An Aztec father and daughter buy refreshment in a market; illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

The fantastic range of goods for sale you can read about by clicking on the links below. Much of it was brought by canoe, along the local waterways (again, learn more below).
In summary: ‘One could wander all day long in this festival of trade, taking one’s meals there and meeting one’s friends and relations; and many did, strolling up and down the alleys lined with tottering mounds of fruit or many-coloured clothes all spread out...’ (Jacques Soustelle).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 02nd 2020

emoticon The 16th century Spanish chronicler Diego Durán reported that the great market was so popular that women told him that after dying they wanted to go to the market first before going to heaven!

If you want a full list of what was available in the main market, click here...!

Read here what the Spanish wrote about the great market...

‘King canoe....’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: We think possibly - all depends again on which comparison Cortés was referring to. La Merced sprawls over 88,000 square metres, in 7 huge buildings, way more than double the plaza of Salamanca. IF, however, the ‘busiest day’ estimate of the Spanish at the time - 60,000 people in the market - is accurate, then very likely. That sort of number would make the Tlatelolco market like a city within a city, and would make Cortés’s reference to the CITY of Salamanca much more credible.
Mexicolore replies: Good question! We don’t know exactly, but Cortés wrote that the Tlatelolco market area was ‘twice the size of the city of Salamanca’ in Spain. If he actually meant just the market square of Salamanca, that measures today some 6,500 square metres in area (but beware, the plaza of today has changed since Cortés’s day), so your answer could be some 13,000 square metres - the rough equivalent of two football pitches. IF, however, he really was referring to the city itself, well UNESCO gives the population of Salamanca in the 16th century as 24,000, and the area of the historic city centre as 50 hectares or 125 acres - double that and you’re talking of around 100 football pitches! Panel of Experts member José Luis de Rojas has told us he has been searching for an answer to this for 40 years without success, so if he doesn’t know, no-one does...