The Valley of Mexico

The Valley of Mexico is a plateau in Central America that gives Mexico its name. The Aztecs and Toltecs built their cities here and it was the epicentre of pre-Colombian civilisation. The Valley a high and fertile land, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes on four sides. Today is is home to Mexico City, the second largest in the Americas.

Mountains enclose the Valley of Mexico, with only a small pass in the north, where wind can enter. The pass was the historical migration route. As waters could not escape, the Valley once housed great lakes, the most famous of which was ‘Lake Texcoco’. Its elevation gave the Valley a cool temperature while volcanic ash made fertile soil and provided abundant obsidian – a valuable commodity.

Humans settled in the Valley of Mexico in ancient times. Beans, squash, maize and legumes grew easily here, attracting human settlement. By 1,000 AD the Valley of Mexico was one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The great city of Teotihuacan, and the Toltec civilisation that followed, were centred here.

In the 1300s, the Mexica or ‘Aztecs’ migrated from the north. Looking for a place where an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake, they settled in the marshes of lake Texcoco. The Aztecs adopted the sophisticated culture of their neighbours and expanded across the lake, where they built the city ‘Tenochtitlan’ on an expanse of artificial islands. The city followed a plan and included marketplaces, pyramids, a palace, aquarium, zoo and botanical gardens. By the 1400s, the Aztecs were the preeminent power in the Valley, ruling their neighbours through a system of tribute and military subjugation.

In 1521, conquistador Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire with an alliance of Spanish and native forces. He forced Aztec captives to level Tenochtitlan and built a new settlement – named Mexico City – on its rubble.

Lake Texcoco was buried. Under the weight of the ruins of the old and the streets of the new, the lake dried up. Today no trace remains. It took until 1900 for Mexico City to surpass the one million people who had lived in Tenochtitlan at its peak. By 2000, the population was 21 million.

Pollution is now rife in the Valley of Mexico. As smog and heat from cars and electricity have nowhere to escape they sit stagnant until the yearly rains. Furthermore, without the old lake to soak up the rainfall, Mexico City – particularly its shantytowns – are also prone to terrible flooding, often breaking into water supplies and creating open sewers in parts of the city. The conditions which brought cities to the Valley of Mexico, are now their greatest impediment.

Sources: Fall of Civilizations Podcast, World Health Organisation


Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.

Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same. 

Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:

  • polytheism – belief in many gods
  • myths and legends
  • animal sacrifice
  • sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
  • belief in magic

Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.

One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.

Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.

Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.

Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.

The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani­- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

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