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Palaces of the Triple Alliance

The Palaces of the Triple Alliance leaders, as described by the Spanish Chroniclers and their interpreters. What follows is a summary of the work of Spanish chroniclers,Tomás de Torquemada, Monarq. Ind., tom. i., p. 102; tom. ii., pp. 83, 359-69; Zurita, Rapport, in Ternaux-Compans, Voy., série ii., tom. i., pp. 20-9; Francisco Javier Clavijero, Storia Ant. del Messico, tom. ii., pp. 113-15; Bernardino de Sahagún, Hist. Gen., tom. ii., lib. viii., pp. 318-21; Antonio de Herrera, Hist. Gen., dec. iii., lib. iv., cap. xv.; Francisco López de Gómara, Conq. Mex., fol. 305-6; José de Acosta, Hist. de las Ynd., pp. 356, 439-40, 474; Ortega, in Veytia, Hist. Ant. Mej., tom. iii., p. 309; and Tezozomoc, Crón. Mex., in Kingsborough’s Mex. Antiq., tom. ix., p. 142-3. The summary is by Hubert Howe Bancroft, in a largely forgotten work, “The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume II, Civilized Nations.”

The compilation of the various historical sources is here reproduced in full. It is difficult to imagine, visiting the remnants of Tenochtitlan that is Mexico City today, the sheer scale of what is described here.


… now let us follow them to their homes. And here I must confess I am somewhat staggered by the recitals. It is written that as soon as the new king was formally invested with the right of sovereignty, he took possession of the royal palaces and gardens, and that these abodes of royalty were on a scale of magnificence almost unparalleled in the annals of nations. How far we may rely on these accounts it is difficult to say; how we are to determine disputed questions is yet more difficult. In the testimony before us, there are two classes of evidence: one having as its base selfishness, superstition, and patriotism; the other disaffection, jealousy, and hatred. Between these contending evils, fortunately, we may at least approximate to the truth. To illustrate: there can be no doubt that much concerning the Aztec civilization has been greatly exaggerated by the old Spanish writers, and for obvious reasons. It was manifestly to the advantage of some, both priests and adventurers, to magnify the power and consequence of the people conquered, and the cities demolished by them, knowing full well that tales of mighty realms, with countless man-eaters and fabulous riches, would soonest rouse the zeal and cupidity of the Spaniards, and best secure to them both honors and supplies. Gathered from the lips of illiterate soldiers little prone to diminish the glory of their achievements in the narration, or from the manuscripts of native historians whose patriotic statements regarding rival states no longer in existence could with difficulty be disproved, these accounts passed into the hands of credulous writers of fertile imagination, who drank in with avidity the marvels that were told them, and wrote them down with superhuman discrimination—with a discrimination which made every so-called fact tally with the writings of the Fathers. These writers possessed in an eminent degree the faculty called by latter-day scholars the imaginative in history-writing. Whatever was told them that was contrary to tradition was certainly erroneous, a snare of the devil; if any facts were wanting in the direction pointed out by doctrines or dogmas, it was their righteous duty to fill them in. Thus it was in certain instances. But to the truth of the greater part of these relations, testimony is borne by the unanimity of the authors, though this is partly owing to their copying each from the writings of the others, and, more conclusively, by the architectural remains which survived the attacks of the iconoclastic conquerors, and the golden and bejeweled ornaments of such exquisite workmanship as to equal if not surpass anything of the kind in Europe, which ornaments were sent to Spain as proofs of the richness of the country. At this distance of time it 160is impossible to draw a definite line between the true and the false; nor do I feel it my duty to dogmatize in these matters, but rather to tell the tale as I find it, at the same time laying every shade of evidence before the reader.


The principal palace in the city of Mexico was an irregular pile of low buildings, enormous in extent, constructed of huge blocks of tetzontli, a kind of porous stone common to that country, cemented with mortar. The arrangement of the buildings was such that they enclosed three great plazas or public squares, in one of which a beautiful fountain incessantly played. Twenty great doors opened on the squares, and on the streets, and over these was sculptured in stone the coat of arms of the kings of Mexico,—an eagle gripping in his talons a jaguar. In the interior were many halls, each of immense size, and one in particular is said by a writer who accompanied Cortés, known as the Anonymous Conqueror, to have been of sufficient extent to contain three thousand men; while upon the terrace that formed its roof thirty men on horseback could have gone through the spear exercise. In addition to these there were more than one hundred smaller rooms, and the same number of marble baths, which together with the fountains, ponds, and basins in the gardens, were supplied with water from the neighboring hill of Chapultepec. There were also splendid suites of apartments retained for the use of the kings of Tezcuco and Tlacopan, and their attendants, when they visited Mexico, and for the ministers and counselors, and the great lords and their suites, who constantly resided at the capital. Besides these, the private attendants of the king—and their name was legion—had to be provided for; so that when we consider the other extensive buildings, such as the harem, in which, according to some authorities, were nearly three thousand women; the armory, the granaries, storehouses, menageries, and aviaries, which either formed part or were in the immediate vicinity of the palace buildings, we are prepared somewhat to credit the Anonymous Conqueror aforesaid when he affirms that, although he four times wandered about the palace until he was tired, with no other purpose than to view its interior, yet he never succeeded in seeing the whole of it. The walls and floors of halls and apartments were many of them faced with polished slabs of marble, porphyry, jasper, obsidian, and white tecali; lofty columns of the same fine stones supported marble balconies and porticoes, every niche and corner of which was filled with wondrous ornamental carving, or held a grinning grotesquely sculptured head. The beams and casings were of cedar, cypress, and other valuable woods, profusely carved and put together without nails. The roofs of the palace buildings formed a suite of immense terraces, from which a magnificent view of the whole city could be obtained. Superb mats of most exquisite finish were spread upon the marble floors; the tapestry that draped the walls and the curtains that hung before the windows were made of a fabric most wonderful for its delicate texture, elegant designs and brilliant colors; through the halls and corridors a thousand golden censers, in which burned precious spices and perfumes, diffused a subtle odor.


The palace built by Nezahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, even surpassed that of Montezuma in many respects. The Texcoco historian, Ixtlilxochitl, has given a full description of it, which I partially translate. The collection of buildings, which composed not only the royal residence, but also the public offices and courts of law, extended from east to west twelve hundred and thirty-four and a half yards, and from north to south, nine hundred and seventy-eight yards. These were encompassed by a wall made of adobes strongly cemented together, and standing on a foundation of very hard mortar, six feet in width at the base. On its southern and eastern sides the wall was three times a man’s stature in height; on the western side, towards the lake, and on the northern side it rose to the height of five times a man’s stature. For one third of the distance from the base to the top, the wall grew gradually thinner, while the remainder was of one thickness. Within this inclosure were the royal dwelling, the council-chambers, and other halls and apartments. There were also two large plazas, the outer one of which served as the public market-place. The inner court-yard was surrounded by the various courts of justice, and other halls where matters relative to science, art, and the army were judicially and otherwise considered, all of which will be described in their place, and also a hall where the archives of the kingdom were preserved. In the centre of the court-yard, which was also used as a market-place, was a tennis-court; on the west side were the apartments of the king, more than three hundred in number, all admirably arranged; here were also storehouses for tribute, and splendid suites of apartments reserved for the use of the kings of Mexico and Tlacopan when they visited Texcoco. These apartments led into the royal pleasure-gardens, which were artistically laid out with labyrinthian walks winding through the dark foliage, where often the uninitiated would lose themselves; then there were sparkling fountains, and inviting baths, and shady groves of cedar and cypress, and ponds well stocked with fish, and aviaries filled with birds of every hue and species, besides extensive menageries. The city of Mexico, however, furnished the largest collection of animals, or at all events it is more fully described by the conquerors than others. The Aztec monarchs took special pleasure in maintaining zoölogical collections on an immense scale, which fancy was probably more fully indulged by Montezuma II. than by any other. That prince caused to be erected in the city of Mexico an immense edifice, surrounded by extensive gardens, which was used for no other purpose than to keep and display all kinds of birds and beasts.


One portion of this building consisted of a large open court, paved with stones of different colors, and divided into several compartments, in which were kept wild beasts, birds of prey, and reptiles. The larger animals were confined in low wooden cages made of massive beams. They were fed upon the intestines of human sacrifices, and upon deer, rabbits, and other animals. The birds of prey were distributed according to their species, in subterranean chambers, which were more than seven feet deep, and upwards of seventeen feet in length and breadth. Half of each chamber was roofed with slabs of stone, under which perches were fixed in the wall, where the birds might sleep and be protected from the rain; the other half was covered only with a wooden grating, which admitted air and sunlight. Five hundred turkeys were daily killed for food for these birds. Alligators were kept in ponds walled round to prevent their escape, and serpents in long cages or vessels, large enough to allow them to move about freely. These reptiles were also fed on human blood and intestines. Mr Prescott tells us that the whole of this menagerie “was placed under the charge of numerous keepers, who acquainted themselves with the habits of their prisoners, and provided for their comfort and cleanliness.”

Thomas Gage, the shrewd old English heretic, takes another view. In his quaint though free and slashing style he writes: “But what was wonderful to behold, horrid to see, hideous to hear in this house, was the Officers’ daily occupations about these beasts, the floor with blood like a gelly, stinking like a slaughter-house, and the roaring of the Lions, the fearful hissing of the Snakes and Adders, the doleful howling and barking of the Wolves, the sorrowful yelling of the Ownzes and Tigres, when they would have meat. And yet in this place, which in the night season seemed a dungeon of hell, and a dwelling place for the Devil, could a heathen Prince pray unto his Gods and Idols; for near unto this Hall was another of a hundred and fifty foot long and thirty foot broad, where was a chappel with a roof of silver and gold in leaf, wainscotted and decked with great store of pearl and stone, as Agats, Cornerines, Emeralds, Rubies, and divers other sorts; and this was the Oratory where Montezuma prayed in the night season, and in that chappel the Devil did appear unto him, and gave him answer according to his prayers, which as they were uttered among so many ugly and deformed beasts, and with the noise of them which represented Hell itself, were fitted for a Devil’s answer.”


In another part of the building was an immense hall which served as an aviary, in which were collected specimens of all the birds in the empire, excepting those of prey. They were of infinite variety and splendid plumage; many specimens were so difficult to obtain that their feathers brought almost fabulous prices in the Mexican market; while some few, either because of their extreme rarity or their inability to live in confinement, did not appear even in the royal aviary, except in imitation, for we are told that, both in Mexico and Tezcuco, all kinds of birds and animals that could not be obtained alive were represented in gold and silver so skillfully that they are said to have served the naturalist Hernandez for models. But to attain this honor, a bird must indeed have been a rara avis, a very phœnix, for it is related by Torquemada and many others, on the authority of a Spanish eye-witness, that the Emperor Montezuma II. happening one day to see a sparrow-hawk soaring through the air, and “taking a fancy to its beauty and mode of flight,” ordered his followers to catch it without delay and bring it alive to his hand; and such were the efforts made and care used, that in an incredibly short space of time “they captured that fierce and haughty hawk as though it had been but a gentle domestic pigeon, and brought it to the king.”

Marble galleries, supported upon jasper pillars, all of one piece, surrounded this building, and looked out upon a large garden, wherein were groves of rare trees, choice shrubbery and flowers, and fountains filled with fish. But the prominent feature of the garden was ten large ponds for the use of water-fowl, some of which were filled with fresh and some with salt water, according to the nature of the birds that frequented them. Each pond was surrounded with tessellated marble pavement and shaded by clumps of trees. As often as the water began to stagnate it was drained off and renewed. Montezuma is said to have passed much of his time here, alone or with his women, seated in the shade, amid the plashing of fountains and odor of flowers, musing upon affairs of state or diverting his mind from such cares by watching the motions of the strange birds upon the water.

Montezuma's Crown

Montezuma’s Crown.

No less than three hundred persons were employed in attending upon the water-fowl and the birds in the aviary; feeding them and in the moulting season carefully gathering the gorgeous plumes, which served as material for the celebrated Aztec feather-work. The habits of the birds were closely studied, and great care was taken that every species should be supplied with the food best suited to its taste, whether it consisted of worms, insects, or seeds. The fish with which the water-fowl were supplied amounted to one hundred and fifty pounds daily. In another hall a collection of human monstrosities was kept. As we shall presently see, many of these unfortunate creatures were trained to play the part of jesters at the royal table. Yet another hall contained a number of albinos, or white Indians, who were considered a great curiosity.

In addition to these city palaces the Aztec monarchs had numerous equally splendid country residences, besides whole tracts of country set apart as royal hunting-grounds. In these parts timber was not allowed to be cut nor game disturbed, which regulations were enforced with great rigor.


The principal country villa of Montezuma II., and the only one of which any signs are yet visible, was situated upon the hill of Chapultepec, which stood in a westerly direction from the city of Mexico. In the days of the Aztec kings, the lake of Tezcuco washed the base of the hill, round which the royal grounds stretched for miles in every direction. The gardens were laid out in terraces, that wound down the hillside amid dense groves of pepper-trees, myrtles, and cypresses, innumerable fountains and artificial cascades. Little of the ancient glory of either palace or gardens is now left, except the natural beauty of the foliage that clothes the hill, and the magnificent view to be obtained from the summit. Two statues of Montezuma II. and his father, cut in bas relief on the porphyry rock, were still to be seen, Gama tells us, in the middle of the last century, but these are now gone, swept away by the same ruthless hands that laid waste the hanging gardens and tore down halls and monuments until the groves of gigantic cypresses are all that is left standing in the gardens of Chapultepec that ministered to the pleasure of the ancient owners. Peter Martyr, describing the palace at Iztapalapan, writes, in the language of an early translator: “That house also hath orchardes, finely planted with diuers trees, and herbes, and flourishing flowers, of a sweete smell. There are also in the same, great standing pooles of water with many kindes of fish, in the which diuers kindes of all sortes of waterfoule are swimminge. To the bottome of these lakes, a man may descend by marble steppes brought farr of. They report strange thinges of a walke inclosed with nettinges of Canes, least any one should freely come within the voyde plattes of grounde, or to the fruite of the trees. Those hedges are made with a thousande pleasant deuises, as it falleth out in those delicate purple crosse alleyes, of mirtle, rosemary, or boxe, al very delightfull to behold.”

Nezahualcoyotl, the Tezcucan Solomon, was no whit behind his royal brother of Mexico in the matter of splendid country residences and gardens. Not content with the royal pleasure-grounds called Huectecpan, writes the Chichimec historian, this great king made others, such as the forest so famous in Tezcotzincan history, and those called Cauchiacac, Tzinacamoztoc, Cozcaquauhco, Cuetlachatitlan, or Tlateitec, and those of the lake Acatelelco, and Tepetzinco; he likewise marked out a large tract, where he might pass his leisure moments in hunting. These gardens were adorned with fountains, drains, sewers, ponds, and labyrinths, and were planted with all kinds of flowers and trees, both indigenous and foreign.

But Nezahualcoyotl was not one to overlook utility in laying out his grounds. Five large patches of the most fertile lands lying near the capital were brought under cultivation and the products appropriated exclusively to the use of the royal household.

Certain towns and provinces in the vicinity of the court furnished attendants and laborers for the palaces, gardens, and plantations. In return for such service said towns and provinces were exempt from taxation and enjoyed certain privileges. The manner of service was divided; thus twenty-eight towns supplied those who attended to the cleanliness and order of the royal buildings and waited upon the king and his suite; fourteen of these towns did service during one half of the year and the remainder during the other half. Five towns provided attendants for the king’s chamber, and eight provinces, with their dependent towns, furnished, each in its turn, foresters, gardeners, and agricultural laborers for the woods and gardens, ornamental or otherwise.


King Nezahualcoyotl’s favorite country residence, some remains of which are still visible, was at Tezcozinco, on a conical hill lying about two leagues from Tezcuco. A broad road, running between high hedges, and probably winding spirally round the hill, appears to have led up to the summit, which, however, could be reached in a shorter time by means of a flight of steps, many of which were cut into the living rock, and the remainder made of pieces of stone firmly cemented together. Dávila Padilla, who wrote in the latter part of the sixteenth century, says that he counted five hundred and twenty of these steps, without reckoning those that had already crumbled to pieces. He furthermore adds that for the last twelve steps in the ascent the staircase was tunneled through the solid rock, and became so narrow that only one person could pass at a time. Dávila Padilla inquired the reason of this of the natives, and was told by them, as they had heard it from their fathers, that this narrow passage enabled the Tezcucan monarch to assert his rank by taking precedence of his royal visitors when they went in a body to worship the idol that stood upon the summit; not a very polite proceeding certainly. Water was brought over hill and dale to the top of the mountain by means of a solid stone aqueduct. Here it was received in a large basin, having in its centre a great rock, upon which were inscribed in a circle the hieroglyphics representing the years that had elapsed since Nezahualcoyotl’s birth, with a list of his most noteworthy achievements in each. Within this circle the royal coat of arms was sculptured, the elaborate device of which it is almost impossible to imagine from the clumsy description of it given by Ixtlilxochitl. As nearly as I can make it out, certain figures representing a deer’s foot adorned with feathers and having a precious stone tied to it, a hind supporting an arm which grasps a bow and arrows, and a corseleted warrior, wearing a helmet with its ear-pieces, formed the centre; these were flanked by two houses, one in flames and falling to pieces, the other whole and highly ornamented; two tigers of the country, vomiting fire and water, served as supporters; the whole was surrounded by a border composed of twelve heads of kings and great nobles. From this basin the water was distributed through the gardens in two streams, one of which meandered down the northern side of the hill, and the other down the southern side. Dávila Padilla relates that there also stood upon the summit an image of a coyote, hewn from the living rock, which represented a celebrated fasting Indian. There were likewise several towers or columns of stone, having their capitals made in the shape of a pot, from which protruded plumes of feathers, which signified the name of the place. Lower down was the colossal figure of a winged beast, called by Ixtlilxochitl a lion, lying down, with its face toward the east, and bearing in its mouth a sculptured portrait of the king; this statue was generally covered with a canopy adorned with gold and feather-work.


A little lower yet were three basins of water, emblematic of the great lake, and on the borders of the middle one three female figures were sculptured on the solid rock, representing the heads of the confederated states of Mexico, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Upon the northern side of the hill was another pond; and here upon the rock was carved the coat of arms of the city of Tollan, which was formerly the chief town of the Toltecs; upon the southern slope of the hill was yet another pond, bearing the coat of arms and the name of the city of Tenayuca, which was formerly the head town of the Chichimecs. From this basin a stream of water flowed continually over the precipice, and being dashed into spray upon the rocks, was scattered like rain over a garden of odorous tropical plants. In the garden were two baths, dug out of one large piece of porphyry, and a flight of steps also cut from the solid rock, worked and polished so smooth that they looked like mirrors, and on the front of the stairs were carved the year, month, day, and hour in which information was brought to King Nezahualcoyotl of the death of a certain lord of Huexotzinco, whom he esteemed very highly, and who died while the said staircase was being built. The garden is said to have been a perfect little paradise. The gorgeous flowers were all transplanted from the distant tierra caliente; marble pavilions, supported on slender columns, with tesselated pavements and sparkling fountains, nestled among the shady groves and afforded a cool retreat during the long summer days. At the end of the garden, almost hidden by the groups of gigantic cedars and cypresses that surrounded it, was the royal palace, so situated that while its spacious halls were filled with the sensuous odors of the tropics, blown in from the gardens, it remained sheltered from the heat.


To such opulence, a veritable army was needed to maintain them. The Spanish Chroniclers suggest that at any one time Montezuma’s palace in Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) were occupied by six hundred nobles and dignitaries, “who passed the time lounging about and discussing the gossip of the day in low tones, for it was considered disrespectful to speak loudly or make any noise within the palace limits.” They were provided with apartments in the palace, and were allowed a retinue of their own after them, servants, of whom each person of quality was entitled to from one to thirty, according to his rank. These retainers, numbering two or three thousand, filled several outer courts during the day. The staff needed to sustain such guests daily would likewise need to be in the thousands.

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The Orly

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.