Aztec: Tenochtitlan

A summary account of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, through the eyes of the Spaniards.
— Orly

The present capital - Ciudade de Mexico - occupies the site of Tenochtitlan, but many changes have occurred in the intervening four centuries. First of all, the salt waters of the great lake have entirely shrunk away, leaving modern Mexico high and dry, a league away from the waters that Cortés saw flowing in ample canals through all the streets. Formerly the houses stood on elevated piles and were independent of the floods which rose in Lake Tezcuco by the overflowing of other lakes on a higher level. But when the foundations were on solid ground it became necessary to provide against the accumulated volume of water by excavating a tunnel to drain off the flood. This was constructed about one hundred years after the invasion of the Spaniards, and has been described by Humboldt as "one of the most stupendous hydraulic works in existence."

The appearance of the lake and suburbs of the capital have long lost much of the attractive appearance they had at the time of the Spanish visit; but the town itself is still the most brilliant city in Spanish America, surmounted by a cathedral, which forms "the most sumptuous house of worship in the New World."

The great causeway already described as leading north from the royal city of Iztapalapan, had another to the north of the capital, which might be called its continuation. The third causeway, leading west to the town Tacuba from the island city, will be noticed presently as the scene of the Spaniards' retreat.

There were excellent police regulations for health and cleanliness. Water supplied by earthen pipes was from a hill about two miles distant. Besides the palaces and temples there were several important buildings: an armoryfilled with weapons and military dresses; a granary; various warehouses; an immense aviary, with "birds of splendid plumage assembled from all parts of the empire—the scarlet cardinal, the golden pheasant, the endless parrot tribe, and that miniature miracle of nature, the humming-bird, which delights to revel among the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico." The birds of prey had a separate building. The menagerie adjoining the aviary showed wild animals from the mountain forests, as well as creatures from the remote swamps of the hot lands by the seashore. The serpents "were confined in long cages lined with down or feathers, or in troughs of mud and water."

Diego Rivera, Tenochtitlan

Diego Rivera, Tenochtitlan

Wishing to visit the great Mexican temple, Hernán Cortés, with his cavalry and most of his infantry, followed the caziques whom Montezuma had politely sent as guides.

On their way to the central square the Spaniards "were struck with the appearance of the inhabitants, and their great superiority in the style and quality of their dress over the people of the lower countries. The women, as in other parts of the country, seemed to go about as freely as the men. They wore several skirts or petticoats of different lengths, with highly ornamented borders, and sometimes over them loose-flowing robes, which reached to the ankles. No veils were worn here as in some other parts of Anahuac. The Aztec women had their faces exposed; and their dark raven tresses floated luxuriantly over their shoulders, revealing features which, although of a dusky or rather cinnamon hue, were not unfrequently pleasing, while touched with the serious, even sad expression characteristic of the national physiognomy."

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca (1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers who began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
— Orly

When near the great market "the Spaniards were astonished at the throng of people pressing toward it, and on entering the place their surprise was still further heightened by the sight of the multitudes assembled there, and the dimensions of the enclosure, twice as large, says one Spanish observer, as the celebrated square of Salamanca. Here were traders from all parts; the goldsmiths from Azcapozalco, the potters and jewelers of Cholula, the painters of Tezcuco, the stone-cutters, hunters, fishermen, fruiterers, mat and chair makers, florists, etc. The pottery department was a large one; so were the armories for implements of war; razors and mirrors—booths for apothecaries with drugs, roots, and medical preparations. In other places again, blank-books or maps for the hieroglyphics or pictographs were to be seen folded together like fans. Animals both wild and tame were offered for sale, and near them, perhaps, a gang of slaves with collars round their necks. One of the most attractive features of the market was the display of provisions: meats of all kinds, domestic poultry, game from the neighboring mountains, fish from the lakes and streams, fruits in all the delicious abundance of these temperate regions, green vegetables, and the unfailing maize."

This market, like hundreds of smaller ones, was of course held every fifth day—the week of the ancient Mexicans being one-fourth of the twenty days which constituted the Aztec month. This great market was comparable to "the periodical fairs in Europe, not as they now exist, but as they existed in the middle ages," when from the difficulties of intercommunication they served as the great central marts for commercial intercourse, exercising a most important and salutary influence on the community.

One of the Spaniards in the party accompanying Cortés was the historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and his testimony is remarkable:

There were among us soldiers who had been in many parts of the world, Constantinople and Rome, and through all Italy, and who said that a market-place so large, so well ordered and regulated, and so filled with people, they had never seen.

Proceeding next to the great teocalli or Aztec temple, covering the site of the modern cathedral with part of the market-place and some adjoining streets, they found it in the midst of a great open space, surrounded by a high stone wall, ornamented on the outside by figures of serpents raised in relief, and pierced by huge battlemented gateways opening on the four principal streets of the capital. The teocalli itself was a solid pyramidal structure of earth and pebbles, coated on the outside with hewn stones, the sides facing the cardinal points. It was divided into five stories, each of smaller dimensions than that immediately below. The ascent was by a flight of steps on the outside, which reached to the narrow terrace at the bottom of the second story, passing quite round the building, when a second stairway conducted to a similar landing at the base of the third. Thus the visitor was obliged to pass round the whole edifice four times in order to reach the top. This had a most imposing effect in the religious ceremonials, when the pompous procession of priests with their wild minstrelsy came sweeping round the huge sides of the pyramid, as they rose higher and higher toward the summit in full view of the populace assembled in their thousands.

Cortés marched up the steps at the head of his men, and found at the summit "a vast area paved with broad flat stones. The first object that met their view was a large block of jasper, the peculiar shape of which showed it was the stone on which the bodies of the unhappy victims were stretched for sacrifice. Its convex surface, by raising the breast, enabled the priest to perform more easily his diabolical task of removing the heart. At the other end of the area were two towers or sanctuaries, consisting of three stories, the lower one of stone, the two upper of wood elaborately carved. In the lower division stood the images of their gods; the apartments above were filled with utensils for their religious services, and with the ashes of some of their Aztec princes who had fancied this airy sepulcher. Before each sanctuary stood an altar, with that undying fire upon it, the extinction of which boded as much evil to the empire as that of the Vestal flame would have done in ancient Rome. Here also was the huge cylindrical drum made of serpents' skins, and struck only on extraordinary occasions, when it sent forth a melancholy, weird sound, that might be heard for miles" over the country, indicating fierce anger of deity against the enemies of Mexico.

As Hernán Cortés reached the summit he was met by the Emperor himself attended by the high priest. Taking the general by the hand, Montezuma pointed out the chief localities in the wide prospect which their position commanded, including not only the capital, "bathed on all sides by the salt floods of the Tezcuco, and in the distance the clear fresh waters of Lake Chalco," but the whole of the Valley of Mexico to the base of the circular range of mountains, and the wreaths of vapor rolling up from the hoary head of Popocatepetl.

Hernán Cortés was allowed "to behold the shrines of the gods. They found themselves in a spacious apartment, with sculptures on the walls, representing the Mexican calendar, or the priestly ritual. Before the altar in this sanctuary stood the colossal image of Huitzilopochtli, the tutelary deity and war-god of the Aztecs. His countenance was distorted into hideous lineaments of symbolical import. The huge folds of a serpent, consisting of pearls and precious stones, were coiled round his waist, and the same rich materials were profusely sprinkled over his person. On his left foot were the delicate feathers of the humming-bird, which gave its name to the dread deity. The most conspicuous ornament was a chain of gold and silver hearts alternate, suspended round his neck, emblematical of the sacrifice in which he most delighted. A more unequivocal evidence of this was afforded by three human hearts that now lay smoking on the altar before him.

"The adjoining sanctuary was dedicated to a milder deity. This was Tezcatlipoca, who created the world, next in honor to that invisible being the Supreme God, who was represented by no image, and confined by no temple. He was represented as a young man, and his image of polished black stone was richly garnished with gold plates and ornaments. But the homage to this god was not always of a more refined or merciful character than that paid to his carnivorous brother."

According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the stench of human gore in both those chapels was more intolerable than that of all the slaughter-houses in Castile. Glad to escape into the open air, Cortés expressed wonder that a great and wise prince like Montezuma could have faith "in such evil spirits as these idols, the representatives of the devil! Permit us to erect here the true cross, and place the images of the Blessed Virgin and her Son in these sanctuaries; you will soon see how your false gods will shrink before them!"

This extraordinary speech of the general shocked Montezuma, who, in reproof, said: "Had I thought you would have offered this outrage to the gods of the Aztecs, I would not have admitted you into their presence." 

Within the same enclosure, Hernán Cortés and his companions visited a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.  Other buildings served as seminaries for the instruction of youth of both sexes; and according to the Spanish accounts of the teaching and management of these institutions there was "the greatest care for morals and the most blameless deportment."


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