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The Aztec Account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
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 Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Metropolis

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PostSubject: Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Metropolis   Tue Jun 30, 2009 8:09 am

The beginnings of the Aztec capital were very humble. It was founded on a low-lying island so undesirable that other tribes had not bothered to occupy it. The indigenous chronicles describe the difficulties with which the Aztecs managed to build a few miserable huts and a small altar to their supreme deity, the war-god Huitzilopochth. But their fierce will overcame every obstacle. Less than two centuries later, the Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo thought that the wonders he beheld must be a dream. The Spaniards had been welcomed into the city as guests of Motecuhzoma, and a party of them-led by Cortes-climbed up to the flat top of the pyramid on which the main temple was built. They were met by the Aztec king himself, who pointed out the various sights.

So we stood looking about us, or that huge and cursed temple stood so high that from it one could see over everything very well, and we saw the three causeways which led into Mexico, that is the causeway of Iztapalapa by which we had entered four days before, and that of Tacuba, and that of Tepeaquilla, and we saw the fresh water that comes from Chapultepec which supplies the city, and we saw the bridges on the three causeways which were built at certain distances apart through which the water of the lake flowed in and out from one side to the other, and we beheld on that great lake a great multitude of canoes, some coming with supplies of food and others returning loaded with cargoes or merchandise; and we saw that from every house of that great city and of all the other cities that were built in the water it was impossible to pass from house to house, except by drawbridges which were made of wood or in canoes; and we saw in those cities Cues [temples] and oratories like towers and fortresses and all gleaming white, and it was a wonderful thing to behold; then the houses with flatroofs, and on the causeways other small towers and oratories which were like fortresses.

After having examined and considered all that we had seen we turned to look at the great market place and the crowds of people that were in it, some buying and others selling, so that the murmur and hum of their voices and words that they used could be heard more than a league off. Some of the soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, and all over Italy, and in Rome, said that so large a market place and so full of people, and so well regulated and arranged, they had never beheld before.

The Spanish soldier had good reasons for describing the city in such enthusiastic terms. Almost nothing remains today of what he saw, but his account is corroborated by other writings, ancient maps and archaeological investigations.

At the time of the Conquest, the area of the island on which the city stood had been increased by means of fills, until it comprised amore or less regular square measuring about two miles on each side. It was joined on the north to the island of Tlatelolco, originally an independent city, but annexed by the Aztecs in 1473. Tlatelolco was connected with the mainland by a causeway that ran to the sanctuary of the mother-goddess Tonantzin on the northern shore of the lake. At the present day the site of her temple is occupied by the Basilica of Tepeyac, dedicated to Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

To the south of Tenochtitlan, another causeway- the one by which the Spaniards entered -joined the mainland at Iztapalapa. The eastern edge of the city bordered the wide expanse of the lake, and only during the clearest weather was it possible to see the city of Tezcoco, home of the famous poet-king Nezahualcoyotl, on the opposite shore. Finally, on the west, another causeway joined the city with the allied kingdom of Tlacopan or Tacuba; it was along this causeway that the Spaniards fled on the disastrous Night of Sorrows.

Tenochtitlan was divided into four great sections. To the northwest stood Cuepopan, "the place where flowers bloom," which now forms the barrio or sector known as Santa Maria la Redonda; to the southwest, Moyotlan, "the place of the gnats," later dedicated by the Spanish missionaries to the honor of St. John the Baptist; to the southeast, Teopan, "the place of the gods," which included the precinct of the main temple and which was known in colonial times by the name of San Pablo; and to the northeast, Atzacoalco, "in the house of the herons," which became the site where the missionaries built the church of San Sebastian.

The two most important places in the capital were the sacred precinct of the main temple, with its related temples, schools and other structures (in all, it contained seventy-eight buildings), and the huge plaza in Tlatelolco that served as the principal market place, offering an astonishing variety of products from far and near. The walled precinct of the main temple formed a great square measuring approximately five hundred yards on each side. Today nothing is left of the temple except a few remains that can be seen near the eastern walls of the Cathedral of Mexico. A model of the precinct has recently been installed there.

The palace of Axayacatl, who ruled from 1469 to 1481, stood on the western side of the main temple, and it was here that the Spaniards were lodged when they arrived in the city as Motecuhzoma's guests. The palace of Motecuhzoma, facing a broad plaza, stood on the site now occupied by the National Palace of Mexico. And in addition to these and other structures, there was a large number of lesser temples and stone and mortar buildings reserved as living quarters for the nobles, merchants, artists and other persons. The streets of Tenochtitlan were comparatively narrow, many of them with canals through which canoes from the lakeshore could reach the center of the city. The capital boasted many other attractions, and the Spaniards were particularly impressed by the botanical and zoological gardens, as nothing of the kind existed at that time in their native land.

The population of Tenochtitlan at the time of the Conquest has been the subject of considerable controversy, but beyond question it must have amounted at least to a quarter of a million. The activities were many and colorful. Fiestas, sacrifices and other rituals were celebrated in honor of the gods. Teachers and students met in the various calmecac and telpuchealli, the pre-Hispanic centers of education. The coming and going of merchant canoes and the constant bustle in the Tlatelolco market impressed the Spaniards so much that they compared the city to an enormous anthill. The military exercises and the arrival and departure of the warriors were other colorful spectacles. In brief, the life of Tenochtitlan was that of a true metropolis. The city was visited by governors and ambassadors from distant regions. Gold, silver, richfeathers, cocoa, bark paper and other types of tribute, along with slaves and victims for the human sacrifices, streamed in along the streets and canals. The Spaniards were right: Tenochtitlan was indeed an anthill, in which each individual worked unceasingly to honor the gods and augment the grandeur of the city.
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