The glory that was Tenochtitlan

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
The Aztecs reached previously unmatched heights of sophistication. Paul Noble considers their achievements and describes the rise and fall of their ancient empire

The Glory that was Tenochtitlan

At first sight, there is little that might endear the Aztecs to us or earn them the accolade "civilised". They had no proper written language, and no proper currency (relying instead on barter). They had no metal weapons or implements, and no wheeled vehicles, horses, or beasts of burden.

They used torture routinely in the up-bringing of children, and at public ceremonies they made bloody sacrifices in which the hearts were ripped from their live victims' bodies. The skull rack by the Great Temple held up to a million skulls. At religious festivals, human flesh was consumed. Ruthless laws regulated the lives of everyone (such as the death sentence for drunkenness), and continual warring was considered essential to the survival of the state.

Yet the Aztecs reached a level of sophistication not easily matched anywhere at the time. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, their capital Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexcio, was the greatest city in the world, with an estimated population of 300,000 and an extensive administrative structure. Sewage was disposed of into the lakeside marshes where it provided fertiliser for the raised fields. Fresh water was brought in on stone aqueducts, providing levels of hygiene undreamed of in the Spanish cities of the conquistadores.

The city was divided into parish-size areas which had responsibility for maintaining the canals, aqueducts and causeways. Long straight causeways led across the marshes into the city, which was divided into segments by four major avenues. The most important of these ran from east to west - the route of the sun.

Clusters of small flat-roofed houses built of adobe bricks (unfired bricks dried in the sun) were interspersed with flourishing gardens and fields. At the heart of Tenochtitlan was a walled temple precinct, about 500 metres across, crowded with schools, temples, altars and assembly halls, all dominated by the stairway of the towering pyramid-temple.

Trade, much of it carried by barges along the canals, was the lifeblood of the city. Up to 60,000 people a day crowded into the busy market squares with their surrounding arcades. Every kind of merchandise was traded - ornaments of gold and silver, raw materials such as lead, tin, stone, feathers, lime, bricks and wood, as well as an impressive variety of foodstuffs, including honey, wild ducks, chicken, tortillas, salted fish, onions and watercress. There were chemists to provide herbal cures, ointments and plasters. Indeed, to the Spanish, the city appeared so opulent and beautiful that some soldiers asked whether this was not all "a dream".


Underlying the complex legends of the gods lay a foundation of fear. The Aztecs feared the ghosts of the dead that might be lurking behind any rock or boulder, and the night when horrible demons abounded. The gods were angry and dangerous beings who needed to be placated at every turn; the supreme god was Huitzilopochtli, the sun, who "died" at sunset and could only be reborn each day through the blood of human sacrifice.

Some of the gods were:

* Huitzilopochtli: the sun and supreme being, represented as the "humming bird of the south";

* Tlaloc: god of rain * Quetzalcoatl: god-king of the Toltecs - represented as the plumed serpent * Miclantecuhtli: ruler of the underworld and place of the dead, represented as a skeleton * Tezcatlipoca: the "smoking mirror" ruler of the night sky, represented as a jaguar


C 1150 Migration south of the nomadic Mexica people.

1350 Aztecs establish the city of Tenochtitlan.

1428 Triple alliance formed between the Mexica, the Tacubans and the Texocans.

1519 March: Hernan Cortes lands at Tabasco on the south-eastern coast November: Moctezuma taken prisoner in Tenochtitlan.

1520 June: Moctezuma dies. Noche triste, the Spanish escape from Tenochtitlan.

1521 April: Siege of Tenochtitlan begins August: Fall of the city.

By 1548, 60 per cent of the population had died from typhus and other diseases brought by the Spanish


Aztec nobility made great use of quetzal feathers in the formal dress of their rank. Craftsmen created a framework of reeds covered with plain feathers, then the stems of quetzal feathers were sheathed in thin bamboo tubes and bound together in clusters. The clusters were fixed to the framework using thread and the design completed by the addition of precious stones.

Brilliant, sumptuous green feathers adorn the quetzal bird, which has tail feathers up to 60cm long, so it is no wonder that the feathers from this solitary bird were prized.


According to Toltec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl fled with his followers from the Toltec capital Tula; after years of wandering, he was consumed by a heavenly fire and his ashes turned into birds. His spirit sailed across the sea, but he promised to return. The Aztecs also worshipped this fabled god-king - god of creation, god of the evening star, and god of the wind. The Aztecs were intensely superstitious. They believed the legend of Quetzalcoatl's return from "over the sea", a belief that may have undermined their leader's confidence in dealing with the Spanish invader Cortes, whose arrival in 1519 was preceded by a famine, an eclipse and an earthquake, all seen as signs of the gods' displeasure.

The response of Moctezuma, elected ruler of the Aztec Empire in 1502, was to try to placate the gods. He welcomed Cortes and showered him with gifts, thus setting aside the outrage that would be the normal response of a powerful and proud ruler to the incursion of strangers into his kingdom.

The myth that Moctezuma thought Cortes to be Quetzalcoatl came largely from the pens of post-conquest Aztec historians seeking to explain the rapid defeat of the empire.


The Aztecs emerged from successive waves of invaders and settlers in Central America, in a process similar to that which gave birth to the English.

In AD 1000, one group of settlers, the Toltecs, reigned supreme in Central America. Among other gods, they worshipped Quetzalcoatl. The Mexica, a nomadic group, then moved into the highland valleys and during the following 200 years a network of independent city states was established. As in ancient Greece, rivalries developed.

In 1428, a triple alliance was setup by the three most powerful groups, the Mexica, the Texocans and the Tacubans. This alliance formed the basis of the Aztec empire, spanning 250,000 km2 and encompassing 12 million people, centred on the city of Tenochtitlan. The term Aztec, adopted in the 18th century, describes the dominant people who lived in the Valley of Mexico during this empire.


The empire crumbled with incredible speed. Hernan Cortes, with his army of around 500 Spanish adventurers (conquistadores), arrived in 1519, fired by religious conviction and attracted by tales of a civilisation rich beyond measure. They were greeted with caution, but given presents by the emissaries of the Aztec leader, Moctezuma, including tortillas, eggs, turkeys, and guavas sprinkled with human blood. These were rejected. Nevertheless, by November of that year, Cortes was staying in the capital Tenochtitlan as a guest of Moctezuma. However, some hotheaded Spaniards caused a bloody confrontation and Cortes and his men were made prisoners within the confines of the temple.

Moctezuma was later seized and killed, possibly by missiles thrown by his own people, and the conquistadores fought their way out of the city under cover of darkness. That night, June 30 1520, is known as the Noche triste (the night of sorrow), as two-thirds of the Spaniards were killed, or captured and sacrificed. The following April, with around 900 fresh troops and the help of native forces of Tlaxcalans and Cholollans, Cortes returned and laid siege to Tenochtitlan. A quarter of a million Aztecs are said to have died, many from smallpox or starvation, and some 15,000 women and children were drowned in the lake by Cortes's allies. The last emperor, Cuauhtemoc, surrendered to Cortes and was treated honourably, but there was little honour elsewhere.

The Spanish stripped the country of gold and silver and shipped many precious objects to Spain. They destroyed the Aztec religion and set about the systematic conversion of the population to Christianity. More significantly, between 1521 and 1548, 60 per cent of the native population died as the result of typhus and other diseases unwittingly imported by the Spanish.


Archaeology continues to yield up evidence of the Aztec civilisation, but the written record is thin. A few manuscripts, called codices, survive. The pictorial writing system was not a fully developed script. Post-conquest, the Spanish account was given by Cortes himself, Diaz del Castillo and the priests Diego Duran and Bernardino de Sahagun. Two descendants of Aztec nobles, Ixtlilxochiti and Chimalpahin, gave the Aztec view.


* Try tasting some Mexican food. The Aztecs staple diet was maize. What breakfast food is made from maize? Investigate the foods that we can buy that come from Central America.

* Why did the Aztecs practise human sacrifice? Imagine you are an Aztec and have to explain sacrifice to a foreign visitor.

* Examine some Aztec picture writing (glyphs). Can you invent a glyph to represent your school?

* Create a tourist brochure for the ancient city of Tenochtitlan.

* Visit the Mexican gallery in the British Museum if you can.

* Talks, art and dance workshops are provided by Quetzal, Artesanias

Mexicanas www.enex.netquetzal and www.enex.netfiesta

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