Tenochtitlán: City of the Aztecs

The city-state of Tenochtitlán was situated on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Founded in 1325, it became the capital of the Aztec Empire in the 15th century, until destroyed by Hernán Cortés in an act of ideological and cultural vandalism.

The first chapter of The Conquest of Mexico (1993) by Hugh Thomas begins: “The beautiful position of the Mexican capital, Tenochtitlán, could scarcely have been improved upon. The city stood over seven thousand feet up, on an island near the shore of a great lake. It was two hundred miles from the sea to the west, a hundred and fifty to the east. The lake lay in the centre of a broad valley surrounded by magnificent mountains, two of which were volcanoes. One of these was always covered by snow… The sun shone brilliantly most days, the air was clear, the sky was as blue as the water of the lake, the colours were intense, the nights cold.”

The name Tenochtitlán comes from the Nahuatl tetl (“rock”) and nochtli (“prickly pear”) and means “Among the prickly pears”. The religion of the Aztec civilization awaited the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: that the wandering tribes would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signalled by a hawk perched on a cactus and eating a snake. The Aztecs saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, a vision immortalized in Mexico’s coat of arms and on the Mexican flag. Undeterred by the poor terrain, they set about building a city, using the chinampa system (small rectangular areas of fertile land on shallow lake beds) to grow crops.

A thriving culture developed and the Aztec civilization came to dominate other tribes all around Mexico. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán on 8 November 1519 and wrote to the Emperor Charles V of “the greatness and the strange and wondrous things of this great city of Tenochtitlan.” He said, “I shall never be able to describe the hundredth part of what there is to relate, but, as far as I am able, I shall tell of some of the things I have seen. I know very well that what I shall say, although imperfectly told, will appear so wonderful that it will hardly seem credible, for even we, who see the things I describe with our own eyes, are unable to comprehend their reality.” (Quoted in The Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain by Alonso de Zorita, originally written circa 1570, translated by Benjamin Keen and published in 1963).

The destruction of Tenochtitlán came about in 1521 through the manipulation of local factions and divisions by Cortés. Though numerous battles were fought between the Aztecs and the Spanish army, which was composed of predominantly indigenous peoples, it was the siege of Tenochtitlán that was the decisive battle that led to the downfall of the Aztec civilization and marked the end of the first phase of the Spanish conquest. The city was levelled and a new one eventually built on top.

The great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) paid homage to pre-Conquest Mexico in “La Gran Tenochtitlán” – one of an enormous series of frescoes that adorns the stairwells and walls of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City:Most of the action in Rivera’s painting occurs in the foreground, behind which looms the magnificent city, replete with temples, streets, marketplaces and plazas, surrounded by towering mountains. Characteristically, Rivera portrays rich and poor, rulers and subjects; but the most lasting impression is one of a noble culture of elaborate symbolism and ritual. Rivera’s fresco celebrates a vanquished people and indicts the Conquest – for we know, unlike the people painted by Rivera, that their way of life would shortly be destroyed, along with the city itself.

The Uruguayan journalist, writer and poet, Eduardo Galeano – surely a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature – could have been describing Rivera’s mural in his book Memory of Fire: Genesis (1998) when he set the scene on 8 November 1519:

“Dumbfounded by the beauty of it, the conquistadors ride down the causeway. Tenochtitlán seems to have been torn from the pages of Amadís, things never heard of, never seen, nor even dreamed. … The sun rises behind the volcanoes, streets, canals, high-towered temples – all glitters before them. A multitude comes out to greet the invaders, silent and unhurried, while innumerable canoes open furrows in the cobalt waters.”

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