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Mexico-Tenochtitlan: Ancient City

Valley and Lake

On arriving in Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards were deeply impressed by the beauty, order and cleanliness of this city with between 150,000 and 300,000 inhabitants, one of the biggest metropolises in the world at the time.

his great city of Tenochtitlán is built on the salt lake , and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges...

"There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings.... Amongst these temples there is one , the principal one , whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts, which are surrounded by very high wall, a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built. All round inside this wall there are very elegant quarters with very large rooms and corridors where their priests live. There are as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of i and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville...".(Hernan Cortés)

Cortés prepared a tremendous offensive against the Aztec capital, exploiting the dissensions that split the indigenous world. Cuauhtémoc failed to rally all the domains against the Spaniards. The Texcocans, the Chalca and the Tepanecs - all those which Tenochtitlán had previously subjugated or humiliated - took the side of the Spaniards. The Capitan besieged the city for three whole months. He was able to count on the support of several thousand natives, and constructed a flotilla of brigantines to secure control of the lake. Yet it took repeated attacks, famine and an epidemic brought by the Europeans to overcome the Aztecs’ ferocious resistance.

The city finally fell on 13 August 1521. According to the chronicler Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, ‘Almost all the Aztec nobility died, the only survivors being a few lords and gentlemen, mostly children or extremely young people. Cuauhtémoc, ‘the last emperor’, was taken prisoner and kept alive for a while, but then hanged on the pretext of a plot. The Aztec empire had collapsed. Cortés set out to rebuild the capital and continue the conquest. A year later, in 1522, he became governor and captain-general of New Spain.

Fragments extracted from Serge Gruzinski, The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire, Thames and Hudson.







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