When I was in first grade, I had to create a poster about another country. I chose Mexico, and my poster featured a big photo of an Aztec pyramid near Mexico City. A few years later, in middle school, I convinced my friends to build a model of an Aztec city, complete with a pyramid, for a group project on native American cultures. The mystique of the Aztecs has fascinated me from a young age. Unfortunately my private Catholic, American schooling treated Mexico’s greatest indigenous empire as little more than a speedbump on the road to manifest destiny.
Naturally, I was drawn to Buddy Levy’s “Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs.” Entirely narrative and told chronologically, “Conquistador” follows Cortés through the Valley of Mexico from 1519 through 1521. Spoiler alert – he conquers the Aztecs.
But I won’t spoil anything more, because the astonishing luck Cortés find and the complete misfortune the befalls the Mexica people of the empire – not to mention some of baffling decisions of Montezuma and the valiant resistance of his successors – is a story so unbelievable it couldn’t be anything but true life events, and Levy’s retelling of the story will leap off the pages like an R-rated epic film.
At no point was this more true for me when the Spanish first laid eyes upon Tenochtitlan. The center of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan in 1519 was arguably the greatest city in the world. Built in the middle of a massive brackish lake, its planning, architecture, civil engineering and social order were so sophisticated the Spanish nicknamed it “The City of Dreams.” It’s one of those places I wish were still around, because first-hand accounts from Cortés’ expedition read like something out of mythology. In the words of the expedition’s scribe, Bernal Diaz:
Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico…
Here’s a collection of fun facts I learned from “Conquistador” about Tenochtitlan:
- It was home to a population of 200,000, and its metro area may have held up to 2.6 million people, which likely made it the largest city in the world in 1519, a time when only 500 million people were alive. In contrast, Europe’s largest city, Paris, had 150,000 people.
- At the time of Spanish conquest, the Aztec empire was just less than 150 years old, having started in 1372 and ended in 1521. Throughout its history, the Mexica people had 11 emperors. Montezuma was third to last, as two rulers continued to fight the Spanish after his death.
- Mexica history says that the city was founded in 1325 where the leaders saw a vision foretold in a prophecy – an eagle eating a snake atop a prickly pear cactus. Unfortunately, they saw this in the middle of the massive Lake Texcoco. Not ones to be deterred, the Mexica set about building artificial islands in the middle of the lake upon which to build their capital city. The prophetic vision now appears at the center of the Mexican flag.
- To feed the hundreds of thousands in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding cities of Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs invented chinampas, an agricultural technique that created artificial islands within the lakes on which to plant their crops. Made from fertilizer and decaying plant material, the chinampas were highly fertile and drew their own water from the lake. On these chinampas, farmers could grow corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, flowers, agave and more.
- Because the water in Lake Texcoco was mostly swampy and brackish, the Mexica could not use it for drinking water. Instead, they built two 2.5-mile aqueducts from nearby springs to bring potable water into city limits. Later, city leaders had a levee constructed to keep the saltiest of the lake’s water away from the city.
- In the sister city of Tlatelolco on the northwestern end stood one of the largest marketplaces in the world, which daily saw 20,000 people trading their wares – fruits, vegetables, tortillas, feathers, cotton cloth, animal skins, tobacco, chocolate, obsidian, turquoise, copper, gold, artwork, jewelry and more.
- Montezuma’s palace has 100 rooms and massive halls that rivaled anything in Europe at the time. Inside lived thousands of servants, and the emperor could choose from more than 300 specially prepared meals daily. The palace sat adjacent to the public square, where the pyramid temples were so tall they served as lookout points for the entire lake and Valley of Mexico.
- Tenochtitlan also had two zoos, botanical gardens, and aquariums, all of which housed hundreds of species of animals and plants brought from all corners of the Americas.
- The city was accessible by foot via four narrow causeways, complete with bridges that could be retracted for defense. Otherwise, the Aztecs used dugout canoes to navigate through the city’s sophisticated canal system, reach the chinampas, or get to the lakeshore. When the Spanish arrived and attempted to claim the city, they failed spectacularly in their first attempt thanks to both the narrow causeways and the natural defense of the water. Cortés had to attempt one of the most ridiculous, ingenious war plans in history to ultimately take the city.
Despite the complexity of the city, Cortés and his troops primarily saw Tenochtitlan as their ticket to personal wealth and fame. The conquistadors did not initially intend to destroy the city, but the proud Mexica people refused to stop fighting under siege, and Cortés thought his only option to get his deserved gold was to raze the city. Sadly, the city turned out to be much less of a treasure trove than he had hoped. Of course, he justified his atrocities in part over the “barbaric” and “savage” practices of Aztec religion, particularly human sacrifices, a harrowing and misunderstood ritual, which even today – its violence and controversy not withstanding – is still used to discredit and dehumanize the Mexica people.
As Levy notes in his book, if Cortés had not conquered Mexico, someone else would have. By 1521, anyone likely could have, given that European disease was on its way to killing nearly half the indigenous population of the Americas. But I still marvel at what had been accomplished by the Mexica people, and I wonder what the world would look like today had their culture and society not been decimated by Spanish treasure hunters.
All that remains of the physical Tenochtitlan today is archaeological sites at the center of Mexico City. Even the mighty lake has evaporated. But the human race is indebted to the Aztecs for their agriculture, their artwork, their architecture and engineering. As “Conquistador” illustrates, history is written by the victors, but it’s important we fight to remember the legacy and the tragedy of the conquered, too. Tenochtitlan was a real-life Xanadu or Atlantis the likes of which the world may never see again.