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Montezuma's Empire

Posted on June 29 2020

Montezuma's Empire

June 20, 2020, will mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Aztec emperor Montezuma II, or Montezuma as he is more commonly known. Montezuma was the last fully independent ruler of the Aztec Empire before it fell to Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés in 1521.

Montezuma’s kingdom lay in an area now known as the Valley of Mexico. Located on a plateau, a landform that rises sharply above the land surrounding it on at least one side, the Valley of Mexico is today located in Ciudad de México (Mexico City) and the eastern half of the Mexican state Estado de México (State of Mexico).

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the Spanish soldiers who participated in the conquest of Mexico under Cortés, first saw the Aztec emperor in 1519. He described Montezuma as being “about 40 years old, of good height and well-proportioned, slender and spare of flesh, not very swarthy, but of the natural color and shade of an Indian. He did not wear his hair long, but so as just to cover his ears, his scanty black beard was well-shaped and thin. His face was somewhat long, but cheerful, and he had good eyes and showed in his appearance and manner both tenderness and, when necessary, gravity.”

The ruler that the Spanish conquistadors met was a very powerful person indeed. Montezuma’s empire stretched from northern Mexico to today’s country of Guatemala in the south. Upon the death of his uncle, Ahuitzotl, in 1502, Montezuma became tlatoani, the empire’s religious and political leader. Montezuma then took further steps to increase his own power. He reduced the responsibilities of the Tlacaellel, or chief of internal affairs.

The Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan, reflected Montezuma’s wealth and power. At the time, Tenochtitlan was one of the world’s largest cities. Historians think that as many as 200,000 people lived there. In comparison, the largest city in the world at that time, Beijing, China, had about 700,000 residents.

Montezuma and the capital city of Tenochtitlan owed much of its wealth to tribute, or payments that rulers paid to another ruler who had conquered their people and territory. Tribute payments demonstrated that a defeated ruler was considered lesser than the ruler who conquered him. Tributes were also paid to a conquering ruler as a price for protecting the conquered country from others. Aztec tax records show that tribute included items such as gold; jade; exotic bird feathers; animals, such as eagles or jaguars; clothes; textiles; or foods, such as cacao or corn. These tribute payments helped establish Tenochtitlan as a city that impressed both Central Americans and Spaniards alike.

“It was all so wonderful,” wrote Bernal Diaz del Castillo, “that we do not know how to describe the first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed before.”

Tenochtitlan was built on artificial islands in Lake Texcoco. To make an artificial island, Aztec engineers sunk timbers into the water. Workers then used these sunken timbers to construct walls. Within these wooden walls, builders placed layers of plants, dirt, and rock. The islands that resulted were called chinampas, and they were typically about 20-35 feet wide and 300-600 feet long. Over time, this system of chinampas covered over five square miles.

Montezuma’s capital featured canoes that moved both goods and people on waterways within the city as well as to towns located on the shore of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan was also connected to coastal towns by three causeways, or raised roads that are built over wet ground or water.

The causeways ran north, east, and west from the capital. They included gaps that featured removable bridges similar to today’s drawbridges. When workers removed these bridges, boats could pass by these causeways. Also, in the case of an attack by the empire’s enemies, these bridges could be dismantled. Without bridges to carry an invading army over the waters of Lake Texcoco, it would be especially difficult for a conquering army to reach the city.

Hernán Cortés was impressed by what he saw. In a letter he sent to King Charles of Spain in 1520, Cortés compared Tenochtitlan to Spanish cities with which the ruler would be familiar. “The city is as big as Seville or Cordoba,” Cortés wrote. “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.”

The Aztec capital featured freshwater for drinking, bathing, and irrigation that was provided by two aqueducts. An aqueduct is a human-made canal or channel that carries water over a long distance. Even though Tenochtitlan was located in the middle of a lake, Lake Texcoco’s water was salty and not good for drinking. Each Aztec aqueduct was built of stone and mud and placed on top of a causeway.

At the center of Tenochtitlan stood an area called the Sacred Precinct. Surrounded by stone walls, the Sacred Precinct was about 380 yards long and 330 yards wide and could hold as many as 8,000 people. The area contained the Temple Mayor. An enormous pyramid, Temple Mayor honored the Aztec gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. It also contained the homes of Aztec priests and schools for training young men for the priesthood.

Montezuma’s palace was certainly befitting a ruler of his power. It featured gardens, an aviary with fresh and saltwater pools, and a private zoo that contained jaguars, pumas, foxes, and snakes, along with hundreds of other exotic animals.

Palace meals were equally impressive. Today, many Americans associate Mexican food with dishes such as beef burritos, melted cheese dips, or cinnamon-sugar-flavored churros. The Aztecs did not have cattle, pigs, sugar, cheese, butter, cinnamon, or wheat. Many of today’s popular Mexican dishes would have been impossible for Montezuma’s chefs to prepare! Instead, a feast in Montezuma’s palace might include meats such as turkey, duck, pigeon, rabbit, or fish. All were served on finely crafted pottery. The ruler always dined alone, sitting behind a screen while he was entertained by acrobats and jugglers.

However, Montezuma was not as powerful as he seemed. By the time Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlan in 1519, Montezuma’s empire was not as strong as it once was. Whenever the Aztecs conquered a group of people, the defeated group was expected to pay costly tributes. They were also commanded to worship Aztec gods instead of their own. Unhappy with their treatment, many of these conquered groups began to rebel. Although Montezuma was able to keep these rebellions controlled, the harsh treatment they received made these groups extremely willing to help the Spanish conquistadors take over the Aztec Empire.

When he first met the Spanish conquistadors, Montezuma used one of his most powerful weapons: wealth. He welcomed Cortés and his forces into Tenochtitlan. He attempted to gain their friendship through gifts of gold, silver, and expensive clothes.

Montezuma’s first meetings with Cortés were cordial and friendly. The Aztec ruler gave Cortés a necklace of golden crabs, while Cortés gave Montezuma a necklace of Venetian glass on gold thread. However, rather than buying their friendship, historians speculate that Montezuma’s gifts instead made Cortés and his Spanish forces hungrier for Aztec wealth.

Within weeks of their first meeting, Montezuma was taken hostage by Spanish forces. The mighty Aztec emperor was forced to declare himself a subject of King Charles of Spain. He was also required to hand over more treasure to the conquistadors and to allow them to place a crucifix, a symbol of Christianity, on top of the Temple Mayor.

Today, the circumstances of Montezuma’s death are still unclear. According to some Spanish accounts, the conquistadors treated Montezuma kindly. However, they said that his submission to Cortés cost him the respect of his Aztec subjects. When Montezuma tried to speak to his people, they attacked him with arrows and stones. Wounded, Montezuma died from his injuries three days later.

The Aztec account of Montezuma’s death was different. It held that Montezuma was killed by Spanish forces when he was no longer useful to their plans to conquer his empire. Two manuscripts from the sixteenth century seem to support this Aztec account. These manuscripts, created by Central American artists of Montezuma’s time, show the ruler as either in shackles or with a rope around his neck.

The former Tenochtitlan today would be located at the center of Mexico City, Mexico. Like Tenochtitlan in its day, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest cities. With nearly 22 million residents, it is the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It contains Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest), one of the world’s largest city parks, which once served as a retreat for Aztec rulers. The park is home to many Montezuma cypress trees, some of which are believed to have been planted by the Aztecs themselves hundreds of years ago.


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