Capital of the mighty Aztec
sat on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco
in the Valley of Anahuac
high in the mountains of Mexico
"Huitzilopochtli appeared to one of the leaders in a dream
and told him: When you followed my orders and killed my nephew Copil and
ripped out his heart and threw it away into the lake it fell on a stone,
and from this stone a nopal cactus grew and on this an eagle now
is perched. Go and find it and there you will establish the city which
I name Tenochtitlán. And Huitzilopochtli called it Tenochtitlán
because tetl is stone, nochtli is nopal, tlan is place,
so that the name comes to mean the place of the rock and the nopal.1"
Sometime around 1325
AD, in a marshy playa lake
surrounded by high
mountains and volcanoes, the wandering Mexica
tribe, also known as the
"Aztec"s, found the manifestation of Huitzilopochtli's prophecy.
Islands were built up, canals were dug, temples were built, maize
planted. The valley became a Venice
in the middle of the
vast lake on the valley floor, albeit on a far larger scale.
For two centuries, the Aztecs terrorized neighboring tribes from Tenochtitlán,
eventually building up a mighty empire. The city swelled to
250,000 inhabitants, larger than any city in Europe, larger than all but
a few others in the world. From all the various corners of the empire,
captives were led to the heart of the city, to the temples of the rain
god Tlaloc, and the sun god Huitzilopochtli, and many lesser gods,
to have their living hearts cut out, lest the Sun fail to come up the
Then came the year in which Quetzalcoatl had promised to return.
A figure came out of the sea in the East, with white skin and and a beard, matching Quetzalcoatl!
The emperor Moctezuma received Quetzalcoatl and his servants with lavish
Little did the emperor realize that his guests were less than divine;
in fact a band of adventurers. Men with a lust for gold, surrounded
by a city many times richer than anything at home. Men barely kept under
control by their leader: Not the mighty Quetzalcoatl after all, merely
Hernan Cortes, who made Moctezuma a prisoner in his own palace, demanding
ever larger ransoms of gold.
The rest of this tragedy is well-known: Cortes went away to Cuba,
and his men had free rein throughout the city. They murdered the
priests of Tlaloc, causing a riot. Moctezuma was murdered in the melee;
Cortes' men barely escaped with their lives. Cortes, returning from
Cuba, met his men in Veracruz and began enlisting the help of the The
Texcocans, the Chalca, the Tepanecs, and all the other tribes eager
to return a measure of misery to their overlords.
Tenochtitlán fell on August 13, 1521, after a siege of three
months and a smallpox epidemic.
On top of Tenochtitlán's ashes grew the heart of New Spain,
the city of Mexico. On top of Huitzilopochtli's temple
rose a Roman Catholic cathedral, home to symbolic human sacrifice. Slowly, over the intervening centuries, Lake Texcoco was filled in as the city grew.
And now, oddly, the site of Tenochtitlán is again one of the
largest cities in the world, the temples are being excacvated, and the
priests of Tlaloc are dancing again.
1Codex Ramirez, filtered through http://www.umich.edu/~proflame/texts/mirror/fundaron.html