The battle-hardened, armour-clad soldiers stopped in their tracks and stared in amazement. Rising out of the waters of the vast lake before them was a majestic island-city of wide streets and white stucco-fronted houses.
Bathed in bright sunshine and against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, palaces and temples towered into the clear blue sky.
‘Glorious!’ exclaimed the Catholic monk who accompanied the gold-seeking adventurers from Spain on their journey of exploration from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
They might have expected to find little more than a settlement of mud huts when they landed on this foreign shore more than 5,000 miles from home.
Instead, gleaming there in the winter sunlight of November 1519, was the magnificent capital of the rich and thriving Aztec civilisation.
It went by the name of Tenochtitlan and was larger than any place these Europeans had ever seen or even dreamed of.
With a population in excess of 200,000, it was bigger than London, Madrid and Rome put together. It drew its immense wealth presiding over an area the size of Britain.
At the heart and head of this sophisticated civilisation was the imposing figure of the god-like Aztec ruler himself – Moctezuma (or Montezuma, the more recognisable version of his name). He is the centrepiece of a ground-breaking exhibition opening at the British Museum in London this week.
Sculptures, idols, gold artefacts and dazzling, jewel-encrusted masks and skulls from half-a-millennium ago bring a forgotten era back to life. Around them, a story unfolds of a world-changing power struggle, political intrigue and brute force as two cultures, Europe and America, clashed head on.
A key historical figure, it was Moctezuma’s inexplicable submission to the Spanish invaders without a fight nearly 500 years ago that was the starting point of the colonisation of the Americas.
The exhibition’s organisers hope visitors will reach a deeper and more sympathetic appreciation of this maligned and misunderstood native emperor.
What has over the centuries been held against him, and his people, was discovered by Cortes and his men as they reached the precise geometric centre of the city, a huge plaza containing the Great Temple.
From a platform high up on this stone pyramid ran steep flights of wide steps. The horror was that, from top to bottom, they were streaked red with human blood, while alongside them were rack upon rack of skulls. A rank smell of putrefaction hung in the air.
It became clear to the invaders from Christian Europe that, in this otherwise perfect city of hospitable and well-mannered people, human sacrifice was practised on a massive scale.
A stone at the top of the steps was where men – usually but not always tranquillised with ‘magic mushrooms’ – were held down while the high priest slit open their chests with a sharp blade made from flint or volcanic rock, and plucked out their hearts.
According to one Spanish account, he would hold up the steaming heart to the sun – to whom the sacrifice was made – before throwing it into a stone urn to burn.
Then he deftly kicked the corpse down the steps. At the bottom, prime cuts of flesh would be stripped from the legs and arms to be cooked and eaten.
How often this bloody ritual took place is unclear, but there were stories of epic sacrificial ceremonies. For the coronation of one king, 80,400 hearts were cut out in four days and the lines of victims waiting for their slaughter stretched back to the far ends of the city’s four causeways.
There never was, recorded a priest in the entourage, ‘a people more idolatrous and given over to the killing and eating of men’.
But the Aztecs made no apologies for their bloodthirsty traditions. Rather, these rites were at the core of their beliefs. Only if the gods were fed blood – or ‘precious water’ – would the soil be fertile and rains return.
They claimed the victims, most of whom were prisoners taken in battle, went willingly to their deaths, knowing that their sacrifice would keep the cycle of life turning.
The killing was done with respect and veneration, not in hate or anger. The sacrifice blessed both the dying and the living and was a fate to be embraced.
Aztec belief reassured those about to die that they would toil helping the sun god to banish the night, and after four years return to life as hummingbirds and butterflies.
Such pagan concepts were anathema to the One-God-fearing Cortes and his men, or so they declared. They made the dangerous journey across the ocean and into the unknown to hunt for gold, but also to spread the Christian gospel. The downfall of Moctezuma would further both missions: moral and the mercenary.
It did the Spaniards’ case no harm if, in their subsequent accounts – the ones on which history has to rely – they tended to exaggerate the Aztecs’ appetite for ritual slaughter.
In their righteous indignation, they chose to ignore that European ‘civilisation’ was also drenched in blood, and contemporaneous monarchs like Henry VIII butchered with as much religious zeal as Moctezuma did, and probably with more relish.
As the Spanish captain, Hernan Cortes, and his conquistadors, rode in procession through an arrow-straight causeway into the city, there were more sights to amaze them.
Venice-like canals criss-crossed it. Artificial gardens floated on the water. Man-made dykes protected it from flooding.
Compared to the crowded, rubbish and excrement-strewn conurbations back in Europe, the place was pristine, as were its people. Sweepers kept its streets clean. There were public bathing places and even public lavatories.
‘On all the roads, there are shelters made of reeds or straw so the people can retire when they wish to and purge their bowels, unseen by passers-by,’ wrote one contemporary Spanish chronicler, well impressed. This was the height of civilisation.
In the marketplace, gold, silver and precious stones – notably blue-green turquoise – were traded, along with jaguar skins and brightly-coloured parrot feathers.
Food of all types was plentiful, as were tobacco and a heady alcoholic potion made from cactus juice.
Prized above all else were cocoa beans for mashing into chocolate, a potent bitter-sweet beverage that was highly addictive. It was served cold and frothy in small, gold cups and reserved for the royal family, noblemen and warriors.
But there is no denying that human sacrifice was central to Aztec culture. Each year a seven-year-old boy had to die at the altar of the rain god. His blood was sprinkled over a feast of turkey, game and chocolate. A young girl was sacrificed to appease the water goddess and her blood poured into the lake.
In ceremonies, Moctezuma pricked his ears, arms and legs with eagle claws to draw blood and demonstrate his own power to feed the sun and the earth with ‘precious water’.
He himself was both priest and a warrior. The Aztecs were essentially a nation of fighters, who, through conquest, had expanded from a small tribe to a rich and powerful empire in just 150 years. They were always grabbing new lands or suppressing uprisings in those they already held.
Terror was a useful weapon. Like modern-day punks, warriors – the ruler included – had ear and nose piercings. Flat discs were also inserted into their lips to stretch their faces into frightening grimaces.
It was a tradition that the first prisoner taken in any battle was skinned to make a cloak for the ruler to wear as a warning to his enemies.
But Moctezuma was as terrifying to his own people as he was to his foes. Fifty years old, slender with short hair and a long, thin black beard, he was described as astute and learned but also harsh and irascible. His name translates literally as ‘Angry Lord’.
His subjects never dared look into his face or raise their heads in his presence. They approached him barefoot. He was never touched, except by the four beautiful women who washed his hands before he ate.
Why, then, did this tough, ruthless and experienced king, who had ruled his people fearlessly for 18 years before the Spanish arrived, fall prey so easily to the invaders, allowing his fiercely independent people to be subjugated?
The fact was that the Aztec ruler was utterly baffled by the newcomers. With reports flooding in about their tall ships, metal armour and horses – never before seen by them – he was at a loss to know how to deal with them.
There were just 300 of these alien beings approaching his capital. His armies could have overwhelmed them easily, despite their advanced weaponry of steel swords and muskets. But he was beset by curiosity and a strange chivalry that made him want to be welcoming.
Were they gods, perhaps? He sent gifts, keen to impress them. But by deciding to play a waiting game, he gave the wily Cortes every opportunity to manipulate the situation.
Along the way, the Spaniard made pacts with rebellious towns who were ready to rebel against Moctezuma’s rule. He sacked one town that stood in his way, slaughtering the populace and burning its temples before marching on towards the city in the lake, his army swollen by local recruits.
On the Spaniards came, and Moctezuma, in green feather headdress and gold sandals, went to meet them at the causeway gate.
The conquistadors were impressed, but not overawed. Once settled inside the city, Cortes played his masterstroke in one of history’s most brazen and successful acts of deception. In a speech of welcome, Moctezuma mentioned how Aztec lore spoke of the return one day of a great overlord, to whom he would pledge allegiance.
Seizing on this, Cortes told the startled Aztec he came on behalf of just such a supreme emperor. Cortes invited him to submit to the overlordship of this emperor, which the obliging Moctezuma duly did.
For a while, relations were amicable. But they soured when Cortes’s men erected a Christian cross on the top of the Great Temple.
With unrest growing, Cortes seized Moctezuma and held him captive in one of his palaces. He was allowed to carry on governing his lands but as a puppet ruler. His grip on power was slipping away.
Among the Aztecs, there was growing discontent. Priests were barred from temples and the idols of their gods replaced by the images of Christ.
When priests and warriors crowded into the Great Temple for a religious festival, Cortes’s men perceived a threat. They sealed the doors and butchered thousands of them.
Open warfare was about to break out, until Moctezuma was pressured to step in. He ordered his people not to attack and they reluctantly obeyed. But by this act his sway over them was fatally undermined.
An uprising began in the city, led by Moctezuma’s brother. The Spaniards sent the captured ruler out on to a balcony to confront his people and make them withdraw. A volley of rocks and arrows came at him. He was hit in the face – the crucial blow said to be a stone hurled by his brother – and died three days later.
The more likely truth, say modern scholars, is that it was the Spaniards who killed him. With his authority gone, he was no longer any use to them. They stabbed him to death.
Cortes and his men now left the city in a desperate fighting retreat across the causeway. But the excuse was there for them to return.
A year later, Cortes was back with a reinforced army and took the Aztec capital after a bloody battle. In the name of the Emperor Charles V of Spain, he established himself as Governor and Captain-General of ‘New Spain’.
He hanged Moctezuma’s brother, who had succeeded as ruler. The reign of the Aztecs was over.
Much of their heritage was lost as the Spaniards looted the land. Fervent friars arrived to convert the people. Smallpox, an inadvertent import by the conquerors, killed 90 per cent of the indigenous population. Spanish settlers came in increasing numbers.
But the blood line remained. Cortes took Moctezuma’s sister as his mistress and fathered a child by her. He married off some of his captains to the daughters of Aztec noblemen. From this integration, a new and distinctive Mexican nation began to emerge, part Spanish, part Aztec.
The past was buried. Tenochtitlan was destroyed and a new Spanish city built over it. Given the name of Mexico City, it has grown into a megametropolis of 20 million people, as much a wonder of the modern world as its forgotten island predecessor.
Recovered from beneath its streets, the lost past is back in all its gore and glory and set to live again in London.
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