The ancient glory of Tenochtitlán

"We were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments told in the book of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?" (Bernal Diaz del Castillo)

The grand Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325 by the legendary king Tenoch on lake Texcoco, Mexico, and rapidly became the most important city of Central America. Built on a rocky island, Tenochtitlán spanned for some 10 square kilometres and was split in four districts, linked to dry land through bridges and embankments. The city provided both streets and canals, so that it could be reached both by feet and by canoe.  In the city centre stood a 30 metres tall pyramid, with a 100x80 base, and with two sanctuaries at its summit. Near the pyramid rose two monasteries, the god of wind Ehcatl’s sanctuary, a patio used for games of pelota, and the Tzompantli, a macabre place where the skulls of the sacrificed victims were exposed.

The palace of king Montezuma II stood outside the ceremonial centre, and was a luxurious two-floors building with gardens full of exotic plants, swans swimming in artificial lakes, and multicoloured birds singing in the cages. Tenochtitlán was also an important economic hub where more than 25.000 traders came to sell food, textiles, shoes, puma or jaguar skin, tobacco, wood, utensils and handicraft. There was no money, so everything was bartered, usually for cacao or broad beans.
Since the lagoon water could not be drank, Montezuma I had an important aqueduct built, 5 kilometres long from the springs of Chapultepec. Later, also a second, 8 kilometres long aqueduct was built. Since Tenochtitlán suffered from frequent floods, Montezuma I ordered in 1449 the construction of a 16 kilometres long dam, in order to contain the waters of lake Texcoco.
At its full splendour, Tenochtitlán’s population was estimated at 700.000 inhabitants, even though more cautious esteems lower the number to 550.000. In any case, it was the third largest city in the world, after Beijing (700.000) and Hangzhou (600.000).

When Hernán Cortés reached Tenochtitlán in November the 8th, 1519, he wrote in his diaries that never had he seen a bigger and more efficient city in the world: the streets all had pedestrian walks, no building had any smoke or dirt fouling, shining fairy-tale-like constructions with coloured walls and pensile gardens. The Spanish soldier Bernal Diaz described it as an “enchanted” vision of a magic city with “and cues and buildings rising from the water”. Tenochtitlán really was a perfect city.
Maybe this shocking fact, together with the lust for power and gold, drove the conquistadores, even though they were welcomed with honour and hospitality by king Montezuma, to conquer the city after a bloody battle. On August the 13th, 1521, the legendary Tenochtitlán was reduced to a pile of rubble and its population exterminated. What was left of the city was dismantled and destroyed. On the ruins of the beautiful metropolis, Mexico City was built.
During the seventies Tenochtitlán’s ruins were brought back to light and some of the most important structures, like the Great Pyramid, are now open for visitors. Today, the Zócalo, Mexico City’s most important plaza, stands on what was once Tenochtitlán’s ceremonial centre, but who knows what such a glorious metropolis of the ancient world could have become without the destructive and cruel impact of the Spanish conquerors. Unfortunately, we will never know…

The ruins of Tenochtitlán

 (Translation by Marco Salvadori)

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