Do not believe more than what you see with your eyes.
—Montezuma to Cortés, according to Cortés, 1519
The empire [of the Aztecs] received him with mysterious kindness.
—Maurice Rowdon, 1974
The career of Hernando Cortez is one of the most wild and adventurous recorded in the annals of fact or fiction, and yet all the prominent events in his wondrous history are well authenticated. All truth carries with itself an important moral.
—John Abbott, 1856
Facts are history, whether interpreted or not.
—Barbara Tuchman, 1964
History is a muse you glimpse bathing between leaves.
—Felipe Fernández-Armesto, 20141
IMAGINE SEEING TENOCHTITLAN FOR THE FIRST TIME.
Imagine how they must have felt, those few hundred Spaniards and their African slaves, the first people from outside the Americas to see the great Aztec metropolis. The setting was spectacular, the scene breathtaking. The imperial capital was a massive island-city floating on a lake, surrounded by volcanic mountains. It was possibly the most stunningly beautiful combination of the natural and built environments in human history. Who among us would not want to see such a sight? Those first visitors must have been overwhelmed with disbelief, wonder, and fear. We certainly would be.
Those at least were the three emotional reactions that ran through surviving written accounts of Tenochtitlan before the Spanish-Aztec
War devastated it. Diego de Ordaz, a conquistador who would survive the war only to drown in the Atlantic, was the first person from the Old World to see this “other new world of great settlements and towers and a sea, and in the middle of it a city, very grandly built.” Claimed Ordaz, “he had been amazed by what he had seen” and “in truth it appeared to have caused him fear and astonishment.” Bernal Díaz wrote that the conquistadors were not sure “whether what appeared before us was real.” The place “seemed a thing of enchantment,” said Juan Cano, who would later marry a daughter of Montezuma; “one could hardly believe it was true or that one was not dreaming it.” Cortés himself told the king of Spain that it was “so wondrous as not to be believed.” The “great city of Temixtitan”—as Spaniards first called it—was so full of “grandeur, of strange and marvelous things” that “we here who saw them with our own eyes could not understand them with our minds.”2
An Aztec description of the Spaniards’ first arrival in the valley captured something of the nervous fascination that gripped the conquistadors:
Mocuecueptivi, ommocuecueptivi, onteixnamictivi
, . . . : They kept turning about as they went, facing people, looking this way and that, looking sideways, gazing everywhere between the houses, examining things, looking up at the roofs. Also the dogs, their dogs, came ahead, sniffing at things and constantly panting.3
Most of the Spaniards would have been familiar with Seville, the effective capital of the fledgling Spanish Empire. But although Seville was one of the largest cities in Europe in the 1510s, it only contained about thirty-five thousand people; Tenochtitlan was a staggering twice that size. Including the population of the towns that ringed the valley’s network of lakes—such as those seen by Ordaz from the mountain pass above the valley—the Aztec metropolitan area was ten times as populous as Seville. As one Franciscan friar imagined later in the century, “the Indian people were so numerous that most of their towns and roads had the appearance
of anthills, a thing of admiration to those who saw it but which must have instilled a terrible fear in the few Spaniards that Cortés brought with him.”4
In view of what we now know of Tenochtitlan, Cortés’s assertion that the city was “as big as Seville and Cordoba”—even if we read that as meaning the two Spanish cities combined—is rather weak. There may have been as many canoes plying Tenochtitlan’s canals and waters as there were people in Spain’s largest city. His estimate that the “main tower is higher than the tower of the cathedral in Seville” does not come close to conveying the shape and scale of the pyramid and twin temples that towered over the city’s main plaza. And his statement that the city’s other main plaza was “twice as big as the city of Salamanca’s plaza” likewise barely hints at the wellkempt order and symmetry of a city that made medieval European towns seem like cramped warrens of squalor.
But the comparisons to European cities were inevitable, as numerous in Cortés’s descriptions as in those by other Europeans, and consistently favorable to Tenochtitlan. Cortés imagined how perfect such a city would be, were it saved just for Spaniards. Its location on an island in a lake was noteworthy not just for making the place “very beautiful,” he told the king, but because it could allow the conquistadors to create a segregated urban environment—with Spaniards living “separate from the natives, because a stretch of water comes between us.”5
News of the discovery of a city whose scale and engineering were unprecedented in the European experience spread rapidly on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Eyewitness observations mixed with rumors; inadequate comparisons to European cities merged with imaginative speculation. A newsletter printed in the German city of Augsburg, in late 1521 or early 1522, described how the “Christians” who two years earlier had discovered the Aztec metropolis called it “Great Venice.” The anonymous author of the newsletter was intrigued by the five causeways linking Tenochtitlan to the lakeshore, which an engraver attempted to depict in what is the earliest surviving illustration of the Aztec city (facing this chapter’s
title page). The newsletter announced that “Great Venice” was “enormously rich in gold, and in cotton, wax, and honey,” that it and the cities around the lake were all “well built” with “roofs made of pure silver, and out of lime and sand.” The urban inhabitants were “strong people,” who “fatten and eat dogs, which are the only animals in the land,” and “they eat much honey, and also human flesh.”6
Literate Germans were not the only Europeans to be fed the delicious detail that the inhabitants of this newly discovered and wondrous metropolis were cannibals. In the autumn of 1525, the senators of the real Venice sat and listened with fascination to the description of a city that was, like their own, built on an island and laced with canals. The description was read to them by Gasparo Contarini, who had just finished serving as ambassador to Carlos V, the Spanish king, Holy Roman Emperor, and ruler of an empire whose expansion seemed disturbingly boundless.
“That city is marvelous,” the ambassador told the senators, “for its size, its location, and its ingeniousness, placed in the middle of a lake of saltwater whose circumference is almost two hundred miles.” The city was also adjacent to “a freshwater lake,” and all these waters “rise and fall twice a day, as they do here in Venice.” But unlike Venice, this far-off city was connected to the shore by several causeways, and “its inhabitants are idolaters” who “sacrifice people to their idols,” and “they eat people, but not all; they only eat enemies captured in battle.”7
By 1525, the Venetian senators had access to a far more detailed account of the city, written by none other than Cortés himself, who was already famous across Europe as the conqueror of that distant pagan empire and its capital. The previous year, a Venetian printer had sold off the first Italian edition of two letters written to the Spanish king by Cortés. Those letters had been written in Mexico in 1520, in the middle of the Spanish-Aztec War, and in 1522, after the war had destroyed much of Tenochtitlan. The letters were published soon after reaching Spain.
The first (known to us today as the Second Letter) was typeset in Seville on November 8, 1522—three years to the day after
Cortés first set foot in Tenochtitlan. Its frontispiece (in the Gallery) featured an extended title that acted as a blurb, promising that the book would tell of a newly found “very rich and very great province named Culua, in which there are very large cities and marvelous buildings, and great commerce and wealth; among these there is one more marvelous and rich than all of them, named Timixtitan.”8
Cortés’s account sold out quickly, inspiring its publisher, Jacobo Cromberger, to print the Third Letter as soon as he could the following year. By the time of the Venetian edition of 1525, there were multiple Spanish editions, as well as editions in Latin, Dutch, and French, presenting various combinations of the Second, Third, and Fourth letters. The Cortés version of events in Mexico was so successful that in 1527 the Crown prevented further printings (lest the conquistador’s fame threaten the authority of the king). But the ban did little to squelch the success of the books, which have remained in print in many languages for the last five centuries. One of history’s recurring ironies is that those who have destroyed something often dominate our perception of it, and this is true of Cortés and his “Timixtitan.”
Although Cortés devoted pages to describing the city, Cromberger surely knew as well as did the printer of the Augsburg newsletter that words were not enough. Fortunately, Cromberger was also given a hand-drawn map (one that seems to have been sent from Mexico attached to Cortés’s original letter). From that map an engraving was carved. Both the original map and the engraving that accompanied the 1522 Seville edition are lost. But copies from the Latin edition of 1524 have survived, as have some of the Italian versions accompanying the Venetian edition (one opens Chapter 4
The result has for centuries been an object of mystery and fascination. It is, in its own way, as wondrous as was the city itself, which—by the time Europeans admired “this impressive metropolis set like a jewel in the center of an azure lake” (in the words of art historian Barbara Mundy)—lay half ruined. The map was a sort of hybrid cultural creation. It combined elements from three sources available to the engraver. One was medieval European buildings similar to those
that dominate the Augsburg engraving. Another was Islamic architecture, as represented in images such as those of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle;
the mosques and minarets of Constantinople and Jerusalem may have served as models for the “mosques” that Cortés wrote were ubiquitous to Aztec cities. A third element provided the engraver with cartographic conventions and urban features not included in Cortés’s Second Letter, and which could only have come from an Aztec source (probably the lost original Aztec-made map). For example, the map’s schema of a square plaza set within a circular city set within a circular lake reproduced “the idealized geometries” of the Aztec conception of a city.10
It is not just the style of the map that is hybridized, but its very details, positioning Tenochtitlan in two moments in time—two universes—all in a single frame. The map thus takes us right to the Meeting and the months that followed it, when Tenochtitlan was the Aztec imperial capital but with a Spanish presence; when the “Temple where they sacrifice” (Templum ubi sacrificant) still stood but with a small cross raised upon it. At the top of the map, on the eastern horizon, an oversize Hapsburg banner flutters. The message to King Carlos was clear: here is a city and empire of marvels and riches; its rotten religious core (the central plaza of “sacrifice”) justifies all means to conquer and convert its people; that enterprise has begun (the cross on the pyramid) and will soon be completed (the banner will be carried from the edge to the center).
More than a mere promise of victory, the map’s very existence was a claim of possession; maps in the Europe of the day were tightly controlled and guarded objects of intelligence. Cortés told the Spanish king that during the months when Montezuma was under his control, the emperor had given him “a cloth upon which was drawn the whole [Gulf] coast,” a map that was surely one of the sources of the coastal sketch included by the Nuremberg printers. Both maps were intended as evidence of the Aztec ruler’s submission. The Nuremberg Map is thus a cartographic manifestation of the Spanish-invented surrender of Montezuma.11
But Montezuma did not surrender; and as the original maps made
their way across the Atlantic Ocean, Tenochtitlan was not in the hands of Spaniards. Montezuma was dead, but the city had always been his, as reflected in one of the map’s details: Of its seventeen inscriptions or labels (all in Latin on the Nuremberg version), only one person’s name is mentioned. That person is identified three times as D. Muteezuma:
Dominus, or Lord, Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Without him, the city was incomplete; without him, the story of how Cortés and his fellow Spaniards entered Tenochtitlan was incomplete. Although he was not often seen or heard in public, the emperor was everywhere in the city—his image inscribed on monuments, his power evoked by palaces, his name cited by officials, his fame invoked in the monthly festivals that ran ceaselessly. In those first moments of encounter—before the distorting clutter of later events and the varied ways in which they were remembered by Spaniards and Nahuas alike—it was clear to everyone that the city, the country, and story belonged to Montezuma. Indeed, on the title page to the first published edition of Cortés’s Second Letter, while the conquistador captain is mentioned once, the Aztec emperor is named twice: “Of this city and province, a very great lord is king, named Muteeçuma”; the letter “tells at length of the vast dominion of the said Muteeçuma, and of its rituals and ceremonies.”12
* * *
Ritual and ceremony, presided over by Montezuma, were in store for those first Spaniards who saw and entered Tenochtitlan—despite their fear of ambush as they apprehensively approached the city, checking the rooftops and alleys, looking this way and that. Because Cortés’s Second Letter is the foundational account, or urtext, of the Meeting, let us first approach that momentous November 8th of 1519 via his telling of it.
The mainland journey of the Spanish invaders had begun some six months earlier, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. According to Cortés, it was his own skill, combined with God’s blessing, that explained how the expedition had made it this far inland, surviving a series of confused diplomatic and hostile encounters, including a number of open battles. In fact—as we shall see later in detail—the Spaniards owed their survival to the local Mesoamericans (the umbrella term we use to describe the many ethnic groups within and adjacent to the Aztec Empire). For rather than systematically wiping out the invaders, the city-states of the region had variously opposed them, tested them, or allied with them—all with a view to encouraging them, one way or another, to continue their journey toward the capital.
We pick up that journey on November 1, one week before the Meeting. On that day, the surviving three hundred Spaniards, accompanied by at least ten times that many indigenous warriors and porters, set out from the city of Cholollan (Cholula) to make the climb over the mountain pass into the Valley of Mexico. Cholollan was about fifty miles as the crow flies from Tenochtitlan, but much farther on foot, mostly b...