Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn't Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice

William McLaughlin - June 23, 2017

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
a cutaway that shows the layers of the Templo Mayor as it was expanded over the generations. Pinterest

The Templo Mayor: An Unknown American Wonder

The Templo Mayor (Spanish for “Main Temple”) itself is an impressive feat of engineering. It was the supposed site where the god Huitzilopochtli was born and fought his sister to the death before throwing her body down the hill. The sacrifices are symbols for this as is the temple. The temple itself was enlarged/remodeled several times before the Spanish arrived, making for a truly imposing building the likes of which the Spanish couldn’t even comprehend.

A wall of skulls lines the base of the temple, some 60,000 skulls filling it out. About five other skull racks are scattered about the city showing both the dedication to the gods and the might of the Aztecs to be able to capture so many victims.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
the skull racks. Wikipedia

Still, in the temple complex, we might catch some of the sports action on the ball court, now known as Ulama, right next to the great temple. Much is still unknown about this sport, but we know it was violent. A heavy ball was supposed to be put through a hoop on a slanted wall using mainly the hips. Scoring was incredibly difficult and required the most athletic class of men in the city.

It has been suggested that the game may have served as a sort of proxy war as two feuding groups battled it out on the court instead of the battlefield. This accounts for the jarring instances of human sacrifices performed on the losers of some games. Very recently, archeologists uncovered a collection of more than 30 male neck bones in Mexico City, confirming that the Aztecs did indeed partake in the game and its sacrificial aspect on occasion.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
A look at the casual side, possibly the outskirts of a market. kids playing and craftsmen working, a lower-class laborer in the background. Pinterest

Aztec Markets: The Absolute Best of What the Americas Had to Offer

Next, you might decide on visiting a cheerier section of the city, the markets. On their own, these markets would have been bigger than most cities in Europe, and when they were at the heart of the Aztec Empire, they were flooded with people, as many as 60,000 would trade at the main market every day.

Heading to the main market means heading to a whole other city, Tlatelolco. Though this wasn’t seen as a big deal as the two great cities butted up against each other on the shared island. The market was exceptionally well-organized with many distinct squares and streets that were assigned different specialties.

Head down the street of herbs where you could get any herbal remedy or spice you could imagine, or go to the barber for a shave and a haircut, obsidian blades made for an extremely close shave. Go down the game street for all your wild foods, from rabbit and deer to eagles and dogs. Move to the next street and grab some cloth or a complete outfit. Choose any color you’d like, they have a whole section dedicated to dyes.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
The produce market, notice the corn in the foreground. Pinterest

Perhaps you find a stall that serves the Aztec chocolate drink Xocolatl, a cool and unknown treat in the new world. A sip and you’re hooked, but how do you get more, the Aztecs won’t take your money. A small sewing kit will do, the steel needle is an absolute wonder to the trading Aztec, he can use it for an excellent trade with the textile workers. Whatever you do, don’t try to cheat your way to an unfair deal; guards stand watch in the markets and spend their day bringing feuding parties to special judges who resolved marketplace conflict. After a long day exploring the unique goods of the New World maybe you’ll want to stop at one of the many restaurants and grab a full-service meal, a great way to get your first ever taste of turkey.

Whatever you do, don’t try to cheat your way to an unfair deal; guards stand watch in the markets and spend their day bringing feuding parties to special judges who resolved marketplace conflict. After a long day exploring the unique goods of the New World maybe you’ll want to stop at one of the many restaurants and grab a full-service meal, a great way to get your first ever taste of turkey.

On your way back to your temporary palace room you might walk past a wedding ceremony. The Aztecs had elaborate ceremonies similar to Europeans, with a courtship that involved a dowry as well. Though the Aztec men could have multiple wives, it was only their first wife who held the higher status and she could get a divorce at any time.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
a bit stylized, but this captures the spectacle and importance of the Spanish arrival. Pinterest

The Spaniards Arrival: Preparing for War and Getting a Luxurious Welcome

Perhaps you arrive at the palace and find a collection of armored Spaniards arriving, looking comically out of place in their metal plates among lightly and brightly dressed natives. These Spaniards are getting a warm welcome, though they might look immensely uncomfortable; they had fully prepared to take the city by force and were armed for battle that day.

An impeccably dressed Montezuma is working through a translator to welcome Cortes and his men. Though the higher class knew that Cortes was no God, rumors of strange deities floated among the hundreds of thousands in the city. A sizeable crowd would surely have been gathered not too far away to see this group of strange men and horses.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
Conquistadors entering Tenochtitlan. Wikipedia

Only a few days later the city would be in utter chaos as Cortes and his men decided to kidnap the emperor. Being a foreigner, this would have made your future uncertain as well. A thick tension hung over the city as life continued on as normal as possible. After a while, you think it’s safe to go to the great festival of Toxcatl, after all, the Spaniards forbid sacrifice, so it should be a calmer affair without all the death.

Well, that might have been a mistake. The high-strung Spaniards, fearing a revolt, get a little too jumpy and start killing the nobles and priests at the banquet. Thousands of Aztecs are slaughtered, helpless against Spanish steel. a few thousand unarmed civilians at a feast was easy enough, but now a full revolt was coming. Holding up with the Spanish might still be the best of a plethora of bad options, at least the risk of being a sacrifice was much lower with them.

The Night of Sorrows: Spaniards Driven out, but they Left their Smallpox Behind

When Montezuma is killed, it’s definitely time to get out of there. Montezuma was killed by a mob of his own people while trying to speak for peace, but the prevailing rumor was that the Spanish did the deed. A night escape was necessary. As you gather up your belongings in the barricaded palace you put on as much borrowed armor you can and just pack the essentials. You might be shocked to see Spaniards preparing to leave not by loading up on armor, but sacks of gold, fastening pieces to themselves and slinging great bags of treasure over their shoulders.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
Elite Aztec warriors. Pinterest

The escape is frantic and terrible. The famous Eagle warriors, so impressive in their ceremonial duties around the temple, are now equally terrifying as they swarm around you. The Spanish armor holds, few men are dying, but one-by-one men are tackled and dragged off into the night. Fires illuminate the Temple Mayor in the distance as all of the city, Cortes, and his men witness the hasty sacrifices of the captured Spanish.

You spend your time in the middle of the pack, dodging spears thrown with the deadly atlatl, a device that could accelerate spears to almost 100 mph. the obsidian-edged wooden clubs can’t crack the armor, but most of the men soon sport large gashes in unprotected areas. Even Cortes was badly wounded that night.

Tenochtitlan: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Aztec Floating City that Rivaled Venice
The sad night. Wikipedia

In their haste to get off the causeway, many men try to shove through or tiptoe the edge, several men fall in the lake and are literally drowned by their own greed as the bags of treasure pull them to the bottom. A full night of relentless attacks continues, canoe warriors pepper the retreating position with spears and each small island connected to the causeway is full of the elite warriors of the empire.

Finally, you break through to dry land, several thousand men were killed in the retreat but you’re alive and the Spaniards have allies nearby. You look forward to sleep and perhaps some of that excellent Xocolatl chocolate drink to celebrate mere survival. As you take one last look at the impressive city glowing in the moonlight, you see the fires of the great temple as you just make out the distant screams of the Aztec’s last Spanish sacrifices.

Advertisement