Translations of 16th century Spanish texts, including Aztec poetry, are César’s (with syntactic revision by The Baron). Sentences between squared brackets do not appear in the original Spanish version of the manuscript.
The Return of Quetzalcoatl: Chapter 6
by César Tort
“The world’s most beautiful city”
The sacred enclosed area, according to the reconstruction by architect Ignacio Marquina
Bernal Díaz del Castillo would write in his memoirs about what he saw with his brothers in arms in route to Tenochtitlan when he was twenty-two years old:
And since we saw so many inhabited cities and towns on the water, and on solid ground other large towns, and that causeway so straight and leveled that went to Mexico-Tenochtitlan, we were wonder-stricken, and we said to each other that it all seemed like the enchantment tales of the Amadís book, for the great towers and cúes [temples] and edifices, that they have inside the water, and all of them the product of masonry work, and still some of our soldiers said if all of what they saw was dreamlike.
When the gloomy Luther hammered his theses on the Wittenberg’s gates, no man of the white race knew of the existence — spanning the breadth of a continent — of the most extensive power that Mesoamerica knew of: an empire that touched both oceans, the capital of which was inundated with light. And even in our times the enormous plaza that amazed Bernal Díaz is unknown because his comrades razed it in its entirety. Notwithstanding that after the conquest Rodrigo de Castañeda blamed Hernán Cortés for wanting to preserve the temples and its effigies, México-Tenochtitlan was the object of a systematic vandalism. Not even one edifice remained standing in what today is Mexico City, something that reminds us what the Romans did in the Third Punic War: they did not leave stone upon stone in Carthage, and built a Roman city on its ruins. Not satisfied with that, after the physical devastation by the soldiers, Zumárraga burned the Mexica libraries. As an Aztec poem says:
Hemos de dejar los bellos cantos,
Hemos de dejar las bellas flores.
(We are to leave the beautiful songs
We are to leave the beautiful flowers.)
However, under New Spain’s edifices some unearthed footings have allowed modern architects to reconstruct how the ancient Indian city looked, in addition to the descriptions of the captain of the conquistadors, who informs us that the streets of Tenochtitlan—:
are very wide and straight, some of them, and all of the other are half of earth and the other half of water, through which they go in their canoes, and all the streets, from stretch to stretch, are opened through where water passes from the ones to the others, and in all of these openings, that some of them are very wide, there are bridges of very wide and large beams together and stout and well carved, and they are such that that ten horses, together eye to eye, can pass through many of them.
Cortés himself wrote to Carlos V that it was “the world’s most beautiful city” (la más hermosa cosa del mundo). Much larger than Seville, the largest Spanish city of those times, three roads converged toward the center of the lacustrine city, uniting the island with the coast. “It is admirable to see how much reason they employ with all things,” wrote Cortés to the king. On the streets of a city that shone like a jewel of stone and water and sky, the dwellers used to go out “for a ride, some through the water on these boats and others on the land, and they go on conversing.”
Tenochtitlan was an object of admiration for its thirty palaces of reddish and porous rock, for its houses for upper-class people (according to conqueror Diego de Ordás, superior to those in Spain); its immense set of immaculate white houses and constructions decorated with bas-reliefs and stone sculptures (in contrast to other peoples who made them of clay), some statues even decorated with gold, feathers and animal skins; for its yellow macaw feathers; for its precious stones such as the green of the jade and the red of the garnets; for “its florid hymns in the Spring and the flower of the opened Nahua heart,” and because in that unwonted world, which had never been found a practical use for the wheel, thousands of canoes, the largest capable of transporting up to sixty Indians, converged every day in the lacustrine city.
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The central plaza shown in the above image (in which place today there is a Zócalo infested with what in my previous book I called “the Marabunta of Neanderthals”) took the form of a rectangle. The monuments were adorned with frescoes, lost forever after the collapse of the walls that sustained them, and besides the aqueduct there were fountains that burst forth form the soil of the central island. The palace of Nezahualcóyotl in Texcoco, a state that belonged to the triple alliance together with Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan, was fenced with more than two thousand sabines. In addition to this palace, Nezahualcóyotl had gardens in other locations “with docks full of roses and flowers, and many fruits and rosebushes of the earth, and a pond of fresh water, and another thing to see: that in the flower and fruit garden the large canoes could enter from the lagoon through an opening they had made, without jumping on the ground, and everything very whitewashed and flashing, of many forms of stones and paintings on them that there was so much to ponder.” As in my childhood imaginings recounted in my previous book [La india chingada], the labyrinths and the artificial cascades of those gardens provided a fresh and invigorating environment.
We can imagine the impression that this world — totally apart from the known civilization — caused in the Europeans, who never ceased to be amazed at the richness of the iridescent clothing; the colors and drawings on the women’s attire with their bluish-purple hair dyed so that it shone, and the teeth stained black with cochineal; the clothing of the nobles decorated in polychromatic embroidery with drawings that represented hearts, and the showing off of necklaces of stings of jade, turquoise or enormous objects of diorite; wigs and jaguar skins, bracelets on the arms and ankles, or the simple “crowd of swarthy-skinned people under their white dresses.” The warriors painted their faces with stripes; others with yellow-ocher powder, spreading out the feet with copal ointments and tattooing their hands with schemes. It was a spectacle to see them around the emperor, the cloth banners and the immense adornments of gold and exquisitely cut quetzal feathers forming bouquets of a thousand colors; arts elaborated under a mosaic-like technique in sharp contrast to the blackish clothes of the priests with figures of skulls and human bones. How mistaken is the petrified image of Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli Museum to convey the universe opened to the free, luminous and multicolor air of the Aztecs. But how accurate are Rivera’s own murals!
Tenochtitlan from a hypothetical viewpoint of the Tlatelolco market (Diego Rivera)
The palace of Moctezuma (which occupied the place where later would be constructed what today is the Palacio Nacional ) also caused a stupor in the Europeans. Built with porous volcanic stone, it had more than a hundred bathrooms; walls covered with mosaics and roofs of precious woods; zoos and botanic gardens, pools and flower gardens. The wooden cages were in the charge of hundreds of men who attended the birds, wild cats, pumas, jaguars and coyotes; there were large ponds with herons, ducks, swans and an enormous collection of serpents. The zoo even had human freaks such as dwarfs and albinos.
The humble Nahua male who lived far from the Great Teocalli had so little time indoors and plenty of time outdoors, and when looking up from his chinampa he constantly saw “the silhouette of the pyramids and the blinding white of the edifices under the noonday sun.” (At present the footings of the Spanish buildings are full of pre-Hispanic stone and of the fragments of the bas-reliefs and the statues.) It could scarcely be said that there was profane art: practically all art was charged with religious content. Tlatelolco, the twin city of Mexico, had a plaza about the triple size of Salamanca. (From now on I will avoid the word “Aztec” which was not used until the 18th century. Instead I shall use the original term “Mexicas,” without “n,” or alternatively “ancient Mexicans.”) The appearance of the Mexica capital was of a double city. The main commercial neighborhood “sparked with the shouting of the market’s sales people.” In Tlatelolco the great temple of Huitzilopochtli was impressive because there were no other temples around that cast any shadow on it.
Tenochtitlan was an amphibian city in the middle of “waters of flowers, waters of gold, waters of emerald,” a city in such a spaced architecture of the Valley of Mexico that it had as roof the sky, and as foundation the immense greenish-blue Texcoco lake. The quantity of gods of the Mexica pantheon was so large — of the principal deities alone there were about two hundred — that the chroniclers lost count. The terraces of the nobles were crowned with gardens. Moctezuma, who had many children with his wives and concubines, had three thousand servants in his palace. The Great Pyramid or Tenochtitlan or Teocalli, shown in the first illustration above, rested upon a space of 100 meters long by 80 meters wide, and it was 60 meters high. The façade began with great serpent heads, and on the platform statues supported the banners that were displayed at the celebrations. The pyramid was completely surrounded by serpent heads, which formed a fortified outer wall of approximately 400 meters long by 300 meters wide, with four doors. The two shrines, inhabited by the Tláloc-Huitzilopochtli duality, were painted: one white and blue on the north side, the other white and red on the south side. The last one was embellished with engraved skulls and battlements with the form of butterflies. To defend the temple of Huitzilopochtli was considered one of the duties of the sovereigns. Sun and rain, Huitzilopochtli and Tláloc, were the legacy of the Tenochcas: nomad warriors and sedentary Mexicas. The shrines that crowned the truncated pyramid were tight but high enclosures, which sheltered a pair of three-meter statues of these gods. The crested roofs imitated the Mayan temples, and conveyed the visual effect of higher altitude. (It is remarkable that on the other side of the Atlantic a very similar structure, the Ziggurat, had been common in the Chaldean and Babylonian temples: cultures that Julian Jaynes also called bicameral kingdoms.)
The ancient Mexicans gladly detached from themselves their best art: burying animals, feathers, flowers, insects, treasures, and even human beings as offerings to the deities. The temples themselves were an immense offering loaded inside with the remains of these sacrifices that remained trapped each time that the edifice was reconstructed. The Great Pyramid or Tenochtitlan was reconstructed several times. Just as the Teotihuacan and Mayan temples, it possessed several layers, one above the other like Russian nested dolls. When the Spaniards destroyed the temple they found that its entrails hided innumerable jewels of gold, precious stones and bones that had remained enclosed as an offering. Inside this pyramid was also located the military theocratic school for the education of the elite of the Mexica boys. Drawn using a perfect arithmetic that reminds us of Teotihuacan, in front of the Great Pyramid the temple of Quetzalcóatl looked special, the only circular edifice of the great plaza, and on one of the Great Pyramid’s sides, the pyramid of Tezcatlipoca. Around the temples there were annexes for worship such as the tzompantli full of decapitated human heads, many of them decomposed until they turned into skulls, artistically placed in horizontal order. The houses of the Indian chiefs were enormous constructions of wood. The largest rooms were more than thirty meters long and thirty meters wide.
It is curious that my imaginings when taking a bath in my house of San Lorenzo, as recounted in my previous book [I was seven years old], had a counterpart in the reality of the past. It is true that in those imaginings I did not visualize the resonating drums or the reddish homes of the temples, if we consider that in Tenochtitlan mostly percussion instruments were used. But something of these dances and collective intoxication, a catharsis of something recondite in the Nahua soul, reached the mind of the child I was then. (Many have listened to the group of children, myself included, playing the vertical drum called huéhuetl thanks to a commercial recording made when I studied in the musical method of my father: a man passionate for the native folklore.) The great dance celebrated at the bottom level of the pyramids lasted hours under the light of huge braziers deep in the night. Dances started at the hiding of the sun amidst the sound of the flutes (precisely what I imagined hearing when I was a child), the drums of the temples, and the flames of the enormous tripods burning woods. Nothing was more important, writes Jacques Soustelle, than these songs and dances for the ancient Mexicans.
¿Nada de mi nombre será algún día?
¿Nada mi fama será en la tierra?
¡Al menos flores, al menos cantos!
(Nothing of my name will some day be?
Nothing of my fame on earth?
At least the flowers, at least the songs!)
The Return of Quetzalcoatl
- Preface: A Taste of the Flavor of the Whole Book
- Chapter 1: A Class with Colin Ross
- Chapter 2: The History of Childhood and its Newton
- Chapter 3: Periodization of Parental-filial Relations
- Chapter 4: Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind
- Chapter 5: Silvano Arieti and Schizophrenia
- Chapter 6: The world’s most beautiful city
- Shagún’s exclamation
©2008 César Tort