The City Nestled Among Prickly Cacti

The Western World of the 1500s always liked to pat itself on the back about its achievements.  Authors and theologians and proto-anthropologists spent entire lifetimes explaining why European innovation was the best kind and why Europe was going to win the future.  When Cortes landed in Mexico to invade and conquest the “savages” of the Central Americas, he and his men were dumbfounded by the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan.

Founded in 1325 (legend says because Huitzilopochtli appeared to the Aztec leaders and pointed out to them an itty bitty island in the middle of lake Texcoco, where there was a prickly pear cactus with an eagle sitting on top of it eating a snake) the city was dead center in some of the most difficult property to homestead because it was literally inside a lake.  The Aztec rulers evidently relished the challenge and within 200 years, when Cortes arrived in 1521, the city was massive, successful and powerful.

As the seat of Aztec power, Tenochtitlan (roughly translates to “the place where the Prickly Cactus grow”) was an economic and social heavyweight in the world.  It was slightly under 5 square miles, making it as large if not larger than Seville or Cordoba of the 1500s.  Sporting a population of some 400,000 people, the city had 5 times the population of London and yet remained clean and organized; something most European cities of the era had extreme trouble with.  The city was broken into 4 campan (kind of like Quarters) which would be broken into 20 districts.  Each district would have a personal marketplace, a wealth of streets (the 3 main streets in the city were large enough for 10 horses to cross side by side; whereas the smaller alleyways were half street, half channel to allow canoe traffic through) and the occasional temple or public building.  Trade was done in the neighboring city of Tlatelco, where 50,000 people would meet each day to trade.  Cortes postulated that it would have twice as many people cross through it daily than did Seville, one of Spain’s more important trading locations.

Montezuma’s palace contained 2 private zoos, one for his birds of prey and one for his menagerie.  He also had a botanical garden and an aquarium with 10 ponds for fresh water and 10 for salt water.  Reportedly, the palace had some 300 rooms and was one of the most visibly expensive places on earth.  Water itself was piped from springs using aqueducts, allowing cleaning and cooking to be done with fresh water (the original lake’s water was brackish and nasty, but the Levee of Nezahualcoyotl formed a barrier between the actual lake and Tenochtitlan’s spring fed natural water lake).  Aztecs were said to take two baths a day, while Montezuma was known to take four, at a time when some cities in Europe made decrees forcing their citizens to bathe at least once a week.

Cortes and his men arrived in 1521 (shortly before they sacked the city and leveled it, regardless of how much it impressed them) and couldn’t believe their eyes.  They saw a city unlike any in Europe, in a continent far from home they believed to be backward.  Descriptions of Tenochtitlan ranged from describing its enchantment to calling it a dream (Bernal Diaz del Castillo who described it as a dream said that simply calling it a dream was incorrect because it was something that he could never describe; he had never even dreamed about something like the city before).  The Spanish force along with the Aztec’s numerous indigenous enemies destroyed the city over a 75 day siege.  A 200 year creation was broken in less than three months.

A rough map of the city of Tenochtitlan (



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