Chronicles of America 

Tenochtitlan - Mexico

What it really was that Tenochtitlan disclosed to the Spaniards may perhaps be best conceived by the aid of a survey from the summit of one of the so-called mosques.

The Central Valley of Mexico is a plateau some 7400 feet above sea-level, about 60 miles long by 40 broad, and surrounded by mountains. Here the waters, collected by drainage as in a basin, spread themselves out in three shallow lakes or lagoons — of which Chalco and Xochimilico are fresh, and Tezcoco is salt — covering in all perhaps 442 square miles. Near the western side of Lake Tezcoco are two marsh islands, and over them extends the community of Mexico-Tenochtitlan with its adjunct Tlatelolco. This community, which is not at all a "city" or municipality, is of about one-fourth the extent of the Mexico City of the 19th Century, and harbors at this early time a population of perhaps 70,000 souls. Connection with the mainland is maintained by three long causeways — one to the north, one to the west, and one to the south — each 20 or 25 feet broad, and of a cement construction which is hard and smooth. These causeways, provided as they are with sluice gates, serve also as dikes for regulating the flow and depth of the water to the west of the islands, where it discharges from Chalco and Xochimilico, which are at a higher elevation than Tezcoco. For similar control to the eastward of the islands, a long dike exists. Besides the three main causeways there are certain tributary ones and a double aqueduct of concrete bringing water from the mainland hill of Chapultepec.

Turning now our gaze more directly beneath, we perceive first that the center of the main community, Tenochtitlan, is marked by a great square 900 by 1050 feet, facing the cardinal points and surrounded by a stone wall eight or nine feet high, embellished with carved stone serpents. In this wall, on each side of the square, there is a gate, and each gate is approached from without by a broad avenue, those leading to the north, south, and west gates being prolongations of the causeways. By the square and avenues the main community is divided into four quarters, the adjunct Tlatelolco constituting a fifth division; and each quarter is intersected by canals spanned by bridges. The great square in Tenochtitlan forms the place of trade and concourse, and in Tlatelolco a like square subserves the same end.

So far as buildings are concerned, they are of four principal sorts: first, huge communal dwellings; next, official edifices or tecpans; then armories or "houses of darts," as they are called; and, lastly, temple structures comprehending educational houses and quarters for priests. The material of all is a reddish stone, for the most part whitened to brilliance by stucco; and the foundations as a rule are pyramidal in shape. The great square is filled with temples — twenty, at least, without counting the chief temple; and Tlatelolco also has its temples, a chief and lesser ones.

If the hour of observation from our mosque be sunset, the picture will be charming. In the "pale blue water sheet of Tezcoco" will be reflected not alone the white buildings of Mexico-Tenochtitlan but those of other similar communities on the shores, the whole relieved against a dark blue sierra crowned by the peaks, gigantic and roseate, of Yztaccihuatl, "White Woman," and Popocatepetl, "Smoking Mountain." On the other hand, if we look at night, charm will be replaced by an aspect weirdly sinister. Spectral barks or canoes — fifty thousand of them, it is said — will be darting athwart the lake and through the brazier-lighted canals; while aloft the darkness will everywhere be pierced by temple flames. A modern smelting works, somewhat softened, might suggest the effect.

Open daylight, however, will best reveal Mexico-Tenochtitlan to the high-placed observer. By it the communal dwellings will be seen to be of wide extent, but of only one or at most two stories —in the latter case receding or terraced and provided with low parapets. The principal tecpans, of which there are two — one being in Tlatelolco — are surmounted by observation towers, and the pyramids of the temples are bulky structures of smooth stone, dented on one or more sides by steps and culminating in wooden oratories.

Terrible, indeed, is the religion of the Aztec Nahua! Its leading deity is Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and to him chiefly is consecrated the greatest pyramid of all. It stands in the broad square of Tenochtitlan; it is three hundred feet wide on each side at the base, and with its oratories it rises to a height cf one hundred and fifty feet. Here, under one's very nostrils, as one gazes, reeks the blood of human sacrifices — blood-offerings performed by filthy priests, who, in the curt phrase of Bernal Diaz, "stink like sulphur and have another bad smell like carrion."

A second great deity shares with the war god his ensanguined abode — Tezcatlipoca, god-of-thebreath-of-life, the racial god of the Nahua. Near by are the temples of two other important gods: Tlaloc, god of rain and fertility; and Quetzalcoatl, counterpart of the Maya Kukulcan, god of order, enlightenment, and humaneness, the blond and bearded god, the "Fair God" of romance.

But it is not merely the exteriors of houses that daylight in Tenochtitlan best reveals. Interiors respond to it even more. Here will be seen courts supplied with ponds and fountains, the abode in some instances of wild beasts and birds; chambers, with floors and walls brought to a hard finish by cement and gypsum, and decked with featherwork hangings, mats, and cushions, and provided with low-canopied beds, low tables and stools, flint and copper implements, and a varied pottery. Between many of the buildings, too, are green garden plots; and in the lake floating vegetable gardens; and in the squares, both of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, huge markets in full tide of activity.

Of much interest is all this, but obviously interest of a limited sort. What of the inner self of the Aztec? What of his soul? As disclosed by his religion, the soul of the Aztec is dark: war feeds it and blood anoints it. But art is a second medium of soul disclosure, and through it the soul of the Aztec is revealed as not inhospitable to light and beauty. Of Aztec art, featherwork is the most striking example; but metal work, flower culture, and poetry are also striking examples — especially flower culture and poetry. Cempoalla is a place of roses. Mexico-Tenochtitlan is even more such a place. Roses peep above the parapets of the communal dwellings and tecpans, bloom in the chinampas or floating gardens, depend in garlands from the breasts of idols. No occasion is there that roses do not grace, be it festival, baptism, wedding, or funeral; and though the form of arrangement be oft that of the pyramid or the sacrificial mound, beauty veils the tragedy of the suggestion.

When, therefore, the Aztec poet dreams and sings, it is flowers — roses for the most part —and other things of a flower-like fragility that he celebrates: humming-birds, butterflies, song-birds, and precious stones. "I wonder where I may gather some pretty sweet flowers. Whom shall I ask? Suppose that I ask the brilliant hummingbird . . . suppose that I ask the yellow butterfly. They will tell me." "I polished my noble new song like a shining emerald. I arranged it like the voice of the Tzinitzcan bird. . . . I set it in order like the chant of the Zacuan bird. I mingled it with the beauty of the emerald, that I might make it appear like a rose bursting its bud." "They led me within a valley to a fertile spot, a flowery spot where the dew spread out in glittering splendor, where I saw lovely fragrant flowers, lovely odorous flowers, clothed with the dew." But even amid songs of rejoicing rarely is there wanting the minor chord, the plaintive strain common to primitive man. "Weeping, I the singer, weave my songs of flowers of sadness." "I lift my voice in wailing, I am afflicted as I remember that we must leave the beautiful flowers, the noble songs." "Only sad flowers and songs are here in Mexico, in Tlatelolco, Ohuaya! Ohuaya!"

The Spaniard beholding Mexico-Tenochtitlan, with its adjunct Tlatelolco, failed to comprehend it, and his failure, save lately and in the case of a few persons, has been our own. The Mexico City or municipality of the Spaniard was, in fact, an Indian pueblo. It had been founded in 1325 by southward roving Indians, the Aztecs, a tribe few in number and near starvation. Finding the rich Mexican valley already occupied, the Aztecs took as their portion the two neighboring islands in Lake Tezcoco, and devoted themselves to their principal need, the production of food, chiefly maize and cacao. The tribe in process of time became fierce, bloody, and prosperous; and it was the struggle for food that made them so.

This struggle for subsistence is the key to Aztec life and institutions. To this struggle was it due that the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan planted gardens and invented the floating garden. To this was it due primarily that, feeling the need of controlling communication with the mainland, they built causeways which might be utilized as dikes. To this was it due that, feeling the need of a water supply and of an increased amount of food, they mustered courage and conquered portions of the mainland nearest to them. To this was it due that, growing in population and power and needing yet more food, they forced into existence a tripartite confederacy to levy contribution over an ever-widening area. To this was it due that, discovering the value of terror as a means of rule, they developed the ancient Maya-Nahua cult of human sacrifice — at first practised infrequently —into proportions at once colossal and revolting, and made Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, their local deity in chief.

The Aztec tribe as an organism in embryo had but one head — a sachem or cacique, a civil leader. In him, seemingly, were combined dual elements —the Above or Masculine element, and the Below or Feminine. With expansion and conflict came a need of differentiation of attributes, and there arose the war leader or Chief-of-Men. The distinctively Masculine element was now embodied in him; the Feminine being reserved to his associate, who henceforth bore the title — to many so puzzling — of "Snake Woman." In the days of the Spanish Conquest the Snake Woman, though often alluded to, makes no particular figure. The three overshadowing figures are Chiefs-of-Men — Montezuma, Cuitlahuatzin, and Quauhtemotzin. Of these Montezuma is reflective and weak; the other two, his successors, decisive and strong.

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