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Fall of Mexico Tenochtitlan: The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire

In Search Of Eldorado


The beauty of Tenochtitlan, a Mexican lakeside city and masterpiece of Aztec culture, had stunned the conquistadors who, in front of this imposing ensemble, were so blown away that they thought they had arrived in the mythical Eldorado. To get an idea of the images that then arose in their minds, it suffices to reread a few lines from the The True History of The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo which leaves us this vague description of Tenochtitlan: “Seeing so much of towns and villages on the water, and others on dry land, we were taken in admiration, and we imagined that it was a charm (...), because of the tall towers, temples and pyramids protruding from the water, and a soldier wonders if it was not a dream.”

History of Mexico Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital

Tenochtitlan was the holy city in which stood the large double pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war. All around were crowded the residences of the clergy, depository of the wishes of the gods. Near the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor) stood the temple dedicated to Ehecatl, the god of the wind, while not far from there was the tzompantli, place where the skulls of the victims of sacrifices were placed. Not far from the west entrance was the tennis court, which some consider to be the ancestor of football and which, for the Aztecs, had an important ritual role.

Tenochtitlan was a perfect and advanced city, just like the great Aztec kingdom which was crushed by a handful of conquistadors. The latter had, in principle, no chance of defeating this perfectly organized indigenous society, so harmoniously balanced thanks to a social structure strongly dominated by religion. However, it was certainly this strict adherence to the dogmas of their religion that gave the advantage to the armed men arrived from the sea, so different that they seemed to come from other worlds.

Hernan Cortes and the end of the Aztecs

Hernan Cortes and the conquistadors defeats Aztecs of Tenochtitlan

On November 8, 1519, Hernan Cortes, after having left the coasts of the Yucatan six months earlier, reached the Aztec capital of Mexico Tenochtitlan, of which he later told the following story: “It is built on a salt lagoon and is distant from all two places on the shore. It can be accessed from four points by well-constructed roads the width of two spears. It is as big as Seville or Cordoba. The largest square is twice as large as that of Salamanca, is entirely surrounded by arcades where, every day, between buyers and sellers, more than sixty thousand people circulate. The stone parts and the wood parts are worked to perfection, and I don't think there are better parts in any other city in the world. ”

It seems incredible, but the man who had such words of admiration for Tenochtitlan was also the architect of his destruction. This man, two years after having landed, had the upper hand over a population who knew the art of war well, who dominated the territory with great mastery and who was naturally used to living in a difficult environment and strongly hostile to Europeans. It has been said that the conquistadors gained the upper hand over the people of Mexico Tenochtitlan because they possessed guns and were also highly motivated and thirsty for conquest: these assumptions may have had some weight, in part , but are certainly not sufficient to give meaning to the mystery of the end of the Aztecs and to the fall of Tenochtitlan.

Quetzalcoatl mythology in Aztec religion


The decline of one of the most advanced civilizations can be explained by many other factors. Europeans had their mythical figure of Quetzalcoatl on their side, but the conquistadors did not know it. On the other hand, the natives knew it well, and especially the famous sovereign Moctezuma. According to the Aztec religion, Quetzalcoatl was a fallen god, gone into exile beyond the ocean from which he was to return one day to destroy the empire of men and their gods. The Whites, girded in their armor and arrived from the sea on large ships, equipped with weapons never seen before and helped by mysterious animals (horses), were thus considered by the Aztecs as the army of an angry Quetzalcoatl: all defense would have been in vain, since their fate had already been decided by an unfathomable divine plan. Thus, the art of sophisticated warfare, but greatly diminished by the consciousness of being the victims of the wrath of the god, could do nothing against the power of the guns of the conquistadors who, in a short time, routed the Aztec army and stormed Tenochtitlan.

The war, which the people of Moctezuma considered as an element belonging to a complex ritual, ended in a bloodbath and the men of Cortes conquered the city of Tenochtitlan without difficulty: a symbolic gesture which, for the Aztecs, corresponded to a defeat ensued by an agreement in which the winners would dictate the conditions. And this was the case. Mexico Tenochtitlan became the monument of Spanish conquest and the epigraph of the end of a great civilization which imagined itself to be the victim of the destructive fury of Quetzalcoatl, returned from an unknown country located on the other side of the ocean.

In search of the legendary Eldorado

Tenochtitlan as well as many large cities of pre-Columbian America were considered, in the spirit of the conquistadors, like the mythical Eldorado, the city perhaps entirely built in gold which, since always, made the happiness and the ruin of the men. “Gold is the son of Zeus. Neither moth nor rust can devour him, but devours the spirit of man.” This emblematic little phrase from the Greek poet Pindar expresses with great clarity what negative weight exerted on men the “thirst for gold”, a kind of appetite often insatiable.

Pizarro, Cortes and so many others sought this mythical city, without finding it. In more recent times, research has focused on Lake Guatavita, not far from Bogota, in part due to the discovery, in the late 1960s, of a splendid gold model representing the phases of a Ceremony of Muisicas, of which we know very little, but who used, before practicing their rituals, to sprinkle the body with gold powder. Perhaps it is this singular practice that has ignited the imagination of European adventurers.