The City Of The Living God

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To that small group of Spaniards who early in November, 1519, first glimpsed the city of Mexico (or Tenochtitlán, as the Indians also called it), the sight must have been unforgettable. “It is like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis!” one exclaimed. “Are not the things we see a dream?” Here was no scattering of primitive native huts but a magnificent city of stone rising from an island in a lake. It was as if the newcomers had suddenly found themselves transported to the Age of the Pharaohs—for such was the level which the Aztec Indian culture had attained. Indeed, the city of Moctezuma, a man revered as a god by his own people, matched in splendor anything Europe could offer. Today it seems incredible that a force of perhaps four hundred men could overthrow a civilization so advanced and so apparently powerful. But numbers in this case are meaningless, for Moctezuma and his wide-ranging Aztec empire had encountered one of the most daring and resourceful captains of history, Hernàn Cortés. He was a man whom the Indians regarded as a god in his own right—until, too late, they discovered that his motives were all too human. The following account is taken from the classic but little-known life of Cortés written by Francisco López de Gómara in 1552. Gómara was eminently qualified for the task, for he served as Cortés chaplain and secretary from 1541 until the conquistador’s death in 1547. Surprisingly, though the book has long been a source for historians, it has had but one English translation—and that a much-mutilated version which appeared in 1578. This modern edition is the work of Lesley Byrd Simpson, Professor Emeritus of Spanish at the University of California; under the title Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary , it will soon be published by the University of California Press.

I XTAPALAPA IS CONNECTED WITH M EXICO by two leagues of a very wide causeway, wide enough to accommodate eight horses abreast, and as straight as if drawn with a ruler. The gates of Mexico could be discerned by one with good eyesight. Along its length are Mexicalcingo, of about 4,000 houses, all built over the water; Coyoacán, of 6,000; and Churubusco, of 5,000. These cities are adorned with many temples, each with its tower. …

Cortés, with his 400 companions and 6,000 Indian friends from the pacified towns, advanced along this causeway, marching with great difficulty because of the pressure of the crowds that came out to see them. As he drew near to the city he came to the junction of another causeway which was protected by a large stone bastion, two fathoms high, with towers at the two ends, between them a crenelated gallery and two gates, very strong. Here some 4,000 gentlemen of the court were waiting to receive him, richly dressed after their fashion, all in the same style. Upon his approach each of them touched the earth with his right hand, kissed it, bowed, and passed on in the same order in which he had come. This took an hour and was something to see. The causeway continued beyond the battlement. Before it reached the street it was interrupted by a wooden drawbridge ten paces across, under which the water flowed from one lake to the other.

Moctezuma came as far as this bridge to greet Cortés. He walked under a pallium of gold and green feathers, strung about with silver hangings, and carried by four gentlemen. He was supported on the arms of his nephews, the great princes Cuitlahuac and Cacama. All three were dressed alike, save that Moctezuma wore golden shoes set with precious stones, which were really only sandals held on by straps like those of the ancients. Servants walked ahead of them two by two, laying down and removing mantles, lest Moctezuma should tread on the ground. Two hundred lords came next, as if in a procession, all barefoot, but wearing a richer livery than the 3,000 of the first escort. Moctezuma kept to the middle of the street and the rest followed him, hugging the walls, their eyes downcast, for it would have been an act of great irreverence to gaze upon his face.

Cortés dismounted and approached Moctezuma to embrace him in the Spanish fashion, but was prevented by those who were supporting him, for it was a sin to touch him. Even so, the two men saluted each other, and Cortés threw about Moctezuma’s neck a necklace of pearls, diamonds, and other gems made of glass. Moctezuma stepped forward with one of his nephews, and ordered the other to lead Cortés by the hand behind him. As they set off, the men in livery came up one by one to speak to Cortés and felicitate him upon his arrival; and then, touching the earth with their hands, they passed on and took their places as before. If all the citizens had saluted him as they wished, it would have taken the whole day; but, since the king had gone on ahead, they all turned their faces to the wall and did not dare approach Cortés.

Moctezuma was pleased with his glass necklace and, being a great prince and unwilling to accept a present without giving a better one in exchange, he at once commanded two necklaces to be brought. From each of them hung eight gold shrimps (which they greatly esteem) as large as snails and an inch long, of perfect workmanship, and he cast it about Cortés’ neck with his own hands, which the astonished Mexicans considered a mark of great favor.