- Historic Sites
The City Of The Living God
From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
By this time they were approaching the end of the street, which is a third of a league long [a league is about two and a half miles— Ed. ], wide, straight, and very beautiful, lined with houses on both sides; and so many people were crowded at the doors and windows and on the roofs that I know not who was the more amazed, our men at seeing such a multitude of men and women in the city, or they, at the guns, horses, beards, and dress of our men, such as they had never before seen.
The Spaniards then came to a large courtyard in what had been the house of Axayacatl [the ruler of the Aztecs from 1469–79, and the father of Moctezuma— Ed. ], where idols were kept. At the door Moctezuma took Cortés by the hand and led him to a large room, saying: “You are now in your own house. Eat, rest, and enjoy yourself, and I shall return later.”
Such, just as you have heard it, was the reception given Hernân Cortés by Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his great city of Mexico, on the eighth day of November of the year of Our Lord 1519.
M OCTEZUMA WAS A MAN of middling size, thin, and, like all Indians, of a very dark complexion. He wore his hair long and had no more than six bristles on his chin, black and about an inch long. He was of an amiable though severe disposition, affable, well-spoken, and gracious, which made him respected and feared. Moctezuma means a furious and solemn man. The Mexicans add the suffix tzin to the given names of kings, lords, and women as a mark of courtesy or dignity, as we do with don , the Turks with sultan , and the Moors with mulei ; so they call Moctezuma Moctezumatzin . His people endowed him with such majesty that they would not sit in his presence, or wear shoes, or look him in the face, with the exception of only a few great lords. But he would not permit the Spaniards to remain standing, either because he enjoyed their society, or because of his high regard for them. When he took a notion to dress in the Spanish fashion, he would exchange garments with them. He changed his own four times a day and never wore the same garment twice. His used garments were saved and given as rewards and presents to servants and messengers, or, as a token of favor and privilege, to soldiers who had fought and captured an enemy. The many and beautiful mantles that he sent to Cortés were of such.
Moctezuma was naturally clean and neat; he bathed twice a day. He seldom left his chambers except to eat, and always ate alone, but gravely and abundantly. His table was a cushion or a couple of dyed skins; his chair a bench of four legs, made from one piece, the seat hollowed out, very well carved and painted. His dishes were brought in by four hundred pages, gentlemen’s sons, who served them all at once in his dining hall. Moctezuma would enter and look them over, pointing to those he liked, whereupon they would be set on braziers of live coals, to keep them warm and preserve their flavor. He would seldom touch other dishes, unless it was a well-prepared one recommended by his majordomo.
Before he sat down to eat, as many as twenty of his wives would enter, the most beautiful or shapely, or those serving their weekly turn, who very humbly brought him his food, after which he sat down. Then the steward would enter and draw a wooden screen to keep the people from crowding in, and only the steward could serve him, for the pages were not permitted to approach the table or utter a word; nor could any of those present speak while their master was eating, save only his jester, or someone who had a question to ask; and all waited on him barefoot. His drinking was not done with such pomp and ceremony.
Some six old men, with whom Moctezuma would share portions of the dishes he liked, were always at the king’s side, although somewhat withdrawn. They accepted the food reverently and ate it even more respectfully, not looking him in the face—which was the greatest mark of humility they could show him. During his meals he would listen to the music of pipes, flutes, conches, bone fifes, drums, and other instruments of the kind, for they have no better ones; nor can they sing, I say, because they do not know how, and their voices are bad besides.
Always present at his meals were dwarfs, hunchbacks, cripples, and so on, all for his entertainment and amusement, and these, along with the jesters and mountebanks, were given the leavings to eat at one end of the hall. Whatever else was left over was eaten by the three thousand men of the regular guard, who stayed in the courtyards and square—which is why it is said that three thousand dishes were always served, and three thousand pitchers of the beverage they drink, and that the cellar and pantry were never closed. It was a wonderful thing to see what they contained. Everything obtainable in the market was cooked and served daily without fail. There was, as we shall relate elsewhere, an infinite variety, in addition to what was brought in by hunters, tenants, and tributaries.