- 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
Mexico-Tenochtitlán is completely surrounded by water, standing as it does in the lake. It can be approached by only three causeways: one, about half a league long, entering from the west; another from the north, about a league long. There is no causeway from the east, and one must approach by boat. To the south is the third causeway, the one by which Cortés and his companions entered, as I have said. The lake upon which Mexico is situated, although it seems to be one, is really two, very different from each other, for one is saline, bitter, and stinking, and has no fish in it, while the other is of sweet water and does have fish, although they are small. The salt lake rises and falls, and has currents caused by the winds. The fresh-water lake is higher, so that the good water flows into the bad, and not the other way around, as some have thought; it flows through some six or seven large channels cut in the causeway that separates them. These channels are crossed by some very fine wooden bridges. The salt lake is five leagues wide and eight or ten long, and is more than fifteen leagues in circumference. The fresh-water lake is about the same size, so that the whole measures more than thirty leagues roundabout. On its shores are more than fifty towns, many of them of five thousand houses, some of ten thousand, and one, Texcoco, as large as Mexico. The water that collects in this depression comes from a ring of mountains that can be seen from the city. It picks up its salt from the saline earth through which it flows. Its salinity is caused by the soil and the place, and not by something else, as many think. A great deal of salt is gathered from the lake, and is the source of a large trade.
Upon these lakes float some two hundred thousand small boats, called by the natives acalli , which is to say, water-houses, from atl , water, and calli , house, the word being composed from these two terms. The Spaniards called them canoas , a word to which they had become used in the language of Cuba and Santo Domingo. They are shaped somewhat like a trough, cut out of one piece, large or small, depending upon the size of the log. I am understating rather than exaggerating the number of these acalli , for some affirm that in Mexico alone there are commonly some fifty thousand of them, used for bringing in provisions and transporting people. So the canals are covered with them to a great distance beyond the city, especially on market days.
T HE MARKET PLACE IS CALLED a tianquiztli . Each district and parish has its square for the exchange of merchandise, Mexico and Tlatelolco, the largest districts, having vast ones, especially the latter, where markets are held on most weekdays. … The market place of Mexico is wide and long, and surrounded on all sides by an arcade; so large is it, indeed, that it will hold seventy thousand or even a hundred thousand people, who go about buying and selling, for it is, so to speak, the capital of the whole country, to which people come, not only from the vicinity, but from farther off. …
Each trade and each kind of merchandise has its own place reserved for it, which no one else can take or occupy—which shows no little regard for public order—and because such a multitude of people and quantity of goods cannot be accommodated in the great square, the goods are spread out over the nearest streets, especially the more bulky materials, such as stone, lumber, lime, bricks, adobes, and all building materials, both rough and finished. [In the market proper] many kinds of mats are to be found, both fine and coarse; pottery of different clays and glazes, all very pretty, and every kind of vessel, from great jars to saltcellars; charcoal, firewood, and faggots; deerskins, raw or tanned, with hair or without, stained in many colors, for shoes, bucklers, shields, jackets, and coverings for wooden armor. Besides all this, there are skins of other animals: birds with their feathers still in place, dried and stuffed with straw, large and small, an astonishing thing to see because of their colors and strangeness.
The most valuable goods are salt and cotton mantles, these being white, black, and of every color, some large, some small; some designed for bed coverings, others for capes, still others for drapes, drawers, shirts, headdresses, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and many other things. There are also mantles of maguey fiber, palm fiber, and rabbit fur, which are good, esteemed, and worn, although those made of feathers are better. The most picturesque thing in the market is the birds: some used for food, others for their feathers, and still others for hunting. They are so many that they cannot be counted, and of such different species that I cannot name them: tame birds, birds of prey, birds of the air, land, and water. The most beautiful things in the market are the gold and featherwork, in which they make replicas of everything in every color.
The craft of the highest rank and greatest skill is that of the silversmiths. … They can cast a parrot that moves its tongue, head, and wings; a monkey that moves its feet and head, and holds a distaff in its hands, so naturally that it seems to be spinning, or an apple that it appears to be eating. All this was much admired by our men, for our silversmiths have not such skill. …