- 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
The kinds of foodstuffs sold are numberless. They will eat virtually anything that lives: snakes without head or tail; little barkless dogs, castrated and fattened; moles, dormice, mice, worms, lice; and they even eat earth which they gather with fine nets, at certain times of the year, from the surface of the lake. It is a kind of scum, neither plant nor soil, but something resembling ooze, which solidifies. It is very plentiful and a great deal of it is gathered; it is spread out on floors, like salt, and there it dries and hardens. It is made into cakes resembling bricks, which are not only sold in the market [of Mexico] but are shipped to others far outside the city. It is eaten as we eat cheese; it has a somewhat salty taste and, taken with chilmole , is delicious. It is said that so many birds, attracted by the food, come to the lake in winter that they quite often cover it over in some places. …
T HE TEMPLE WAS CALLED a teocalli , which is to say, the house of god, the word being composed of teotl , god, and calli , a house, a very proper word if theirs had been the true God. … In its parishes and districts Mexico had many temples, with towers, surmounted by chapels and altars, where the idols and images of their gods were kept. These chapels were also used as sepulchers by the lords who owned them, the rest of the people being buried in the earth roundabout and in the courtyards. Since all the temples were of the same form, or almost, it will suffice to describe the principal one. …
The temple site was a square, measuring a crossbow shot to the side. Its stone enclosure had four gates, three of them opening on the main streets, which were a continuation of the causeways I have described. The fourth one did not open on a causeway, but on a very good street. Within this enclosure was a structure of earth and heavy stones, square, like the enclosure itself, measuring fifty fathoms to the side. As it rose from the ground, it was interrupted by great terraces, one above the other. The higher it went, the narrower became the terraces, until it resembled a pyramid of Egypt, save that it did not end in a point, but in a square platform eight or ten fathoms wide. The west side had no terraces, but a stairway leading to the top, each step of which was a good span in height. Altogether there were 113 or 114 of the steps, which, being many and high and made of handsome stone, gave the structure an imposing appearance. To see the priests climbing and descending them during some ceremony, or carrying a man up to be sacrificed, was a spectacle to behold.
At the summit were two very large altars, separated from each other, and set so close to the edge of the platform that there was hardly enough room to allow a man to pass easily behind them. One of these altars was at the right, the other at the left. They were not more than five spans in height, and their stone walls were painted with ugly and horrible figures. Each altar had a very pretty chapel built of carved wood, and each had three lofts, one placed above the other, quite high, of carved panelling. The chapels stood well above the pyramid and, viewed from a distance, gave it the appearance of a tall and handsome tower. From it one had a fine view of the city and the lake with all its towns, the most beautiful sight in the world. This was the spectacle that Moctezuma showed Cortés and the Spaniards when he took them to the top of the temple. Between the head of the stairs and the altars was a small square, but more than wide enough for the priests to celebrate their rites without crowding.
All the people prayed with their faces toward the rising sun, which is why the great temples are so placed. In each of the altars was a very large idol. Apart from the towers formed by the chapels on this pyramid, there were forty or more others, large and small, raised upon the lesser teocallis which surrounded the great one. These, although of the same design, did not face the east, but other parts of the sky, to differentiate them from the great temple. Some were larger than the others, and each was dedicated to a different god, one to the god of air, called Quetzalcoatl, whose temple was round, for the air encompasses the sky. Its entrance was through a door carved in the form of a serpent’s mouth, diabolically painted, with fangs and teeth exposed, which frightened those who entered, especially the Christians, to whom it looked like the mouth of hell. … All these temples had adjoining houses for the service of their priests and particular gods.