Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy


The Cities in the Lake

Between 1325 and 1375, the Mexica build two cities in Lake Texcoco, choose two kings, and become the Aztecs

ON THE CENTRAL AMERICAN land bridge, drought had rearranged the map.

Refugees from the dusty northwest were wandering farther and farther south into the more fertile valleys, searching for water and tillable ground. A certain sameness appears in the traditional tales of their journeys: Each group of refugees had left its homeland because the gods told them to go. Journeying south, they came first to the ruins of the half-mythical city of Tollan, burned in the middle of the eleventh century and deserted by its people. Tollan had been a blessed city, loved by the gods; but it too had fallen. So the exiles passed through it and traveled on to the lands where they now settled.1

One of these wandering tribes, the Mexica, trudged through wrecked Tollan and arrived in the valley that now bears their name: the Valley of Mexico. They told a story of being led from their faraway home, in a place called Aztlan, by their god Huitzilopochtli. After nearly a century of wandering, they had come at last to the valley. There they built their first homes on the crest of a hill called Chapultepec.

The locals were not pleased at the intrusion, and several years of destructive fighting followed. Finally the Mexica were beaten into submission, turned into slaves and servants. The surrounding tribes divided the defeated newcomers up; the largest group of Mexica was claimed by the king of Colhuacan, the city nearest to their hill, as his vassals. The Mexica had fought fiercely against their attackers, and their new master intended to use them as front-line troops in future wars.

As he didn’t really care whether or not they survived, he settled them in a barren plain south of his city; it was called Tizapan, and it was filled with rocks and poisonous snakes. But the Mexica were tough, and they survived in their inhospitable new land. For decades, they bided their time, serving the king of Colhuacan, building their strength.2

Around 1325, they made an unmistakable gesture of defiance and independence. They told their royal master, the king Achitometl, that they wished to elevate his daughter, the princess of Colhuacan, to goddesshood, and asked that she be sent to them so that they could carry out the rituals.

The king agreed, and the princess was taken with great ceremony out to the highest point of Tizapan. An oral tradition, set down in the sixteenth century by the Spanish courtier Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc, tells the rest of the story:

Then they slew the princess and they flayed her,

and after they flayed her, they dressed a priest in her skin.

Then they summoned her father, King Achitometl, to come and greet the goddess. Achitometl gathered up flowers and food to offer his daughter, and the Mexica led him into the darkened interior of their sacred building. He set the offerings down in front of the indistinct figure, but

he still did not see the person . . .

Then he made an offering of incense and the incense-burner blazed up,

and Achitometl saw a man in his daughter’s skin.

He was horror-struck.

He cried out, he shouted to his lords and to his vassals . . .

“They have flayed my daughter!

They shall not remain here, the fiends!

We shall slay them, we shall massacre them! The evil ones

shall be annihilated here!”3

He set his warriors against the Mexica, and they were driven away from their inhospitable home in the barrens, into the waters of Lake Texcoco. Once they were splashing in the shallows, the Colhuacan soldiers drew back. “The Colhuacans thought they had perished in the water,” says Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc; more likely, the lake sat in a demilitarized zone, neutral ground that separated Colhuacan from the equally powerful city-states of Azcapotzalco and Texcoco. King Achitometl did not mind wiping out the helpless Mexica, but he did not wish to start a fight with his neighbors.4

Lake Texcoco was a runoff lake, filled with melted snow that had trickled down from the mountains ringing the Basin of Mexico. All that runoff brought salt and minerals with it; and because it was also a closed lake, with no channel to the sea, the salt remained in the lake when the water evaporated. It was shallow and briny, filled with saltwater reeds and dotted with islands of liquid mud, completely hostile to settlement.5


70.1 The Aztecs

Nevertheless, the Mexica were stuck in it, trapped by three major powers in the middle of a swamp. So, as they had done for the last decades, they made the best of their situation. They began to tell a story that would transform their mucky new home into a divinely chosen land.

Their god Huitzilopochtli, they declared, had told them long before that they would know they had reached the end of the wanderings when they saw a sign, an eagle sitting on a cactus (tenochtli) with a snake held in its beak: “It is there that we shall fix ourselves, it is there that we shall rule, that we shall wait, that we shall meet the various nations and that with our arrow and our shield we shall overthrow them.” When they arrived at Lake Texcoco, the story went on, they sloshed their way into the middle of it and suddenly saw the eagle of prophecy, “poised on a cactus, eating with delight. . . . And they wept, crying, ‘At last we have been worthy of our god; we have deserved the reward; with astonishment we have seen the sign: our city shall be here.’” It was a wonderful story, and useful; it allowed them to celebrate the inevitable.6

The Mexica began to build houses for themselves on one of the larger islands, where underlying rock would keep them from sinking down into the bog that surrounded them. This island they named Tenochtitlán, after the cactus in the prophecy. They lived on fish and waterfowl; they trapped and hunted and traded the meat with the surrounding cities for bricks and timber and the other necessities of life. Slowly, Tenochtitlán was transformed from a muddy survivor’s camp into a town. Slowly, the tribe of the Mexica was becoming a nation: the Aztecs. But they did not forget the horror of those first years on the island. “This is the place of the serpent’s anger,” the Aztec priests chanted, over a century later, as they descended into Lake Texcoco for their ritual yearly bath, “the humming of the water-mosquito, the flight of the wild-duck, the murmur of the white rushes.”7

Sometime between 1337 and 1357, a splinter group of Aztecs moved out of Tenochtitlán, to a dry patch of land less than a mile away, at the north end of the lake. The Dominican friar Diego Durán, who gathered and preserved the oral histories of the Aztecs in the sixteenth century, tells us that Tenochtitlán had grown large enough to be divided into four sections, or barrios, with each section parceled out to the men of the city. “Some of the elders who felt they deserved more property than they had received . . . rebelled,” Durán writes. “They decided to seek a different place, and by going through the reeds and rushes they found a small dry piece of land.” Here, four chieftains (“restless and seditious men, of evil intentions”) built a second city and called it Tlatelolco. The twin cities on Lake Texcoco existed in a state of constant simmering hostility: “They were never at peace,” Durán says, “nor did they get on well with their brothers.”8

The division forced both Aztec settlements to shore up their defenses. “[The men of Tlatelolco] have abandoned us, they have gone away,” one of the elders of Tenochtitlán explained. “I am afraid that with their cunning they will one day wish to surpass us and subdue us. . . . Before we find ourselves in a situation like that, I believe we should make a rapid decision and choose a king who will rule over us and over Tlatelolco as well.”9

The king they chose was Acamapichtli, “Handful of Arrows,” the son of an Aztec father and a Colhuacan mother. Crowned in 1375 as the first ruler of Tenochtitlán, he was immediately forced to carry on complicated and delicate negotiations with the surrounding powers; Tezozomoc, the powerful king of the city-state of Azcapotzalco on the western ridge of the valley, had become alarmed by the rapid rise of Tenochtitlán. He sent a demand for immediate tribute: fish, frogs, willow and cypress trees, maize, chiles, beans, squash, and large loaves of bread made out of the ground redworms called ezcahuitli (an important source of protein for the lake dwellers).

Paying the tribute would acknowledge that the Aztecs were vassals and servants to Azcapotzalco. The new king was a “valiant youth,” but he decided to be cautious; he ordered the people of the city to pay the tribute and keep the peace. (Conveniently, his chief priest agreed; the god Huitzilopochtli, he said, had appeared and promised to make the city prosperous if the tribute were paid.)

And so it happened. “The Aztecs continued to pay the same tribute for fifty years,” Durán says,

pretending to be content and feigning obedience, while their numbers multiplied, while they became stronger. King Acamapichtli reigned forty years in the city of Tenochtitlán, ruling in peace, in quiet, in harmony. He built the city, organizing its houses, canals, and streets . . . [and] achieved other benefits for the good of the state.10

Meanwhile, the chieftains of Tlatelolco ignored the election and chose their own king. Acamapichtli was half Colhuacan and the vassal of Azcapotzalco; so the city on the north end asked Tezozomoc of Azcapotzalco to send them one of his own royal sons as their ruler. Tezozomoc agreed and sent his younger son, Cuacuauhpitzahuac. This too made Tlatelolco a vassal of the greater city, but a vassal in higher standing than its neighbor.

From the beginning, they were set against each other: Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco, brother against brother, Cain and Abel in the same lake, twin cities competing for the favor of the stern and distant Tezozomoc. “No kingdom divided against itself can endure,” Durán concludes. “And dreading destruction, yet warring against each other, both groups pretended ignorance of the reality.”11


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