One of the world’s great, lost civilizations are the Aztecs. The meeting in 1519 of their emperor Montezuma with Cortes, the conquistador from Spain who two years later would destroy the Aztecs, ranks as one of those defining moments of history when two opposing world views collided. Montezuma saw Cortes as an emissary of the gods – Cortes saw the Aztec gold and used his steel weapons, sailing ships and horses to get it.
Yet apart from their bloodthirsty appetite for human sacrifice we seem to know very little about the Aztecs. Mexico City museums can boast of their treasures on this ancient civilizations. The Aztecs – named after the mythical place of Aztlan where they claimed to have originated – have obscure origins in a wandering tribe who arrived in the basin of Mexico in around 1300.
Their violent behaviour towards the peoples they encountered on their search for a homeland had forced them to stay on the move, until they landed on swampy ground in the middle of Lake Tetzcoco. Far from feeling unfortunate, they considered this spot to have been divinely ordained when they saw an eagle landing on a cactus with a snake in his beak. This potent image, which fufilled the legend of where they should build their city, is at the centre of the Mexican flag today.
The god that had guided the Aztecs was called Huitzilopochtli. He was their supreme god who took the form of a hummingbird and communed with the sun. To worship him, the Aztecs built the great pyramid, or Templo Mayor.
From here streets led in a grid pattern out into the new city of Tenochtitlan (the site of presentday Mexico City), a city not unlike Venice in that it was built on reclaimed land. It was criss-crossed by canals, and causeways led across the lake in five directions to join with the mainland. When the Spaniards arrived they were astonished at its beauty.
Fresh water was brought into the city by an aqueduct and food came from artificial raised fields. Some of these seedbeds, called ‘chinampas’, still survive in the south of Mexico City in the area of Xochimilco. Maize was grown here in abundance, as were chillies, amaranth, cacao and many kinds of vegetable, fruit and flowers. Abundant and colourful flowers were used in the many religious ceremonies that marked out the progress of the seasons.
Dates for the ceremonies were fixed by an elaborate calendar of two interlocking cycles, one of 365 days and the other of 260 days, which coincided every 52 years.
Their culture took in sport and entertainment, too. They built special courts for a ball game called pelota and drank pulque (fermented maguey cactus juice).
Dressing up reached a high art form with the Aztecs. Priests impersonated the gods with elaborate and colourful costumes. Nose plugs, labrets and ear spools were worn by the aristocracy and warriors. These were often made of precious materials like gold or jade.
The Aztecs loved bright colours and luxury. Leading warriors wore outfits covered in hummingbird feathers and headdresses embellished with the shimmering blue-green plumage of the quetzal bird. Crack troops wielded clubs with razor-sharp obsidian blades and earned prestige points according to how many captives they could bring back alive for the sacificial rites at the Templo Mayor.
Aztecs themselves could be sacrificed. Their hearts were cut out to appease the gods and symbolise the renewal of life – so that the sun would continue to rise and the rain to fall. In an uncertain world where life was short, it was considered a glorious death. Poetry, written in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (still spoken by some in Mexico today), describes life on earth as a passing dream.
If the Aztecs had a philosophy, it was one of impermanence. The famous poet Netzahualcoyotl (1402-72) wrote: ‘Not forever on earth, only a brief while here / Although it were jade, it will be broken. Although it were turquoise, it will be shattered as if it were just quetzal feathers. Not forever on earth, only a brief while here.’ So it was to be. The Aztec empire only lasted for 200 years, yet at its height it rivalled Renaissance Europe in its artistic prowess, its understanding of political power and the complexity of its religious beliefs.