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5-08-2015, 20:27

A Fateful Meeting

The year was 1519, and in Tenochtitlan, the greatest city of the Aztec Empire, Emperor Montezuma II received word that a fleet of ships had landed near the town of Cempoala, on the Gulf coast of what is now Mexico. Reports told of dirty and unkempt people, very unlike the Aztecs. The men had light skin, beards, and hair just to their ears. The strangers also had no regard for normal, civilized Aztec behaviors. These strangers were from Spain and their leader was Hernan Cortes.

Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec Empire, was born in 1485 in Spain. During the age of European exploration and colonization,

Cortes left law school in Spain to seek adventure and riches in the New World. He first went to the Dominican Republic in 1504.

In 1511, Cortes assisted Diego Velazquez, another Spanish conquistador of a higher rank, in conquering the island of Cuba.

In 1519, against Velazquez’s and the Spanish government’s wishes, Cortes set sail on an expedition to Mexico. Once he arrived, Cortes discovered the Aztec civilization, which was unknown to the Europeans. Cortes became governor of the conquered lands in 1523.

In 1541, he returned to Spain, where he died six years later.

For ten years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec people had witnessed a series of bad omens. Aztec legend tells of a large flash that lit up the night sky. In another omen, a temple burned from a fire that no one set. A woman’s weeping cries were heard every night. She spoke of leaving the city. A dark bird was caught in some fishermen’s nets. It wore a mirror on its head that reflected visions of fighting men who rode animals like deer. In yet another omen, a man with two heads and one body ran through the city. These omens stayed in the minds of the Aztecs during the Spanish arrival.

Soon a macehual, “common man,” brought more news—Cortes wanted to meet Montezuma in the capital of the empire. On hearing the plans of these newcomers, Montezuma called a meeting of his council. They decided to greet Cortes as if the visitors were royalty. The emperor sent out an embassy to travel across the land with gifts of elaborately carved discs of gold and silver. Montezuma also sent ornate ritual costumes and a gift of food, including tortillas, eggs, turkey, and maize. After greeting Cortes and his men along the Gulf coast shores, the Aztec messengers brought them back to meet Montezuma in his capital city, Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards were impressed by the gifts. They set out on August 16, 1519, to meet the emperor in his great city.

The Spaniards were prepared to fight. Their weapons were far more advanced than the Aztecs’ weapons. Cortes and his men carried firearms and swords while the people they faced used darts, sling stones, and arrows.

Montezuma II

The ninth and final emperor of the Aztec Empire, Montezuma II, was born in 1466, and he took control of the empire from his uncle in 1502. Montezuma was a skilled warrior who had led many battles for the empire. As emperor, Montezuma was not only the political leader but also a religious leader. He became a powerful ruler. When Cortes captured Montezuma, the Spaniard imprisoned the ruler for months. In 1520, the Aztec people threw stones and arrows at the fallen emperor. Montezuma died shortly after, either from the stoning or from a secret strangulation

The Spaniards wore armor and knew military drills. The Aztecs had more warriors but inferior weapons, mainly bladed clubs.

The Spaniards also had the support of warring tribes that saw the Aztecs as enemies. Cortes and his men defeated groups of native peoples along the journey, many of whom joined Cortes as his warriors. Montezuma learned of the Spaniards’ approach, some 2,500 to 3,500 men strong, and decided to allow them to enter Tenochtitlan.1 Another embassy met the men at a mountain pass close to the city. They brought more gifts, including gold necklaces, gold streamers, and long feathers.

As they approached the city, Cortes and his men were greeted with an impressive sight. They saw the gridlike order of the surrounding towns and large pyramid-shaped temples. As Cortes wrote:

When we had passed the bridge, the Sehor [Montezuma] came out to receive us, attended by about two hundred nobles, all barefooted and dressed in livery, or a peculiar garb of fine cotton, richer than is usually worn; they came in two processions in close proximity to the houses on each side of the street, which is very wide and beautiful, and so straight that you can see from one end of it to the other, although it is two thirds of a league in length, having on both sides large and elegant houses and temples.

The Tlaxcala People

As Cortes and his 500 men marched toward Tenochtitlan, they came upon the Tlaxcala people. These people were fierce warriors who had resisted falling under Aztec rule for years. The Aztecs attacked the Spaniards, but the Spanish weapons and military strategy destroyed the Aztec armies. After their defeat, Cortes convinced the Tlaxcalans to join him in his attempt to defeat Montezuma. Two to three thousand of these enemies of the Aztecs joined Cortes on his march. Their involvement became a major reason why the Spanish were able to conquer the Aztecs.

Montezuma gave the Spanish floral garlands, gold necklaces, and precious stones. He welcomed them to his beautiful city by giving a speech. The Aztecs provided the Spaniards a temple in which to stay. In the days that followed, the Aztecs escorted their guests around the city. A guide showed Cortes the view from atop the large pyramid. What he saw was a magnificent city below him, one much larger than any he had ever seen in Spain. After two weeks inside the city, the Spaniards began devising a plan. They would capture Montezuma and take the city, and possibly the empire, for Spain. It was the beginning of the end of the Aztecs’ great civilization.


People have occupied the fertile highland basin in the Valley of Mexico, where Tenochtitlan was built, for more than 20,000 years. Three sides of the valley are flanked by mountain ranges. Inside, the valley is rich with water sources and vegetation. On an island

A view of Tenochtitlan as an artist imagines it looked when Cortes arrived.



The Aztecs were not the first great civilization in Mesoamerica. Other peoples occupied and thrived in the area for centuries, including the following:

• 1200 BCE-400 BCE: Olmecs

• 500 BCE-1000 CE: Zapotecs

• 1000 BCE-1521 CE: Maya

• 1-650 CE: Teotihuacans

• 550-1100 CE: El Tajins

• 900-1100 CE: Toltecs

• 900-1521 CE: Mixtecs

• 1200-1521 CE: Aztecs

in Lake Texcoco was the great Aztec city, founded in 1325.

Tenochtitlan became the center of the ancient Aztec world. The Aztecs ruled over much of Mesoamerica from the 1400s to the 1500s. They developed an impressive agricultural system and became big producers, bringing wealth and allowing for a growing population. By 1519, the empire was at its height. It contained 400 to 500 city-states, covered 80,000 square miles (200,000 sq km), and had a population of between 5 and 6 million people.3 The city of Tenochtitlan became the largest of all the Mesoamerican cities, with 140,000 people.4 After Cortes captured Montezuma, the Aztecs fought the Spanish for nearly two years. In the end, the Spanish conquered the mighty Aztec empire, changing the course of Mesoamerican history.

The Aztec society was highly civilized, with a defined class system and organized religion, military, commerce, and courts. The Aztecs created finely decorated jewelry and intricate stone carvings. Their written language was made of pictographs. The Aztecs used mathematics and astronomy

as guiding principles for city planning. The Aztec calendar was also highly evolved, coordinating with important rituals.

Today, Aztec cities and artifacts remain, leaving clues to a complex society. The Aztec language of Nahuatl remains alive and is still spoken by more than 1 million people in central Mexico.5 Their herbal medicines, agricultural knowledge, and art continue to inspire modern cultures. Their success and later demise tell the story of the once vast and powerful empire of the ancient Aztecs.