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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Fall of the Aztec Empire

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

The fall of Aztec civilization has long been a subject of great interest. The Aztec were an extraordinary people, steeped in myth and mayhem, their impact still felt throughout Mexico. The sudden collapse of the Aztec Empire in 1520-1521 has been compared by scholars to that of ancient Rome.

The Aztec Empire collapsed quickly, lasting no more than a century. Some scholars have blamed the collapse on the arrival of Hernando Cortes and the invading Spaniards but in fact, fatal disease and regional discord also played major roles in their demise.

In the year 1427, the Aztecs under the rule of Itzcoatl, and with the assistance of surrounding communities successfully conquered the Tepanecs, thus gaining control of the Valley of Mexico'. However, unlike other warring nations, the Aztec were primarily interested in occupation of new territory, seeking offerings, human and otherwise, for sacrifice to their unusual Gods.

Existing community temples were burned or destroyed, replaced with Aztec alters. Residents were instructed to worship their new God, Huitzilopochtli. Aztec religion was represented through numerous deities, most which appear on the Aztec calendar. These deities were believed responsible for blessing or cursing Aztec life. Such practices were unacceptable to many regional communities, who often found themselves or their neighbors victims of Aztec atrocities.

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Around 1521, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan became infected with the small-pox virus. The subsequent epidemic wiped out nearly half the population of the city, leaving it vulnerable to attack from outside forces.

Soon after, Hernando Cortes mobilized nine thousand of his own troops and nearly a hundred-fifty thousand regional troops.

The arrival of Cortes and his army had a profound psychological effect on Montezuma and the Aztec peoples. Many scholars have portrayed Montezuma as weak willed and indecisive, but for years prior to the Spanish conquest, omens had predicted an end to the Aztec empire. Montezuma is said to have played and lost a ritualistic ballgame, another ominous sign.

As Hernando Cortes and his army began approaching from the south, rumors were already reaching Montezuma about the four legged monsters with human bodies traveling northward. Montezuma and his councilors watched the approach strangers with noted apprehension. Feeling his hands were tied by psychological and logistical considerations, Montezuma received Cortes and his troops without resistance.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a witness, later wrote of the encounter:

“Montezuma took Cortez by the hand and told him to look at his great city and all the other cities that were standing in the water and the many other towns and the land around the lake… So we stood looking about us, for that huge and cursed temple stood so high that from it one could see over everything very well, and we saw the three causeways which led into Mexico… And we saw the aqueduct of fresh water that comes from Chapultepec, which supplies the city, and we saw the three bridges on the causeways which were built at certain distances apart… And we beheld on the lake a great multitude of canoes, some coming with supplies of food, others returning loaded with cargoes of merchandise, and we saw that from every house of that great city and of all the other cities that were built in the water it was impossible to pass from house to house except by drawbridges, which were made of wood, or in canoes; and we saw in those cities Cues (temples) and oratories like towers and fortresses and all gleaming white, and it was a wonderful thing to behold!”

According to the first hand account of Diaz del Castillo, Montezuma would soon die at the hands of his own people. Diaz and his companions were saddened by the death of the great warrior.

“Cortes and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him”, Diaz wrote. “And there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead."

The subsequent collapse of Aztec culture became inevitable. By August of 1521, the Aztec were all but decimated, and in their wake, began the era of Spanish rule throughout Mexico. Stone had given way to steel.

Descendants of the Aztec continue to live throughout Mexico, and much about Aztec culture remains. Previously unknown ruins have recently been documented and excavated, leading to much new information about these amazing people. Still, like their relatives, the Mayan and the Toltec, the Aztec left behind a curious and troubling legacy, some mysteries of which we shall never fully understand.

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

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1 comment:

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