The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the middle of a lake traversed by great causeways, a beautiful, strictly regulated, stone-built city of three hundred thousand residents. The Aztecs had arrived at the lake around 1325, after years of wandering and living off what they could scavenge or pillage from settled communities. According to legend, their patron god Huitzilopochtli had ordered them to build a city where they found an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, and devouring a snake. It is this legend that is the basis of the nopal, eagle and snake motif that forms the centrepiece of the modern Mexican flag.
The lake proved an ideal site: well stocked with fish, it was also fertile, once the Aztecs had constructed chinampas, or floating gardens of reeds. These enabled them to grow crops on the lake, as a result of which they were self-sufficient in food. The lake also made the city virtually impregnable: the causeways, when they were completed, could be flooded and the bridges raised to thwart attacks (or escape, as the Spanish found on the Noche Triste).
The island city eventually grew to cover an area of some thirteen square kilometres, much of it reclaimed from the lake, and from this base the Aztecs were able to begin their programme of expansion: initially dominating the valley by a series of strategic alliances, war and treachery, and finally, in a period of less than a hundred years before the brutal Spanish Conquest of 1521, establishing an empire that demanded tribute from, and traded with, the most distant parts of the country. Yet almost nothing of this amazing city survived the Conquest. “All that I saw then,” Bernal Díaz later wrote of his account of Tenochtitlán, “is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.” It is only relatively recently – particularly during construction of the Metro, and with the 1978 discovery of remains of the Templo Mayor beneath the colonial Zócalo – that a few remains of Tenochtitlán have been brought to light.
The city’s defeat, moreover, is still a harsh memory: Cortés himself is hardly revered, but the natives who assisted him, in particular La Malinche, the Veracruz woman who acted as Cortés’ interpreter, are non-people. Tributes to Moctezuma are rare, though Cuauhtémoc, his successor who led the fierce resistance, is commemorated everywhere; Malinche is represented, acidly, in some of Diego Rivera’s more outspoken murals.