Lying just behind the main cathedral there was a huge pile of stones – all that is left from the giant Aztec’s pyramid. Half of its glory was stolen by the passing time, the other half – by the builders of the church. The ancient ruins were only discovered in the 70´s, when workers were making a trench. I stopped for a moment, thinking. Every stone had their story to tell. When the world was 15 centuries younger, in the place where I stand there was nothing. No concrete buildings, no people roaming the streets, only wilderness, swamps and a big lake Texcoco. A tribe called Mexico was migrating from the north searching for their promised land.
The plane landed in Toluca airport. Dogs on duty were curiously sniffing the passengers, while they were waiting for their baggage. ‘Bienvenido a Mexico!’ An officer greeted me with a stamp in my passport without asking a single question, what I am going to do in his country without a ticket back.
Like coyotes, looking for prey, taxi drivers surrounded the newly arrived offering ridiculously high price of 700 pesos to get us to our desired place. As soon as we got out of the airport and walked to the motorway, a bus picked us up for around 50 pesos. The main motorway with 9 lanes was cramped with beeping cars. A crucified saint was hanging on the front window of the bus. The doors were widely opened, and th driver’s pal, half-hanging outside the bus was shouting out the destination to every potential passenger on the street. The cross was covering most of the window. Well, probably the inner vision is more important.
A change of bus. The station was crowded. I looked around. In the corner a man was struggling to shine the client’s shoes, passengers were pulling huge bags, street sellers were shouting loudly advertising their baskets full of snacks in robotly monotonous voices. A man passed with a huge cross on his back. Hmmm, where he might be going? Down from the posters on the walls were looking many eyes of missing people.
Somewhere a TV was on. A girl from the News was warning that today the smog levels are terribly high, so it is recommended to stay at home. A couple of breaths and the lungs were burning. I was stifling. It was impossible to escape the smell of the poorly processed gasoline. Mexico city is situated in a really high altitude – around 2000 m. However, the landscape does not allow the contamination to be blown away. The government acknowledge the problem of pollution, and introduced some regulations. Like for example, every car receives a ban from road couple of days during the week. However, it is easy to avoid it by buying another car or a motorcycle. Poor public transport system and high levels of corruption is a bad combination. And a constant cloud of smog is hanging there without any plans to move away. No surprise that Mexico City notoriously belongs to Top 25 polluted cities in the World.
A third change. We were entering the metro. There is around 25 million people living in the capital of Mexico. And around 1 million of the city inhabitants are under the ground, daily. 3 hours passed, and we managed to get from the east part of the city to the north.
The city was obviously too big for the current infrastructure to cope with these kinds of loads. How can people live here? Well, the truth is simple. Even though the Mexico is a big country, the industries are concentrated around the capital. Many people came here in search of a job, education, better salaries, better life and has no other choice. Or believe that they don’t have any other choice.
The Eagle, Prophecy and New Beginning
Lying just behind the main cathedral there was a huge pile of stones – all that is left from the giant Aztec’s pyramid. Half of its glory was stolen by the passing time, the other half – by the builders of the church. The ancient ruins were only discovered in the 70´s, when workers were making a trench. I stopped for a moment, thinking. Every stone had their story to tell.
When the world was 15 centuries younger, in the place where I stand there was nothing. It is hard to believe. No concrete buildings, no people roaming the streets, only wilderness, swamps and a big lake Texcoco. A tribe called Mexico was migrating from the north searching for their promised land. According to the legend, the Gods promised they would send an eagle with a snake in its beak. It would perch on the cactus and indicate that they reached the place to be called home. After a long journey they saw it in the middle of the lake – on the island. It was to become their new home, where they built their golden city. The prophecy fulfilling eagle could be seen up to these days, perched in the middle of the Mexican flag.
Another story (to be taken with a pinch of salt) tells that Aztecs had no other choice – the other tribe was after them and they had to retreat to the island. And the problem, which annoyed the other tribe so much, was the unsuccessful weddings. The daughter of a king was about to marry an Aztec. On the wedding day Aztec’s priest took her to the temple to perform the wedding ritual. However, instead of the wedding, he dragged her to the sacrificial stone and pulled her heart out to please the god of fertility. The king found the priest dancing dressed in the skin of his daughter and obviously didn’t liked it. Aztecs had to run.
Golden Swamp’s City
For one reason or the other, the Mexico tribe or the Aztecs built their glorious city Tenochtitlan in the swamps within 100 years. During its golden era, it had around 300 000 inhabitants – more than London of that time. And it was a miracle city. Firstly, a miracle engineerically speaking. The buildings, including the giant pyramid, were built entirely on water and swampy grounds. Like the modern Amsterdam, the city was built on giant piles to reduce the impact of the water. From the forest Chapultepec (which is now a Central Park of Mexico City) around 5 km long aqueduc was supplying city with constant flow of water. What is left from it, lies close to Metro Sevilla.
As inhabitants didn´t have much land, they had to reclaim it from the lake. This technique was called chinampa. A rectangular 90×5 m ¨floating gardens” were built from wattle, lake mud and decaying vegetation. This kind of soil was super fertile – the plants had constant access to the water and good nutrition. The peasants were capable to reach their gardens with a canoe through the many canals that furrowed the city. That is mostly the reason why Aztecs didn´t had a wheel – they simply didn´t need it in their Venice-like city. Obviously, the paddling board would serve more than a carriage. However, the idea of a round thing for moving stuff occurred for Aztecs too, but it served a different purpose. Archeologists found a children’s toy – a small animal with a wheels on its foot.
Apart from the advance in engineering, it was a very clean city too. Meanwhile Europe was suffering from the plague, the elite was scrubbing their pedicular heads with golden sticks and rubbing their bodies with aromatic oils to kill the awful smells, the Aztecs had quite higher standards. They used local saunas, called Temazcal to clean and purify their bodies, as well as their souls. The emperor was enjoying even higher levels of comfort. He had running water in his palace and was bathing 2 times a day.
Throughout the centuries the city changed enormously, the lake disappeared and was covered by millions of houses. However, the swampy grounds still cause problems to the current buildings of the Centro Historico. It is easy to see the “drunk” houses, which are leaning forward and no one knows when their facades will hit the ground.
Mexican Kitchen of that time
By the lake Texcoco the choice of food was not very wide. The only domesticated animal was the dog, so people had to be creative to have enough food.
Many migrating birds were tempted by the freshness of the lake and were dwelling on its banks. Unfortunately for the birds, they were a great source of proteins for the locals. Nonetheless, Aztecs were open for other protein sources as well, like insects, which were rich in nutrients, variety and were reproducing in high quantities. A real superfood! The Chapultepec Forest or the current Central Park was probably the hunting terrains for these yummy delis, as its name straightforwardly says “Grasshopper Hill”. The custom to eat bugs survived up to these days. It is easy to find food from ants eggs (escamoles) or cooked & crispy grasshoppers (chapulines) in modern Mexican kitchen.
Other important part of diet was THE Maize or widely known as corn. It was the ingredient in almost all Indegious dishes. It is still consumed in high quantities in a form of Mexican tortillas. Aztecs believed, that the Gods themselves introduced maize to the humanity to feed them, when they were creating the world. This kind of divine background made Maize a very important vegetable, probably the king of vegetables. 3 months in Indigenious calendar was dedicated to worshiping THE Maize and its guardian deity.
Other magical source of food was maguey, a cactus with broad leaves. It was a source of almost everything indigenous people could imagine. It was used as roofing material for houses, peasants were weaving their clothes from it, the spikes were used as needles and ritual barbs. Between the leaves delicious worms were living – another Aztecs deli. The plant was also a source of highly alcoholic Aztecs drink called pulque. Adults were allowed to drink only one glass of this drink. Exceeding the limit was possibly dangerous. Greedy drunks were risking to fall under the influence of the pulque’s God and symptoms were quite obvious – absolute loss of control and aggressive or violent behaviour. The modern manifestation of this deity might occur after drinking too much of traditional Mexican drinks mescal or tequila, which originates from the same plant.
Ball of Feathers, Unexpected Pregnancy & Creation of the world
She magically became pregnant. There was no father, and adultery was unacceptable. Her 400 children became angry and hey killed their mom by decapitating her.
The colourful world of Gods always stirs imagination. Aztecs’ cosmic world is no exception. In the times before the perched eagle and way before any tribes started to wander searching for their home, and even earlier than the earth was created, there was nothing. A muddy nothing. The empty space was filled with some black sticky substance. A monstrous Earth Goddess, in the form of a giant toad, was living in those waters of nothing. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, two main God figures in creating the world, hunted down the beast toad and sacrificed it.
They cut it in half – one part of the body was used to create earth, the other part to create heaven. From the hair they created plants, flowers and trees. The skin became grass. The eyes were converted into lakes, springs and small caves. The mouth became rivers and huge caves. Finally, the nose was used to create mountains and valleys.
Another creation story tells that the Earth Goddess, or the Serpent Lady, found a ball of feathers. And Gods, just like humans, loved feathers. The more of them, the better. The Aztec emperor was wearing the crown made from 1000 feathers. So no surprise that the goddess took the feathers and put them inside her dress. But something went wrong. She magically became pregnant. And adultery was unacceptable. There was no father, and no one took the feathers story seriously. Her 400 children including daughter Coyolxauhqui became angry. They killed their mom by decapitating her. However at the moment they killed her, from her womb, God Huitzilopochtli rised. The god of war, sun and the patron of the Tenochtitlan. He killed all his brothers, who became stars. He killed Coyolxauhqui too, by cutting her head off and throwing it into the sky. Her head in the sky became the Moon. Every night now she is looking at her mother down below…
Aztec Emperor crown Coatlicue – Earth Goddess
Importance of Belief or the Other Side of Human Sacrifice
Blood. Peeled skin. Thousands of torn out hearts. Children’s tears. Aztecs are probably best known for their cruel human sacrifices – the key of their religion. Blood-thirsty gods might sound savage, but it was not as simple as it sounds. Culture cannot be understood without a wider context. The religious beliefs of Aztecs were very complex, where every violent act was serving a particular ritual and cult.
Aztecs felt responsibility to keep their gods happy. Gods created humans, gave the Earth to live on, but gods could also easily take it back if they felt the ungratefulness of humans. Aztecs believed themselves to be guardians of the universal order, and they needed to provide sacrifices to the gods, to make the sun rise again next day, to make the rain come, to ensure that the existence of humanity continues.
When the first Spanish came to conquer the New World, they were disgusted by the rituals of natives. They described them as demonic savages killing and chopping people to please the Devil. On the other hand, Aztecs were disgusted by the Spanish – they were not taking hostages to honour the gods later, they were simply killing everyone. What a waste of precious human blood!
Why to sacrifice blood? Why some fruits, incense or feathers were not enough for gods to be satisfied? The answer was lying in the notion of sacrifice itself. Humans were offering the most valuable thing they had to honour the gods. It was their life, the heart and “the precious water” – blood. It was not a disrespect of human life or some sadistic desires that were leading to human sacrifices, but rather the acknowledgment of the value of human vital energy and offering it to the gods as a present. Death is always part of a new creation. According to many myths, gods also made sacrifices of themselves in order to create the world and humans. That’s exactly what happened to the cosmic toad. May she rest in peace.
Anyway, to die on the sacrificial stone was not such a bad idea as it may seem. It was the most honorable death in Aztec society. A victim was getting the first-class direct ticket to the kingdom of the Sun God. It was even more honorable than dying in a battlefield. By the way, a battle itself was a bit different than we are used to imagine. The warriors were dressed up in animal costumes, and drumming, screaming, dancing weird dances to intimidate the enemies. Then they fight and kidnap their enemies unharmed. The whole point of war was not to gain glory by killing, but by taking as many hostages as possible. The more unharmed hostages you could take, the better soldier you were. War was a way to supply human flesh for daily rituals on the top of the giant pyramid.
The clash of two different worlds and cultures was contraversial. When the first Spanish came to conquer the New World, they were disgusted by the rituals of natives. They described them as demonic savages killing and chopping people to please the Devil. On the other hand, Aztecs were disgusted by the Spanish – they were not taking hostages to honour the gods later, they were simply killing everyone. What a waste of precious human blood!
The underworld was dark and the journey tough. The soul was about to meet many unfriendly and terrifying creatures, which dwell in the darkness of the underworld. Like a snake, the soul needed to slough its skin. Skinless and heartless, the soul had to continue its journey deeper and deeper.
The non-heoric death was the business of the Lord & Lady of the Underworld – Michlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl. They were skeletons, who talked and breathed death. How fluent they were no one knows. Probably because no one has ever returned.
It was believed that after death, a soul of the deceased was starting a long journey of 40 days through 9 levels of the underworld. A journey of a life-time that fulfills the substance. To help the soul to reach the final destination, relatives were sacrificing a xoloizcuintli dog and putting a bead (representing the heart) inside the mouth of the dead. Abstaining from particular foods and sexual activity was also highly appreciated.
The underworld was dark and the journey tough. The soul was about to meet many unfriendly and terrifying creatures, which dwell in the darkness of the underworld. Like a snake, the soul needed to slough its skin. Some wild animal would steal and eat the bead. Skinless and heartless, the soul had to continue its journey deeper and deeper.
Somewhere deep enough, it finds the river of the dead, Chignahuapan. The sacrificed dog is waiting there. Without many ceremonies dog shows the way to the other shore and the soul reaches its destination – the world of the dead. Quite cold and dark place of no return. Brrr…
The Sunset of the Pyramids or the Spanish Conquest
Just like the beginning which was foretold, the ending of the Aztecs world was also predicted by a prophecy. A white god with a beard sailed away on a boat made of serpents and promised to come back one day, to reclaim his throne.
And one day he did come back. But with ships made of wood. And many of them. When scouts saw Spanish ships, they described them as moving mountains on water. They had giant animals to ride on and weapons. Soon after, the “white gods” started claiming their throne.
Emperor Montezuma naively invited Spanish to his city. The Trojan Horse. When the arrivals saw the dream city on water, full of gold, they could not resist the temptation to seize it.
“The Spanish picked up the gold and fingered it like monkeys. Their bodies swelled with greed and their hunger was unquenchable.”
After a couple of battles the golden city fell and 90% of all indigenous people died from deseases brought by Spanish. The great pyramid became ruins, and on top of it a cathedral was build as a victory flag of the new world order.
Montezuma may have lost his empire, but he still haunts the modern Mexico. Travellers’ diarehea from polluted tap water is called the curse of Montezuma. A revenge against the “white gods” who claimed the world that was not theirs…
3 Must-see links to stir up curiosity:
1. For the Mind & Imagination – Aztec creation myth:
2. For Ears – Aztecs’ instruments:
3. For Eyes – Aztec war dance: