National Geographic : 1937 Jun
IN THE EMPIRE OF THE AZTECS Mexico City is Rich in Relics of a People Who Practiced Human Sacrifice, Yet Loved Flowers, Education, and Art BY FRANK H. H. ROBERTS, JR. Smithsonian Institution M EXICO City's magnificent Cathe dral, richly adorned Sagrario, and extensive National Palace greatly impress the present-day visitor as he stands and gazes across the Z6calo, or Great Square, for the first time. But suppose the scene should fade away and be replaced by that which greeted Cor tez and his followers in 1519. The modern traveler would be as enchanted by the bar baric splendor before his eyes as were the Spaniards, and, like Bernal Diaz del Cas tillo, soldier-chronicler of the Conquest, he might well be moved to ask, "Are not these things a dream?" For the civic center of Mexico City was once the Tecpan, or Tem ple enclosure, of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Where the Cathedral and Sagrario now stand rose the great pyramid topped by its temples to the Gods of War (Color Plate I) and of Rain. The National Palace occupies the site of Montezuma's palace (page 728). In the plaza stood the massive circular stone used for sacrificial combat (Plate II). SKULL-RACK HELD SACRIFICIAL HEADS Behind the stone rose the temple to the God of the Air, and not far distant was the sinister mass of the skull-rack where were placed the heads of victims offered to the gods (Plate III). In front of this stood a devotional altar for worship, and near by was a pool of water for ceremonial observ ances. Numerous other temples were scattered about the enclosure. There were houses occupied by the priests, palaces for officials, even a zoo and an aviary. Brilliantly colored costumes of the peo ple contrasted with the white of the pyra mids and other structures, completing the picture and making an unforgettable im pression upon those who beheld the scene. Other parts of the metropolis suggest similar contrasts, for this capital city of early Aztecs and modern Mexicans is a veritable storehouse of New World history. On all sides the eye is met by remnants of ancient glories side by side with 20th-cen tury splendors.* There are places where only a few short steps separate the finest of aboriginal art from the ultramodern murals of Diego Rivera. Sixteenth-century buildings ad join apartment houses of the latest style. Smiling faces of natives thronging the streets bear the stamp of Aztec lineage. Ancient industries are reflected in to day's gold, wood, and featherwork; and architectural ornamentation on newly ris ing structures exhibits the influence of Aztec design and symbol. It is this pleas ing blend of old and new that gives the city its unique charm and individual character. AZTEC HISTORY TOLD IN PICTURES The story of the Aztecs is much better known than that of many New World peo ples. There are native manuscripts, called "codices," detailing in pictographic form certain phases of their history (pages 730, 731, 733, 746, and 747). Descriptions of the city and accounts of the life and cus toms of its inhabitants were written by some of the Conquistadores and by several of the priests who accompanied them. Besides the pictographic stories which supplement the Spanish records, helpful narratives were penned by a few native scholars, taught to write by their conquerors. Added to these documents is the evidence still being obtained from extensive ar cheological and historical researches by ex perts of the Mexican Government and by other investigators, from both America and Europe. Practically every excavation for new con struction work in the city yields its quota of Aztec relics and adds material to the ex tensive collections in Mexico's National Museum of Archeology, History, and Eth nology. An excellent example of a chance * See "North America's Oldest Metropolis," by Frederick Simpich, in THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for July, 1930.