The Beauty of the Aztec Empire
And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?
-Bernal Diaz del Castillo
Tenochtitlan covered an estimated 8 to 13.5 km2 (3.1 to 5.2 sq mi), situated on the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco.
At the time of Spanish conquest, Mexico City comprised Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco at the same time. Since then, the city extended from north to south from the north border of Tlatelolco to the swamps, which by that time were gradually disappearing to the west, the city ended more or less at the present location of Bucareli Street.
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about. —Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain
In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples and schools. Inside a walled square, 300 meters to a side, was the ceremonial center. There were about 45 public buildings including: the Templo Mayor, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the tlachtli (ball game court), thetzompantli or rack of skulls, the temple of the sun, the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice, and some minor temples. Outside was the palace of Moctezuma with 100 rooms, each one with its own bath, for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. Also located nearby was the cuicalli or house of the songs, and the calmecac.
The city had a great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning.
The palace of Moctezuma II also had two houses or zoos, one for birds of prey and another for other birds, reptiles and mammals. About 300 people were dedicated to the care of the animals. There was also abotanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten ponds of salt water and ten ponds of fresh water, containing fish and aquatic birds. Places like this also existed in Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huaxtepec (now called Oaxtepec) and Texcotzingo.
Unlike Bernal Díaz, who was remembering his memories many years after the fact, Cortés wrote his Cartas de relación (Letters from Mexico) in the moment in order to justify his actions to the Spanish Crown. His prose is characterized by simple descriptions and explanations, along with frequent personal addresses to the King. In his Second Letter, Cortés describes his first encounter with Moctezuma thus:
“Mutezuma [sic] came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume, but also very rich in their way and more so than the others. They came in two columns, pressed very close to the walls of the street, which is very wide and beautiful and so straight that you can see from one end to the other. Mutezuma came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. And they were all dressed alike except that Mutezuma wore sandals whereas the others went barefoot; and they held his arm on either side.”