In March 1519 Spaniard Hernan Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico with an army of about 500 Europeans. Before marching inland he burned his ships, committing his force to conquest or death. He arrived at Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, on 8 November 1519.
Tenochtitlán was the greatest city of Mesoamerica, an architectural marvel. Built on five islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco, it was connected to the mainland by three causeways and supplied with fresh water by two aqueducts. The Aztecs considered it the centre of their sacred universe, and the Spanish called it with some awe the ‘Venice of the New World’. Cortés found streets and canals laid out in a grid pattern, imposing palaces and squares, and a Sacred Precinct in the centre lined with temples and sacred ball-courts. This precinct was dominated by the 30m (98ft) high Templo Mayor, two stepped pyramids forming a temple.
Initially believing Cortés to be a reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl because prophecy had forecast a return of the god at this very time, the Aztec emperor Montezuma was unsure whether to treat Cortés as enemy or honoured guest. Even when Cortés decided this issue by seizing the emperor and holding him prisoner, Montezuma remained hesitant in the face of Cortés’ dominant personality.
But while Cortés returned to the coast to subdue a rival Spanish force, he left Tenochtitlán in the charge of his reckless subordinate, Pedro de Alvarado. Alvarez mismanaged a festival that seemed to be getting out of hand by massacring the participants, resulting in Montezuma’s death and the lifting of all restraints on Aztec resistance. On his return Cortés found the city in uproar. The Spanish garrison was being besieged and captured Spaniards were being sacrificed by the Aztec priests.
With his customary audacity, Cortés managed to withdraw his forces from the city by night, but the daring escape came with a heavy loss of life and almost all of the treasure collected. However, in May 1521 he returned with reinforcements, finally capturing the city on August 13. With the city fell the Aztec Empire.