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Cortés in Tenochtitlán

Hernando Cortés was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519. Learning of the powerful Aztec empire and its capital city of Tenochtitlán, Cortés traveled over one hundred miles inland to find the city and claim the Empire for Spain. At the time, the city of Tenochtitlán was home to over 100,000 people and one of the largest cities in the world. In August 1521, the Spanish and their Native American allies defeated the Aztecs and conquered the city. The Spanish leveled Tenochtitlán and built Mexico City on the site of the Aztec capital. Primary sources, such as the accounts written by Hernando Cortés and other Spanish officials, are the only surviving writings we have of this once great city.

Read the following description of Tenochtitlán by Hernando Cortés. Use this description to help you answer the questions below. Discuss your answers with the class.

"This great city of Tenochtitlán is built on the salt lake, and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges. . . . There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings. . . . Amongst these temples there is one, the principal one, whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts, which are surrounded by very high wall, a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built. All round inside this wall there are very elegant quarters with very large rooms and corridors where their priests live. There are as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of it and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville. . . ."

1. What are some of the objects and structures that Cortés sees in Tenochtitlán?

2. What does this primary source tell you about the city? What does Cortés' account tell you about the Aztec people?

3. What technology does Cortés mention in his account that shows the Aztecs were able to adapt to this environment?

Visit your local library or use the Internet to research other primary sources that describe this city. Here are ways to find books:

Books: Look in the card catalog for books by "Cortés, Hernando (or Hernan)" or "Diaz Del Castillo, Bernal."

The Internet: Use a search engine such as Yahooligans ( Enter "Cortés" or "Aztecs" into the Search box.

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