Excerpt from City by P.D. Smith, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A User's Guide to the Past, Present, and Future of Urban Life

by P.D. Smith

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  • Published:
    Jun 2012, 400 pages

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Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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The City in the Lake

On 8 November 1519, Europeans caught their first glimpse of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and the centre of the greatest empire ever seen in Mesoamerica. 'We came to a broad causeway,' recalled a twenty-three-year-old Spanish soldier, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, 'and when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to [Tenochtitlán], we were astounded.' It was an extraordinary moment for the Spaniards and for the Aztecs, a moment when two great civilisations that had grown up in complete ignorance of each other suddenly collided. The sight of men mounted on war horses was deeply unsettling for the Aztecs, who had never even seen a donkey let alone such powerful beasts of burden. For Díaz and his five hundred or so comrades, led by Hernán Cortés, it was a moment of real fear as they approached the huge metropolis. But there was also wonder and awe at the sight of this strange yet beautiful city in the lake.

Tenochtitlán was built in a valley, high up in the mountains, on the site of today's sprawling Mexico City. Sheer volcanic peaks rose around it like jagged teeth. Water cascaded down from the mountains into a series of five lakes which were spread out along the valley. On their banks were countless small towns and villages built beside the clear water. The largest of these was the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán, the Venice of the New World. It stood on an island in the corner of the biggest lake, Lake Texcoco. Causeways, each 'as wide as two cavalry lances', according to Cortés, led into the city from north, south and west, stretching up to eight kilometres across the lake from the shore to the city. A cloud of jostling dugout canoes laden with goods swarmed around it like bees round a hive. For Díaz, the sight of Tenochtitlán rising out of the glittering waters of the lake was 'like an enchanted vision' from some magical tale. 'Indeed,' he added, 'some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.' Even forty years later, as he began to write his memoirs in what is today Guatemala, words still failed him: 'It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.'

Cortés and his men were the first Europeans to enter Tenochtitlán. Their motivation was both sacred and profane: their ships had left Cuba nine months before to claim these unexplored lands for the Spanish crown and for the Roman Catholic Church. But they were also driven by greed, by the desire to find the mythic city of gold, El Dorado. As they marched across the causeway to the city of Tenochtitlán, as magnificent as any in Europe, Díaz and his comrades must have thought they had found the city of their dreams. They saw houses draped with exotic flowers and above them the towers of magnificent palaces and temples to strange gods. 'With such wonderful sights to gaze on,' Díaz wrote, 'we did not know what to say, or if this was real that we saw before our eyes.' The Aztecs rushed to see these emissaries from another world. 'Who could now count the multitude of men, women, and boys in the streets, on the rooftops and in canoes on the waterways, who had come to see us?' recalled Díaz.

The Aztec ruler, known to us as Montezuma (his name was in fact Motecuhzoma), greeted them at the end of the causeway. Around him were his lords and chieftains arrayed in brilliantly coloured cloaks. Montezuma was, said Díaz, about forty years old, with a short black beard, a cheerful face and 'fine eyes'. He was standing beneath a rich canopy of green feathers, decorated with gold work, silver, pearls and semi-precious stones hanging from a border. As Montezuma stepped forward, his lords threw down their cloaks so that his feet would not touch the ground. As they did so, none dared look at his face. Montezuma greeted Cortés with fragrant garlands of flowers. In return, Cortés offered a necklace of glass beads. Then the conquistadors marched on into the city of Tenochtitlán.

Excerpted from City by Peter D Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Peter D Smith. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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