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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Later, Montezuma invited his foreign visitors to climb the steps to the summit of the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, the highest and most sacred structure in the city. At the top, the tlatoani (literally the 'speaker' or ruler) of the Mexica people took Cortés by the hand and, writes Díaz, 'told him to look at his great city and all the other cities standing in the water, and the many others on the land around the lake'. The two men stood with one of the greatest cities in the world at their feet. For this was not just a meeting between the peoples of two continents. It was a meeting between two great urban civilisations.

Despite the linguistic and cultural barriers separating them, the Spaniards could not fail to be impressed by a people who were able to build a city as great as Tenochtitlán. The city in the lake was a triumph of organisation as well as of craftsmanship and engineering. From their vantage point they saw the causeways leading into the city and the aqueducts bringing freshwater. They saw a flotilla of canoes laden with provisions and cargo. In the city itself they noted that all the houses had flat roofs, many converted into roof gardens, and that most could only be reached by canoe or across a drawbridge. And among the private residences they saw temples and shrines rising 'like gleaming white towers and castles'. It was, said Díaz, 'a marvellous sight'.

What they saw then from the Great Temple, and discovered later for themselves while exploring on foot, astonished the Spanish soldiers. Some of them had visited great cities like Constantinople and Rome, but this was on a different scale. In his dispatches to the king of Spain, Cortés prefaced his descriptions of the city with the warning that his reader would find it 'so remarkable as not to be believed, for we who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with understanding'. The 'great city' had many fine streets and squares, one of which was arcaded and served as a vast market. This was the great market of Tlatelolco, once part of a separate island city, now absorbed into the metropolis. The Spaniards had 'never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so full of people'. Each day sixty thousand people came to buy and sell. Here were goods from every corner of the Aztec empire, goods which Cortés itemised for his imperial master, who was eager for news of the wealth of his new lands.

The market was divided into sections like a modern department store. One part offered live animals: 'chickens, partridges and quails, wild ducks, fly-catchers, widgeons, turtledoves, pigeons, cane birds, parrots, eagles and eagle fowls, falcons, sparrow hawks and kestrels … rabbits and hares, and stags and small gelded dogs which they breed for eating'. There were brightly coloured fruits and vegetables - from cherries and plums to onions, leeks, garlic, watercress, borage, maize and artichokes. In another part of the market fresh flowers filled the air with a heavy fragrance. Elsewhere cooked food was for sale, such as chicken and fish pies, tripe, as well as sweet foods, like honey cake and chocolate. Finely crafted goods were also on offer, including ornaments made from gold, silver, bone, shell and feathers. In his account, Díaz mentions seeing the skins of tigers, lions, otters, jackals, deer and badgers being traded. In the textile market, there was a greater range of spun cotton in all the colours of the rainbow than in the famous silk market at Granada, according to Cortés. Beyond the great market were streets where only herbalists or apothecaries traded, selling and prescribing herbal medicines.

When Cortés and his men entered Tenochtitlán it was a thriving city covering about five square miles and, with a population of at least 200,000 people, bigger than any Spanish or, indeed, most European cities. (In 1551 London's population was about eighty thousand.) At a time when the streets in European cities were often open sewers, choked with stinking rubbish, Tenochtitlán's wide streets were kept spotlessly clean by a workforce of a thousand men. Indeed, the city provided people with public toilets (reed huts) on all the roads where they could - as Díaz so delicately phrased it - 'purge their bowels unseen by passers-by'. The excrement was collected 'for the manufacture of salt and the curing of skins'. It was also used as fertiliser.

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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