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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Like the Dutch, the Aztecs had become extremely skilled at reclaiming swampland both for construction and for cultivation. Their reclaimed chinampas, or floating gardens, produced at least two harvests a year, their fertility boosted by regular treatments with human manure collected in the city. Each day a flotilla of perhaps fifty thousand canoes - each cut from a single tree trunk - swarmed to and from the great metropolis carrying produce from these hydroponic gardens and from further afield, the life blood of the city. But as well as food, clean water was essential, as it is for any city. Skilfully engineered aqueducts brought fresh water in from the surrounding mountains. Canoes then dispensed the water to individual residences.

The city itself was divided into four by grand avenues which converged on a central walled complex of palaces and temples. Out of this soared the stepped pyramid of the Great Temple, sixty metres high, on which were two shrines: to Tlaloc, the rain god, and to Huitzilopoctli, the fearsome god of war who was the Mexica's patron deity. It was to this god, identified with the sun, that the Aztecs sacrificed human beings, typically prisoners of war. Cortés estimated that between three and four thousand victims a year were sacrificed. Díaz described how the priests 'strike open the wretched Indian's chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols'. To the Mexica, their city was 'the foundation of heaven', literally the political and religious centre of the universe.15 It was their responsibility to offer 'precious water', or blood, as nourishment to the deities so that life could continue in this harsh world.

Beyond the central complex were many other smaller temples as well as markets, private residences and Montezuma's fabulous palace with its water gardens, aviaries and menageries. Some of the private residences were two storeys high and had roof gardens. In these walled compounds two extended families lived, each home having access to the street and the canal, a fact that helped make this a socially mobile society: 'Even commoners could achieve high rank through military service or the acquisition of great personal wealth.' The wealth of a family was apparent from the external decoration and ornamentation of their homes. The craftsmanship was superb. 'It could not be bettered anywhere,' said one Spanish eyewitness.

The Spaniards were astonished by Tenochtitlán. It was a remarkable creation, a wonder of the world at that time, in many respects excelling the cities of Europe, a fact grudgingly acknowledged by Cortés: 'these people live almost like those of Spain, and in as much harmony and order as there, and considering that they are barbarous and so far from the knowledge of God and cut off from all civilized nations, it is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved in all things'.

But this meeting of worlds was to be a fateful moment for Montezuma and his people. Within three years, Cortés had conquered the Aztec empire and the great city of Tenochtitlán had been destroyed. In 1520, a terrible epidemic of smallpox swept through the city, reducing the population by at least a third. Then, in April of the following year, Cortés returned to the city with an army. At the final siege of Tenochtitlán, Cortés had a mere 1,300 Spanish soldiers. However, he cleverly enlisted the help of rival states. At least 100,000 indigenous warriors supported the Spaniards in the attack on Tenochtitlán. The city's defenders fought valiantly, but, weakened by disease and lack of food and water, they had no hope of victory against the gunpowder and steel of the Europeans. There was vicious house-to-house fighting. In the end Cortés could only take the city by systematically destroying it.

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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