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Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Among the Cactus Rocks (Part 3)

Here is Part 3 of a new series by our contributing writer Michal Pawlus, describing in more detail the conquests of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas.

If you’d like to read the full series, you will find all 5 articles linked at the bottom of this page.

Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Among the Cactus Rocks (Part 3 of 5)

The expansion of the Spanish sphere of influence in the 16th century was impressive in terms of the technological conditions and resources of the conquistadors.

The first serious opponent of the Conquistadors was the Aztec Empire. This empire was a federation of city-states with highly developed culture, science, architecture, and a large indigenous population.

The spaces between Eurasia and the Americas were a factor that previously prevented permanent contacts between the Civilizations of Eurasia and Africa with the Civilizations of the Americas.

This article begins the series Crusade to Tenochtitlan (the capital and core city of the Aztecs). It will focus on the conquest of the State of Moctezuma (last before the arrival of the Spanish) Tlatoani (ruler of the Aztecs) by the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Crusade to Tenochtitlan is a Pentalogy that has the following five parts:

1. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Arrhythmic Worlds (Read article)

2. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Return of the White Gods (Read article)

3. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Among the Cactus Rocks (We are here)

4. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice

5. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor Has Fallen

This Series of Articles ends with the capture of Tenochtitlan event, which is a symbolic collapse of Aztec hegemony over the surrounding Indian peoples.

On the way to Tenochtitlan

After seventeen days in Tlaxcallan, Cortes decided to march to Tenochtitlan.

He chose the road leading through Cholollan, he justified this choice with a good place to supply their army. The city was an ally of the Aztecs, but a year earlier they were allied with Tlaxcallan. For Tlaxcallan, the Cholollan were traitors because they had abandoned their alliance with Tlaxcallan for an alliance with the Aztecs who were hegemon in the Mexico Valley. The population of the city, which in 1519 could contribute 30,000-50,000, was divided into pro-Aztec factions and pro Talaxcallan factions. Cholollan grew from a very small village to a regional centre between 600 ce and 700 ce During this period, Cholula was a major centre contemporaneous with Teotihuacan and seems to have avoided, at least partially, that city’s fate of violent destruction at the end of the Mesoamerican Classic period.

Cholollan was an important town in the Mexico Valley.

Thanks to its convenient location, Cholollan was a merchant city that connected trade routes. Textiles were the main branch of the city’s industry. The city also has the monumental buildings The Great Pyramid of Cholula, Tlachihualtepetl, is the largest prehispanic structure in the world in terms of volume. It is the result of four successive superpositions, the first two from the Classic period. Stage one measured about 120 m on the side and was 17 m high. The top platform measured about 43 m square and featured wall remains of the temple precinct.

The Spaniards and 6,000 Tlaxcallan warriors made their way to Cholollan.

In Cholollan, they were treated friendly and fed for two days. After two days, feeding was stopped, moreover Spanish chronicles describe that the inhabitants of Cholollan began to build dugouts and trenches with anti-cavalry spikes (Cholollan did not know horses and cavalry tactics). The above events were enough for Cortes to have justification to attack Cholollan, it was the Tlaxcallan who thus made an act of vengeance, and for Cortes who got rid of the Aztec ally and gained an important city on the way between Tenochtitlan and Vera Cruz. Conquistadors took the city blocking the streets leading to the city center and proceeding to massacre, and from outside the city of Tlaxcallan they launched an attack.

After the massacre, Cortes spent two weeks in the city and placed another nobleman on the throne before leaving Cholollan.

Initially, Cortes marched to Calpan.

There were two roads leading to Tenochtitlan but one of them was blocked and the Aztec ambushed it. Cortés took a different route and after two days he reached Amaquemecan. There, people from Amaquemecan and neighbouring towns and cities, including Chalco, Chimalhuacan and Ayotzinco, brought the Spaniards gifts and complained about the Aztecs. Cortés promised them that they would be free soon.

Calpan was located on the eastern side of the mountains surrounding the Valley of Mexico, and there were indeed two main routes to Tenochtitlan, both running along Mount Iztac-Cihuatl at 5,230 meters. The main route led north through a 3000-meter high pass. The second road was narrower and offered a more difficult hike over a 3,500-meter high pass to the south.

One of the reasons Cortés justified taking the southern route was to avoid an Aztec ambush, but the Aztecs at that time showed no active hostility. The Aztecs, if they had the opportunity to attack Cortes, sending their forces to the southern pass as easily as to the north. They might have captured him long before he had completed his two-day march because they had sent emissaries to meet him at Amaquemecan. Indeed, since the south pass was narrower and more uneven, an ambush would have been a lot easier. Cortés was most likely guided in choosing the southern route by Tlaxcaltec’s knowledge of the political configuration of the Mexican valley, deserted to the area of ​​Tetzcoco, which strongly supported Moctezuma, while the southern mountain pass led to the city-states of Chalca. These cities were conquered by the Aztecs in 1464 after waging a bitter flower war for eighty years. Their kings were removed, the cities were ruled by Aztec governors until 1486, and the area became the main granary for the Aztecs.

From Amaquemecan, the Spaniards marched to Ayotzinco, where Moctezuma’s nephew King Cacama of Texcoco accompanied them on the way to Tenochtitlan.

On November 8, 1519, at the Tenochtitlan dike, Cortes was welcomed by the Moctezum. Spaniards were allowed to enter a city that impressed them with its size, wealth and monumental buildings.

Tenochtitlan with a population of 200,000 and the population of the lower Mexico could be 2,500,000. it was bigger than any European city at the time.

The largest cities in Europe in the times of Cortes were Sevilla 60,000, Paris 100,000 to 150,000, London 60,000.

The size and richness of the Aztec empire that Cortes had the opportunity to experience on his first visit to Tenochtitlan might clearly have raised doubts about his conquest aspirations. Cortes commanded several hundred conquistadors, while most of his Army were Indian allies such as Tlaxcaltec, on whose aid in food and transport Cortes was completely dependent.

Entering Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards risked their lives, all this time both sides did not clearly declare their intentions to each other. Moreover, the Aztecs knew about the hostile actions of the conquistadors against them, such as the Cholollan massacre.

If Cortes at this moment decided to chicken out, show weakness and go to a deal with the Aztecs or try to come back, Cortes’s allies could turn against him and be automatically hostile against all subsequent Spanish expeditions. In such a scenario of events the Spanish podium would have to be aggressive, not counting on the help of the local population, and other kingdoms, seeing no other option, would join the Aztecs, giving them back to them voluntarily the majority of power, in the fight against the common enemy, thanks to which the Aztecs would consolidate most of the power in their empire.

The Capital

The capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan which in Nahuatl means come from Nahuatl tetl “rock” and Nōchtli “prickly pear” can mean, Among the Cactus Rocks or Place of the Cactus Fruit or Cactus Rock.

Tenochtitlan covered approximately 8 to 13.5 km 2, located on the west side of the shallow Lake Texcoco.

The city was connected to the mainland by bridges and dykes leading north, south and west. The dikes were interrupted by bridges that allowed the free passage of canoes and other water traffic. If necessary, the bridges could be pulled back to defend the city. The city was crisscrossed by a series of canals, so that all parts of the city could be explored on foot or by canoe.

The city was administratively divided into four zones, each zone was divided into 20 calpōlli districts, and each calpōlli, or “big house”, was intersected by streets or tlaxilcalli.

These four neighbourhoods were separated by major roads that ran through the city. Without animal-drawn vehicles, the streets didn’t have to be wide and most of the traffic was on foot. Water transport was also used, with boats carrying goods along the city canals. This allowed food to be delivered directly to the city from chinampas built in the surrounding lake. Chinampa-based agriculture was used out of necessity as there was little useful land around the lake, but it made it more difficult for the enemy to cut off the city’s food supply without controlling the waters. Three main streets intersected the city, each leading to one of the three dikes on the mainland of Tepeyac, Iztapalapa and Tlacopan.

Each calpōlli had its own marketplace, trade was very important to Aztec society, the Tlatelocan market was the largest in the Empire, 60,000 people traded there every day.

There were public buildings, temples and palaces in the city centre. Inside a walled square with a side of 500 meters was the ceremonial centre. There were about 45 public buildings, including the ceremonial ball court, the Hueteocalli pyramid, the most important political and spiritual centre of the Aztecs also known as Templo Mayor (temple of the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc), the temple of the god Quetzalcoatl, Temple of the Sun (god Tonatiuh), the House of the Eagle he associated with warriors and the ancient power of the rulers, platforms for the sacrifice of gladiators

Outside was the palace of Moctezuma with 100 rooms, each with its own bathhouse, for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. Also nearby was cuicalli, or house of song and peace.

The city had great symmetry. All structures had to be approved by Calmimilocatl, the city planning officer.

Society was stratified, and the ruling family at the top was backed by a noble class that provided leadership, priests, and the military. Below them was a large, common class of merchants, artisans, and farmers.

Male and female roles were clearly divided, boys received some instruction in the use of weapons, and were generally better educated than girls. However, as with many societies, there was an unofficial body of “female knowledge” that was passed down alongside the more obvious home crafts.

The main social divide was calpōlli, which translates as “big house”, but can be thought of as “extended household”.

Calpōlli was largely self-sufficient, with its own leaders, artisans, and farmers, and owned a common land among its inhabitants. Usually, most of the people in calpōlli were related to at least some others, but in some cases, the calpōlli may consist of unrelated individuals grouped together by trade, city-of-origin relationship, or ethnic association.

The calpōlli system created something between a very large family and a political entity in the city, with the leaders of each calpōlli having a say in the wider affairs of their family altepetl. There were eight calpōlli in Tenochtitlán within the city’s four boroughs. In rural areas, a village may actually be a single calpōlli.

Calpōlli was more than just a social unit.

Everyone had to pay taxes that were paid by the calpōlli as a whole, not by individual households. When armed forces were assembled, people from the same calpōlla were grouped into a unit. As the entire calpōlli was intended to provide basic training to its male citizens, the system created ready-made units of men who trained together and shared a common identity. Each calpōlli was represented by one official appointed by its citizens, who was advised by a council of elders.

Just like the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, etc, they had slaves, in the Aztec society they played an important role in particular for the economy, but unlike many other cultures, this status was not hereditary, slaves remained outside the community life of calpulli, but their free children could join him. 

‘’When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.’’

Bernal Diaz Castillo (Spanish Conquistador)

The Coupe

When they entered Tenochtitlan and saw what a precarious situation they were in, the Aztec capital was a large fortified city with numerous armouries and the backbone of the Aztec army and elite.

The several hundred Spaniards who came to Tenochtitlan with Cortes, despite their higher technological advancement, were easily defeated by the Aztecs in a “conventional” war, the allies of Cortes Tlaxcaltec remained outside the city.

After a short stay in Tenochtitlan, Cortes learned that Juan de Escalante had led a force of forty to fifty Spaniards at Vera Cruz. Soldiers, with two horses, two cannons, three crossbows, two hake-buses and eight to ten thousand Totonacs against the Aztecs, because the Totonacs refused to pay tribute to the Aztecs and came to the Spaniards for help as their new protector. But the small Spanish forces at Vera Cruz might have succumbed to the Aztecs, and thus the Spaniards would lose an important foothold and supply lines.

The Spaniards in Vera Cruz and Cortes in Tenochtitlan had to constantly show their strength to maintain alliances with the Native Americans who were against the Aztecs.

Cortes could not escape Tenochtitlan because it would be a sign of weakness, so he ventured into an old practice that had been used since the beginning of colonization, i.e. the capture of the local ruler. Moctezuma was captured by Cortes, and for eight months it was the Cortes who actually ruled Tenochtitlan.

Why did the King of the strongest empire in the new world succumb to the influence of foreigners so easily?

The possible ruler was simply weak, and the situation in the state exceeded his abilities. Another explanation for why he made such disastrous decisions for his rule is religion and in fact the priestly caste. At that time, priests in Mesoamerica had no less status than the Catholic Church in Europe in the 13th century. Aztec priests took divination and prophecy very seriously. Moctezuma was privately known for his involvement in these areas. Therefore, this blind obedience to the divinations and prophecies of the priests might be the main factor why Moctezuma succumbed to the Spaniards, not because he took the Spaniards as gods. He could come to terms with “destiny”, or his political stagnation indicates that he wanted to wait out the Spaniards. Maybe he was waiting for the Spaniards to make some serious mistake and lose the support of the Aztec opponents, maybe the priests and Moctezuma were still waiting for their ‘gods’ and a scenario who could help them.

The vision of the situation that Aztec priests may have had may be similar to that of Ragnarok in Scandinavian mythology, the destiny of the gods. In the mythological imagination, it is supposed to be a great fight between the gods and the giants led by Loki, who attacked Asgard. Both Armies gather on the Vigrid plain to fight. Each of them meets his arch-enemy, he kills and dies. Snake Jörmungandr opens his mouth and meets Thor in battle. Thor (son of Odin) is described as the protector of the earth, he fights fiercely with the serpent, defeating him. As a result of this battle, the world and Asgard, the abode of the gods, will be consumed by fire, all the stars will be extinguished, and a great sea will flood the Earth. Eventually, a new world will emerge from this depth and there will be an era of happiness without violence and war.

Huitzilopochtli was the chief god of the Aztecs, and the largest temple in Tenochtitlan Templo Mayor was dedicated to two gods, Tlaloc of rain and agriculture, but in particular Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, the sun at its zenith, human sacrifice and the patron city of Tenochtitlan. Huitzilopochtli’s weapon was the Xiuhcoatl, the mythological fire-breathing serpent. Comparing the symbolism of Ragnarok in Scandinavian mythology to the civil war that took place between the Aztecs and their enemies who were led by the Spaniards. It can be assumed that the Aztecs were the serpent and the invaders who previously came to the valley of Mexico, they did not have good relations with the neighbouring tribes that considered them barbarians. They were considered to be extremely bloodthirsty. Against the Aztecs, the opposing city-states united to protect themselves from them, but despite the fact that they managed to defeat the Aztecs, the smallpox epidemic that the Spaniards brought probably killed between 3 and 3.5 million indigenous people in 1520-1522, including, of course, the indigenous opponents of the Aztecs.

As the Spaniards strengthened their rule in Tenochtitlan, Governor of Cuba Velasquez dispatched a fleet under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez (Spanish conquistador) to capture the disobedient Cortes.

Nineteen ships (one small power ship sank along the way), at least eight hundred soldiers, more than twenty cannons, eighty horsemen, 120 crossbowmen and eighty scouts. When Cortés found out about this, he marched to the coast, he reached the Narváez camp in Cempohuallan around May 27, and there were over 1,100 men ahead of Narvácz, but in a strange way with orders from the governor to take Cortés and return him ready to attack.

Cortés only took 266 Spaniards with him, he could easily defeat Navatez by simply taking some of his Indian allies, but then the Tlaxcaltecs would see that the divisions among the Spaniards and the weakness of Cortes, so they might want to bargain with the stronger Navarez. Upon arriving at the coast, Cortés launched a surprise attack after midnight, which resulted in the capture of Narváez. Narváez’s early defeat by far inferior forces may seem like a testament to Cortés’s great military prowess, but there is considerable evidence that Cortés was negotiating or was negotiating an agreement to resolve the dispute peacefully, so Narváez did not expect an attack. Cortés also sowed the seeds of discord at Narváez’s camp when the attack came, many defenders did not fight, and no cannons were used. Narváez was then imprisoned in Vera Cruz, and his men joined Cortés.

The events in Tenochtitlan, meanwhile, were not as smooth for the Spaniards as they were on the coast.

When Cortés left for Vera Cruz, Pedro de Alvarado was appointed in Tenochtitlan. Alvarado became commander of a force of eighty soldiers, including fourteen harquebusiers and eight crossbowmen, as well as new horses, several cannons, and the remaining gunpowder.

The Spaniards’ quarters were fortified and stocked with large amounts of maize brought from Tlaxcallan. In Cortés’s absence, Alvarado massacred thousands of Aztec aristocrats at the Toxcatl festival. The most important of the eighteen monthly festivals, the feast of the natives and the general hostility of the Spaniards to the warriors carrying the figure of the god Huitzilopochtli. Toxcatl was held in the courtyard in front of the Great Temple, which could only be accessed through four entrances. Alvarado blocked them, then walked in with his fully armed Spaniards and began murdering the Aztecs. Unarmed and trapped inside, most of them died, but some escaped through the walls.

Diego Durán (priest) estimated that there were eight to ten thousand aristocrats in the courtyard, most of them dead. When news of the massacre spread, the people took their weapons and attacked the Spaniards, killing seven, wounding many, and driving the rest back to their quarters. They were trapped between two Aztec forces and 68 were captured alive. Ten of these Spanish captives were immediately sacrificed at the Templo Mayor and their severed heads were thrown back to the Spaniards. The others were sacrificed at the Templo Mayor that nights.

The Spaniards, for their defence, managed to repel the Aztecs with artillery fire. The Aztecs could certainly destroy Alvarado’s forces, but the cost would be high, so they besieged the Spaniards without attempting to destroy them completely. This decision may have been due to several factors: the chaos of the Aztecs after the loss of so many leaders, their adherence to a period of mourning after their funerals, the continued imprisonment of Moteuczoma and their uncertainty about the release of the reigning king.

The Spaniards had been to Tenochtitlan for over half a year, and had seen other such monthly festivals, far bloodier than this, but they were not concerned.

Cortes did not punish Alvarado for this massacre, which may indicate that it was on his orders.

The festival was a good opportunity to get rid of the Aztec elite, and the absence of Cortes in Tenochtitlan did not mean that he was not directly dealing with the event. Cortes may have been inspired by the Cholollan massacre. In Cholollan, killing the pro-Aztec king and nobles left the pro-Tlaxcaltec faction in power, giving Cortés a powerful ally behind his rear. Perhaps Cortés felt that, by controlling the king, the seizure of actual power in the capital was a formality. But although the Tenochtitlan nobility had different political views, their loyalty to the city was indivisible. The Tenochtitlan massacre decimated the Aztec forces, killing not only thousands but also the best soldiers – seasoned veterans and noble warriors who participated in the festival.

When Cortés received word of the turmoil in Tenochtitlan, he sent a message to Alvarado that he was returning and began marching with his army, which now numbered over one thousand and thirteen soldiers, ninety-six horses, eighty crossbowmen, and eighty harquebusiers.

At Tlaxcallan, 2,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors joined Cortés, and the entire party marched through Tetzcoco, reaching Tenochtitlan on June 24, 1520. And entering the city unopposed, but letting Cortés back into the city had military ramifications as well. Outwardly, he could move freely, use his horses efficiently, receive military and logistical support from his allies, and retreat to safety, all these advantages deteriorated upon entering Tenochtitlan. Upon entering the city, the Aztecs began to besiege the Spaniards, cutting them off from supplies and blocking their escape routes. Cortes’s strongest asset, King Moctezuma, following Cortes’ orders, destroyed his authority and obedience to his subjects.

The Spaniards sent Moctezuma to the townspeople to ease the situation, but the Aztecs no longer listened to him.

In one version, the Moctezuma was killed by his own subjects by throwing a stone, in another version by the Spaniards, because they no longer needed it.

After the death and cremation of Moctezuma Cuitlahua, King Ixtlapalapan, son of King Axayacatla and brother of Moctezuma, was elected king, but the formal investiture did not take place until September 16, almost three months later. Cuitlahuac consistently opposed the Spaniards, so Cortés released the Aztec prisoner with the news that Moteucoma’s nephew, who was with the Spaniards, should be the king and not Cuitlahua, arguing on the basis of the principle of hereditary succession that reigned in Europe. Even in the current situation, Cortés tried to manipulate the political situation, creating divisions among the Aztecs.

No longer caring about their reputation among their allies, the Spaniards had to flee the city.

Cortés decided to sneak out of Tenochtitlan late at night when the Aztecs would be least vigilant. The Spaniards were in the centre of the city and had to fight their way no matter which direction they went.

Tlaxcallan was the target of the Spaniards, so a retreat directly east would be the shortest. But that would have required a trip of almost 25 kilometres, and they also made their way through the causeway surrounding the western part of the lake, escaping meant abandoning all the horses and possibly the cannons as well, as a canoe escape was impossible, the Spaniards had to choose one of the three mainland routes along the causeway.

The northern causeway led to Tepeyacac, the smallest of the three endings and therefore probably the least dangerous, but this route required the longest walk through Tenochtitlan. The south road led to Coyohuacan and Ixtlapalapan, but the water was the deepest on this route and the cities there were hostile to the Spaniards. The western route Cortés used led to Tlacopan, a large city, and required the shortest walk.

Cortés ordered a portable wooden bridge built to go around these gaps. According to Spanish reports, they started their escape just before midnight on June 30. A heavy downpour obscured their movements. They crossed one breach, but reportedly on the other, they were noticed by the Aztecs taking water and raised the alarm. Attacked on the causeway and with canoes on both sides, the Spaniards left their bridge and fled because they could not form defences or even see the arrows being shot at them in the dark.

Cortés eventually made it to Tlacopan, but many Spaniards were killed along with their noble prisoners.

Some Spaniards were cut off and couldn’t get out of Tenochtitlan, so they returned to their quarters, being besieged again for several days before they were all killed. The remaining Spaniards sneaked out of the capital on the night of June 30. The events in Tenochtitlan were an example for Cortes that his large Spanish army was not enough to defeat the Aztecs and must base its strategy on local alliances to conquer the country.

At dawn, Cortés and his other men reached Popotlan, then Tepotzotlan, which had been abandoned, and left the next morning, spending another night at Citlaltepec. The next night they reached Xoloc and the next day they fought the main battle of Zacamolco from which they had to withdraw. through most of the transit around the northern lakes. The Aztecs could not muster large offensive armies to fight and pursue the Spaniards during this time, because it was the rainy season and most of the people were still engaged in agriculture. Thus, while considerable forces could be mobilized against the Spaniards in and around the major cities, at the time the Aztecs were not prepared to send and support large forces during this period over great distances.

After retiring from the Battle of Zacamolco, the Spaniards the next day reached Otompan, where the Aztec troops had gathered, and fought another battle before moving on. The next day, they entered Tlaxcallan territory, losing 860 Spanish soldiers, five Spanish women from Narvaez, and over a thousand Tlaxcaltecs in battle.


This is the end of Part Three in the Crusade to Tenochtitlan series.

Thank you for reading this article, I encourage you to comment and share your own thoughts on the issues raised in this article. Please read the next article in this series, Storm over Realm of Sacrifice. Below are a few introductory sentences.

The first Spanish rule in Tenochtitlan ended in defeat. The Spaniards were driven out of the city, and suffered heavy losses in people and equipment, lost cannons, many crossbows and a few horses, their food supplies were running out and alliances with the local kingdoms could change at any moment as it was the greatest defeat of Cortes since when he came to the valley of Mexico…

Best regards to all readers,


If you have specific questions on this topic, you are also welcome to email me.

Michal Pawlus - Contributing Writer

All articles in this Crusade to Tenochtitlan series:

Part 1: Arrhythmic Worlds

Part 2: Return of the White Gods

Part 3: Among the Cactus Rocks

Part 4: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice

Part 5: Templo Mayor Has Fallen

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