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Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor Has Fallen (Part 5)

Here is the final Part 5 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: Templo Mayor Has Fallen (Part 5 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 (Read article)

4. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice (Read article)

5. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor Has Fallen (We are here)

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

The Siege of Tenochtitlan

The arrival of the Spaniards in America was like a spark for gunpowder.

This gave a long-awaited impulse that can be compared to an earthquake occurring in nature, and also to the Aztec sign of the day in the tōnalpōhualli calendar whose name is Olin which means an earthquake, vibration, or sudden impulse that can turn a difficult situation into the greatest triumph or greatest triumph in the most difficult situation depending on the man who controls it.

The year 1521 itself represented a time in the world that was to play an important role not only for Mesoamerica.

1521 AD in the Aztec Calendar is the year of the 3 Calli (3 House), the general meaning of which is home affairs, planning, instruction, communication in “domestic” matters. This characteristic corresponds to the events in the world that took place then, and the aftermath of which has changed the reality to the present day.

In 1521, of course, the conquest of Tenochtitlan and the fall of the Aztec Empire took place, but also overseas events such as the ex-communication of Martin Luther, in Worms (Germany) he was called to cancel his teaching. The Polish-Teutonic war ended when the Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The ceasefire that took place four years later brought about a major change in the political and cultural power in the region, the effects of which are still present today.

Cortes and his indigenous allies heard the “earthquake” for the second time, this time with the vibe of Jericho’s trumpets that were supposed to destroy the walls of Tenochtitlan.

Cortes’ work on building his own flotilla that would be capable of projecting a force within Lake Texcoco has come to an end.

The twelve Brigandines (sailing class) were 12.8 meters long and 2.4-2.7 meters abeam. They had 2 meters of freeboard at the waist and 1.8-2.1 meters at the forecastle and the poop, where they had an almost flat bottom, and were roughly evenly divided between one and two masts. The thirteenth, flagship, was slightly larger and was 14.6 meters.

To launch these ships, Cortés ordered a canal to be built. Forty thousand Tetzcocas dug for seven weeks to build a channel 3.7 meters wide and of equal depth, and the ships were launched on April 28. It was at the end of the dry season when the takes had reached its lowest point, which must have significantly restricted the movement of Cortés’ ships. Their flat bottom design minimized this problem, but during the conquest, the brigantines were concentrated in the deepest water around Tenochtitlan.

Cortes’s war machine set in motion did not slow down, he was preparing his army for the final strike.

He instructed each of his allies on what items to provide for him, which are necessary for the offensive.

Each allied city in the valley was to produce eight thousand copper arrowheads, of which more than fifty thousand of these crossbow bolts were produced in eight days. Each crossbowman also received two bowstrings. The horses were all shod and the lancers practiced all the time. Cortés notified all his allies to mobilize their entire army.

The Spanish troops of Cortes at that time numbered 86 horsemen, 700-foot soldiers, and 118 crossbowmen, only one percent of the entire army that was to march to Tenochtitlan. From some Spanish soldiers, Cortes formed a crew for his fleet of 13 ships, which was to defeat the Aztecs on Lake Texcoco. Each ship had twelve rowers (six for the side), twelve crossbowmen, and a captain, for a total of twenty-five men per ship plus artillerymen, since each ship had a cannon mounted in the bow.

Cortes’ land forces were split into three commanders. The first Pedro de Alvarado was given command of thirty horsemen, eighteen crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 150 Spanish infantry, and a force of twenty five thousand Tlaxcaltecs, and was dispatched on May 22, 1521, to Tlacopan. The second, Cristóbal de Olid, became commander of twenty crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 175 Spanish footmen, and twenty thousand indigenous allies and sent to Coyohuacan. The third Gonzalo de Sandoval sentenced twenty four horsemen, fourteen harquebusiers, thirteen crossbowmen, 150 Spanish footmen, and over thirty thousand indigenous allies from Huexotzinco, Cholollan, and Chalco, and was sent to Ixtlapalapan.

Cortes’ position was strong again, he had rebuilt losses in equipment and soldiers, and in politics.

He no longer had to rely only on his alliance with the Tlaxcalteks, who were his most powerful ally most of the time. He now had many allied cities within Tenochtitlan’s range, such as the strong city of Texcoco.

The internal situation of Tlaxcallan also changed, it was caused by the epidemic of smallpox that began to destabilize the Spanish allies. The king, who was favorable to the Spanish, died. The loyalty of the Young heir of Xicotencatl the Younger was not unconditional. Therefore, Cortes, with the help of one of the Tlaxcaltek generals of the new, Therefore, Cortes, with the help of one of the Tlaxcaltek generals of the new ruler, thus secured a safe back and took control of another important kingdom.

The next move of Cortes was the blockade of Tenochtitlan.

This began with the capture of three cities that were of geopolitical importance, they controlled access to the main roads leading to Tenochtitlan and cut off the city logistically.

Under Mesoamerican conditions, the tactic was several times more effective than in other parts of the world due to logistical constraints. The lack of draft animals made it impossible to transport a large number of goods over long distances, therefore most of the cities were not as large as Tenochtitlan.

The jewel in the crown of the Aztecs, Lake Texcoco, gave the Aztecs a logistical advantage for their city. The average porter could carry a load of 23 kilograms, while the Aztec kayaks had space for a load of 920 kilograms. This disproportion shows how the Aztecs had the capacity to hold a 200,000 city to which supplies from cities around the lake were transported.

Agriculture in Tenochtitlan was based on chinampas – artificial islands of exceptional fertility that did not require irrigation because they rose about half a meter above the lake level. The water in the lake was salty, so drinking water was mostly imported in ceramic pots, but a significant part was drained to the town from the springs in Chapultepec along the aqueduct, built by King Ahuitzotla in 1499.

But Tenochtitlan’s needs were so great that without the supply of goods from its vassals it could not sustain itself, unlike other cities that were mostly self-sufficient.

The Aztecs, in order to reduce the economic importance of their subordinate cities, ordered them to pay tribute in goods that were later sold by them at low prices and thus unrivaled because the Aztecs had no production costs. The Aztecs successfully forced their nearby allies to move away from self-sustaining economies and steer them towards an integrated economy in which they acted as the agricultural industrial and commercial base for Tenochtitlan.

After organizing the blockade and launching the brigantines, the “Alliance” began the offensive.

The Spanish forces were a shock army and the indigenous forces were the support.

The three armies of Cortes began occupying strategic sites on Lake Texcoco and the causeway leading to Tenochtitlan. The fight on Groblach was difficult for the Spaniards. The Aztecs were building barricades that could be destroyed by the Cannons, but when the Spaniards wanted to do so, the Aztec canoes attacked them from all sides, making it very difficult to operate on the dikes.

The Aztecs had a large number of canoes and Cortes had to destroy this force.

On May 30, Sandoval began walking south through mostly friendly territory until he reached Ixtlapalan. He attacked and burned the city, and most of its defenders escaped in canoes.

At the same time, Cortés launched his fleet and sailed to Tepepolco, a fortified island near Tenochtitlan. He landed 150 men and captured the island. But, alerted by smoke signals from the top of the hill, the great force of Aztec kayaks counterattacked. Cortés’s small strength was no match for the approaching Aztecs, and he left the island to meet them at sea, where he had an advantage over Spanish ships. This first battle between the Aztec kayaks and the Spanish brigandines was a definite success for the Spaniards, who were able to overturn the canoes, but a small number of brigants were able to undertake quick strike actions but could not successfully block the Aztec’s canoe masses.

That is why they owed a lot of help to the kayaks of their allies, which simultaneously patrolled and attacked the Aztecs with the brigantines. It was thanks to the support of allied canoes that could fight in shallow waters with Aztec kayaks that Cortes finally managed to take control of Lake Texcoco.

Cortes sailed to Coyohuacan, where Olida’s forces were under attack.

Landing thirty men and three cannons, Cortés took the small Xoloco site on the Ixtlapalapan causeway and camped there for the night.

The next day, he reached Coyohuacan, helped drive off the attacking canoes, and made a breach in the causeway for his ships to pass and defend both sides. This breach was made by indigenous workers, whose role has been practically ignored in Spanish relations, even though tens of thousands of allied engineers owed much of the success of the siege of Tenochtitlan. After Cortés’ ships had been deployed along the western and southern dykes, Sandoval’s forces marched in relative safety from Ixtlapalapan. Losing control of the lake, the Aztecs began defensive actions.

The Aztecs began to build traps for both people and ships.

The relatively shallow lakes allowed digging holes in the bottom of the lake that could not be seen from above.

Spaniards who ran into them could drown or get caught more easily by the Aztecs in canoes.

A similar tactic was used against the ships. The Aztecs placed sharpened pegs at the bottom of the lake to pierce ships, especially near water traps, in case the Spanish fleet came to the rescue of the fighting soldiers. The Spanish forces, protected by ships on both sides of the dyke, were able to follow them. But they could only control their immediate areas and were unable to consolidate their prey.

As soon as they moved, the Aztec forces took their abandoned positions, deepened and widened the gaps in the dikes, and built an even stronger defense.

In the initial phase of the battle, the Spaniards attacked the Aztec soldiers on the dikes, and at night they retreated to safer defensive positions so that they could defend themselves in the event of a co-offensive. Such a tactic was not offensively effective and very costly. The alliance troops were safe at night, but the next day they had to renew their efforts to recapture the lost ground, as the Aztecs were taking lost positions again at night.

The Spaniards began setting up posts and guards in the occupied territories.

The Lake of Life

Lake Texcoco had a surface area of ​​5,400 km2, a max. depth over 150 m, and a surface elevation 2,240 m.

At that time, Lake Texcoco began to resemble Lake Ladoga. Ladoga was a ‘way of life’ for besieged Leningrad (Petersburg) during World War II. Ladoga Lake was a supply route, Transports were sent by ships or trucks across the frozen lake. It was the only route during the siege which provided supplies and food for the starving inhabitants of the city, and supplies of weapons and ammunition.

Lake Texcoco played a similar role in the logistics of Tenochtitlan.

The Spaniards did not have cut off supply routes, and they did so with a large number of indigenous women who milled corn and prepared provisions for the fighting Army.

The Battle of Tenochtitlan began in the spring, well before harvest, so stocks were at their lowest this year. There was a famine in Tenochtitlan. It is not certain how advanced it was, but cannibalism is often involved in such cases.

The Spaniards had already cut off the aqueduct from Chapultepec, and the seizure of the main ducts cut off the supply of food and water to the city, which was transported on foot. Moreover, brigantines limited kayaking traffic during the day.

Thousands of Aztec kayaks sailed on the lake in an attempt to supply the city with basic goods.

Cortés kept two brigantines on patrol at night. Two ships managed to stop some boats from reaching Tenochtitlan, but in response, the Aztecs prepared an ambush. Hiding thirty of their largest warships among the reeds growing in the lake, the Aztecs sent two or three supply boats, as bait. When the brigantines noticed them, they gave chase, and the boats escaped past the hidden warships.

The Aztecs drove sharpened pegs to the bottom of the lake along the route they expected to follow by Spanish ships, and when they did, Aztec canoes attacked en masse. Trapped between the attacking canoes and stakes, all of the Spaniards were injured, one captain was killed, and his ship was captured.

The Aztecs had already learned to be careful with the brigantines, which reduced their combat effectiveness, and the Spaniards were now learning equivalent lessons on the brigantines.

The Spaniards, however, ultimately won the battle at sea.

When the Aztecs tried the trick again, Cortés was prepared after learning about the plan from several captives. This tactic turned out to be a one-time victory for the Aztecs, as the Spaniards quickly performed a similar trick in which they destroyed the core of the Aztec Fotylla.

Now Cortes could concentrate on the ground offensive, against the besieged city, which was depleted and resources diminished.

The final cities loyal to the Aztecs that sent them supplies began to turn their backs on them.

The Aztecs did not idle and changed their tactics, military formations, and even technologies for the new needs of the battlefield, in this short time. During the battle for Tenochtitlan, you can see the contrast between the Aztecs, who were gentle with the newly arrived foreigners, and the Aztecs who waged an aggressive and lively war campaign. They used long lances against the horses and went from overwhelmed terrain where horses could not charge and achieved the same effect in Tenochtitlan by placing barricades and boulders in open squares.

As a last resort, Aztec soldiers escaped from the horses by jumping into the sewers. Surrounding the enemy was a standard Aztec tactic that proved at least partially effective against the Spaniards. Cannons and cavalry gave the Spaniards the ability to break through virtually every Aztec lineage, but they couldn’t be moved everywhere at once. So even if the Spaniards broke through, the Aztecs might save something from the fight by attacking enemy units retreating into chaos. They used mock retreats and ambushes, often drawing overly confident Spaniards forward before being cut off and counterattacked.

Cuauhtemoc (eleventh Aztec king) was implementing a new tactic against the Spaniards ordered a simultaneous night attack from land and water on all three Spanish camps to force them to fight in unfavorable conditions, the cover of the night favored the Aztecs because of the technological advantage of the Spanish was not so advantageous at night, they knew brigantines were less useful at night. This tactic ultimately did not bring many results, because the Spaniards did not want to risk a counterattack, they defended themselves in their camps, they were eliminating their own losses.

June 30 may have turned out to be the turning point in the campaign.

A battle then ensued in which the Aztec’s feigned withdrawal and Cortés pursued them, neglecting to fill the gap in his formation. The Aztecs sent their boats into the breach, then turned and attacked, capturing the Spaniards between the two forces.

Cortés was injured in the leg and was captured and dragged by several Aztecs when he was saved by his men. If Cortes had been captured, the war would probably have ended in a victory for the Aztecs, because Cortes was the main ‘star’ of this war. Without him, all campaigns against the Aztecs would be chaotic and uncertain.

Sixty-eight other Spaniards were captured alive and eight horses were killed. In this battle, more Spaniards were captured than killed because they were surrounded and cut off. In the battle between opposing fronts, taking prisoners was much more difficult. Steel armor also made it difficult to kill Spaniards, except by cutting them in the neck and head, so taking them alive was often easier.

Crusade to Tenochtitlan Templo Mayor Has Fallen
Crusade to Tenochtitlan Templo Mayor Has Fallen

Ten Spanish captives from that battle were taken to Great Temple at Tenochtitlan and sacrificed. Their severed heads were then sent to the battlefronts and thrown at the Spaniards, which must have demoralized them.

In addition to their religious significance, the Spaniards were sacrificed for their psychological influence, both on Cortés’ forces and on the Aztec allies. The consecrated Spaniards were skinned and their faces tied to their chins tanned and shipped to allied cities as evidence of the Aztec success, as evidence of Spanish mortality, and for help and warning against the destruction of the alliance.

This victory raised the morale of the Aztecs at that time and made them attack the Spanish camps more boldly.

During these clashes, the Spaniards suffered losses and their image was tarnished again, but for a short time. The Allies regained their faith in Cortes when the Spaniards discovered a way to break the pegs the Aztecs had tossed into the bottom of the lake without piercing their ships. Now they could swim relatively unhindered, and the Spaniards, with the help of the brigantines, repelled attacks that lasted for the next two weeks.

Fighting on geoblocks did not go well for either side, the Aztecs besieged the Spanish camps, and a few days later the Spaniards counterattacked. Both sides had successes and failures, so there were still cities supporting the Aztecs in the valley of Mexico, and the allies of the Spaniards changed their attitude depending on how the war was going.

Cortes, in order to save ” his ” alliance, if necessary, sent troops to help the small cities attacked by the Aztecs or their allies, so as not to lose their military credibility.

The war was exhausting both sides of the conflict, the Spaniards were also losing people and by mid-July, their dust was almost exhausted.

At this point, more Spanish ships had reached Vera Cruz with fresh supplies of gunpowder, crossbows, and troops who swiftly marched to Tenochtitlan.

Ultimately, the technological advantage of the Spaniards and the lack of Tenochtitlan supplies led the Spaniards to the outskirts of the city.

The Aztecs attacked their enemies from buildings, the war took on an urban character.

Tenochtitlan was the largest city in Mesoamerica and may have become to the Aztecs what Leningrad and Stalingrad were to the Russians, but compared to the Soviet Union, the rulers of Tenochtitlan could not be sure that anyone would send them supplies to the city because the Aztec Empire was as strong as their own prestige. Therefore, the fighting in Tenochtitlan had more to do with the Warsaw Uprising.

In response, Cortés ordered all his allies to send their farmers to the city with tools, to raze the buildings on either side of his attack, using the rubble to fill the gaps in the dikes and provide an easier-to-follow path. The Spaniards entered the center of Tenochtitlan from the south, and the Aztecs retreated to the northern part of the island to Tlatelcoco (Tenochtitlan district) where it was one of the largest markets in the world at the time.

August Sky

The Spaniards entered Tlatelcoco on 1 August.

The large area of ​​the market allowed for the attack of the Spanish cavalry, but the resistance of the Aztecs who attacked from their homes forced the cavalry to retreat.

Ixtlilxochitl captured his brother Coanacoch, who was led by an Aztec loyalist of Tetzcocas. When their leader was in the hands of Cortés, the army from Tetzcocas that fought on the side of the Aztecs switched to the side of Ixtlilxochitl, the allies of Cortes.

Within four days, all three Spanish armies broke through the Tlatelolco market and controlled seven-eighths of the city.

To spare the gunpowder of the shooting range, the Spanish for the next four days cattle catapults to bomb the last defenders of Tenochtitlan, but the catapult turned out to be defective.

A large part of the army of Cortes’ indigenous allies was involved in the fighting in the city. The fall of Tenochtitlan appeared imminent, yet the natives who attacked the Aztecs without Spanish support succumbed to the conventional power of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs tried to use the Spanish weapons when they had the opportunity. Due to the lack of gunpowder, they were not able to use cannons and arquebuses. They lunged them into the lake or destroyed them so that the enemy could not use them, but they used white weapons such as swords or crossbows because it was similar in handling to what they used themselves.

In early August, Cuauhtemoc finally requested a meeting with Cortés, and negotiations began during which the Aztecs ate copiously in an attempt to convince the Spaniards that their food was plentiful.

The ceasefire lasted several days, but the negotiations yielded no results. Cortes renewed his attack.

On 13 August 1521, the Spaniards broke through the last Aztec defense with ease, but fighting continued in the city.

There are two versions of the final capitulation of the Aztecs.

The first Spanish version describes that after losing the city, Cuauhtémc escaped with a fleet of fifty boats, and Sandoval ordered the brigades to pursue. The ship, commanded by García Holguin (conquistador), overtook Cuauhtemoc’s canoe, which ceased to threaten him with cannon fire, and the king surrendered and asked to be taken to Cortés. Along with Cuauhtemoc, his wife and about thirty nobles, including King Tlacopan, were captured.

The second Aztec version describes that Cuauhtemoc and his advisers had already decided to surrender and were on their way when Holguin caught their boat. After the capitulation of the city that defended itself for 90 days, there was a massacre and looting in Tenochtitlan, which was largely carried out by the indigenous Aztec enemies. Cortes was accused of not stopping the Tenochtitlan massacre, but such cases were common in Europe as well, where many rulers with more prestige than the Cortes allowed the soldiers to do so. In the Mesoamerican tradition, the city was only plundered when it resisted to the end, like Tenochtitlan.

After the end of hostilities, the Spanish forces amounted to nine hundred Spaniards, eighty horses, sixteen artillery cannons, and thirteen brigantines, and the forces of the indigenous allies involved in the war against the Aztecs were approximately 200,000.

Moctezuma as 9 Tlatoani (Title of the Lord of the Aztecs), can be characterized as having a very strong instinct to protect his empire.

It does not interfere with the fact that he did not undertake any military actions. After his death, the Aztec Empire fell, but he is a symbol of the end of the Aztecs. The main axis of Moctezuma’s rule was the desire to learn and learn, to be a leader open to science, which caused disagreements with other officials, priests, and Moctezuma distancing himself from them.

9 Tlatoani understood this as the universal modeling of the plight of mankind trapped between amorality and instinct in the pursuit of social evolution. The world for 9 Tlatoani was a place to study the atypical human psyche and experiment in difficult situations. The 9th regime made an effort not to fight, but to withdraw, which was probably motivated by information from the higher self. Accepting one’s position in the hierarchy of the Universe and a desire for spiritual renewal, which of course was perceived as a misunderstanding, lack of self-confidence, fear, caused by a direct vision of opposites merging into one.

Cortes, starting his conquest as Captain-General (The function of Cortes which he performed after he rejected the jurisdiction of the Governor of Cuba), was a “volunteer” in the fight for domination, following his own path. The greatest task of the Captain-General was the repression of urges, views, and rebellions among his companions and allies, which he could justify with spiritual reasons.

Cortes received from the indigenous and Spanish community a great deal of openness and friendship, which was why it was his great authority and esteem which he was able to develop.

He consolidated his power and authority by merging with the people and facing the problems of life and death.

These were important qualities of an expedition guide who had to manage resources and promote the new ideas of the old when contacting and discussing with foreign people.

Cortes, as the leader of the campaign against the Aztecs, was seen by his allies of the time as a person promising to fight the moral and ethical misconceptions that were his pacta conventa in the perception of the natives.


This is the end, the final part 5 of the Crusade to Tenochtitlan series.

Thank you for reading this article, and feel free to comment and share your own thoughts on the topics covered in it. My future plans are to write a series of articles about the Maya and Inca conquests that took place around a similar time to the Aztec conquest. The next series will focus on the conquest of the Maya and the series will be titled ‘’Concession to Conquer the Yucatan’’, and it will likely be a pentalogy. 

Please read a preview of the first article of the upcoming series Concession to Conquer the Yucatan:

The Battle for Dry Water and The Battle for Dry Land:

The expectations of Europeans and what they could have proved to be true during the conquests of Cuba and the Caribbean. The indigenous people of these lands were technologically primitive, their only advantage against the Spaniards was the large population, but that changed quickly when the natives began to die en masse due to the diseases brought from Europe. The image of primitive natives with whom the Spaniards had contact in the Caribbean, gave them self-confidence and increased their enthusiasm for conquests in search of wealth, fame, and slaves. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and has a central location, so it is no wonder that it has become the main base for further Spanish expansion. In 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa. Other settlements soon followed, including San Cristobal de la Habana (Havana), founded in 1515, which later became the capital. Adventurers began to come to the Caribbean estates, who saw great opportunities in the lands where the administration was just being organized and where there was a possibility of rapid social advancement, where the poor man prayed to become Lord….

Best regards for 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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