Aztec campaign ruffles feathers

Phil Davison in Mexico City on the saga of the emperor Montezuma's `cro wn' Case of emperor's head-dress is equated with that of Elgin Marbles
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Given the greatness of his empire, it hardly seems fair that the Aztec emperor Montezuma is best known abroad for inflicting the white man with "Montezuma's revenge" - otherwise known as "the runs".

That experience, a reference to native Mexicans' revenge against their conquerors, has somewhat soiled the emperor's name among latter-day tourists but he remains a hero to Mexicans, particularly the Indian population.

Now, almost 500 years on, his descendants, hoping for the backing of the Mexican government, want the Aztec emperor's priceless ceremonial feathered head-dress back. At least they say it's his.

The quetzalcopilli (crown of quetzal feathers) has been in a Vienna museum for 100 years and bouncing around European castles for centuries before that. It was first reported in Europe in the hands of Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol in the 16th century. Montezuma's descendants, long since of mixed Indian-Spanish blood, have launched a campaign to retrieve it as part of Mexico's cultural patrimony.

They say it was stolen from the emperor by the conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortes, who in 1520 tricked and murdered Montezuma, his descendants say, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan - modern-day Mexico City - despite the emperor's warm welcome and gifts of gold and silver. Seeing the well-armed Spaniards come overland on strange four-legged animals, Montezuma assumed Cortes must be the legendary Indian god, Quetzalcoatl (plumed serpent), who Indian myth said was white and would return from the east to reclaim his throne.

Supporters of the move to get back the head-dress equate the case with that of the Elgin Marbles, whose return to Greece was championed for years by Melina Mercouri. The Austrian authorities, however, deny that the head-dress belonged to the emperor and say it was the ceremonial plumage of an Aztec priest.

Before Blanca Maria Barragan Montezuma recently appealed to the Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, to request the head-dress's return from Austria, other Mexican Indians, as well as sympathetic Austrians, had unsuccessfully campaigned with the same aim.

Concheros, or Aztec folk dancers in traditional loin-cloths, feathers and elaborate sandals, danced outside Mexico's presidential palace last week to encourage Mr Zedillo to take action. The President has promised to receive Mrs Barragan Montezuma to discuss her appeal.

The Austrians are well aware that the head-dress, on display in Vienna's Museum fur Volkerkunde and made from 450 feathers of the quetzal and the now-extinct cotinga bird, is unique and priceless. Apart from their insistence that the plumage did not belong to the emperor, they say it now forms part of Habsburg heritage, cite a 1918 law banning the export of cultural treasures, say the piece "would rot in the tropics" and that anyway the Mexican government has not asked for it back.

President Zedillo, however, politically and economically beleaguered, could use any popularity boost he can get.

Last year's rebellion by Indian peasants in the state of Chiapas heightened the consciousness of Indians nation-wide, not to mention throughout the Americas, and he may just see the emperor's head-dress as a politically useful distraction.

On the other hand, he may lack the gall to push for a bunch of feathers in a country where full-blooded Indian natives remain down-trodden, largely ignored if not racially abused and whose understanding of human rights is often the right to sell chewing gum at traffic-lights, shiver in a shop doorway or work as maids often for housewives whose own veins run with part-Indian blood.

Mrs Barragan Montezumashows visitors a detailed family tree listing her as 17 generations removed from the emperor via the marriage of his daughter, Tecuichpo, with Spanish conquistador Juan Cano.

Describing how "my whole body vibrated when I first stood before the head-dress in Vienna," she gives a touching and convincing account of why she is sure the head-dress belonged to the emperor and should be returned.

"My grandmother always told us, since we were kids, that we were Aztec princesses and should be proud. She told us the story she said had been passed down through the generations, orally, since Tecuichpo witnessed the murder of her father and the lootingof Aztec gold and silver.

"Thinking Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl, Montezuma submitted himself and gifted him much gold and silver, as well as embroideries and feathered pieces. But he would never have handed over his sacred head-dress.

"The Austrians say the head-dress belonged to a priest. But the point is the emperor had the dual role of political and spiritual leader.

"Cortes captured Montezuma and his family, which caused the Aztecs to panic. The Spanish conquistador decided it was better to kill the emperor to destroy local morale and he and his men managed to leave, using other imperial family members, including Tecuichpo, as hostages." Mrs Barragan Montezuma's version does not conflict with the diary of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who wrote of the first meetings between Cortes and Montezuma after the Spaniards had reached the Aztec capital from the Gulf of Mexico.

"The great Montezuma said he wanted to serve us and give us what he had and that he was sure we were those whom his ancestors had long said would come, from where the sun rises, to reign over these lands," Cortes's chronicler wrote.