When Mexico had its day in the sun

On the eve of the Royal Academy's Aztec exhibition, Chris Coplans visits the spectacular ruins of an endlessly fascinating society
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The Independent Travel

W hat is it that so fascinates us about the Aztecs? They were a nomadic tribe who, in less than 200 years, built up a huge and powerful empire. Their cities, with their enormous pyramids and untold wealth, rivalled those of Europe. Then, with the arrival of the Spanish, this flourishing empire collapsed in just a few short years. This remarkable tale of a civilisation's decline and fall is to be vividly retold in a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The most ambitious ever staged outside Mexico, it will feature more than 350 exhibits, some never before seen in public.

W hat is it that so fascinates us about the Aztecs? They were a nomadic tribe who, in less than 200 years, built up a huge and powerful empire. Their cities, with their enormous pyramids and untold wealth, rivalled those of Europe. Then, with the arrival of the Spanish, this flourishing empire collapsed in just a few short years. This remarkable tale of a civilisation's decline and fall is to be vividly retold in a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The most ambitious ever staged outside Mexico, it will feature more than 350 exhibits, some never before seen in public.

As a schoolboy I was intrigued by stories of this great warrior race, once led by a bloodthirsty king with the ferocious-sounding name of Motecuhzoma. I lapped up tales about the tzompanthi skull rack, where thousands of trophy-heads of sacrificial victims were strung up in public. I knew that the Aztecs had long since disappeared, but the modern city that replaced their ancient capital was just as frenetic. There were bullfights in huge arenas, serenading Mariachi bands and señoritas who could break your heart with the lowering of an eyelid.

Earlier this year, I finally made it to Mexico City and found myself in the Museo National de Antropologia. I was mesmerised, not so much by evidence of the Aztecs' bloodlust, but by the abundance of treasures they left. The museum houses the greatest collection of Aztec art in the world and is a great starting point for an insight into their civilisation. (Many of these works will be on show at the Royal Academy.) The museum is the home of the sun or calendar stone, decorated with intricate detail and bearing the face of Tonatiuh at its centre. A haunting statue of Coatlicue is equally impressive. It seems somewhat incongruous that the same people who created some of these exquisite pieces would also sacrifice up to 20,000 victims a day.

The vast archaeological site of Teotihuacan, 30 miles outside Mexico City, had been abandoned for nearly 1,000 years before the Aztecs claimed it. They believed that time itself started here. Like today's visitor, they must have been equally in awe of the huge size of the city's main buildings and planned layout. The Pyramid of the Sun, the world's third largest pyramid, stands aligned to the place on the horizon where the sun rises on the equinox. A few hundred yards away lies the equally impressive but slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon. Together they dwarf the landscape, rising dramatically against the hills.

When the Spanish expedition led by Hernan Cortes arrived at Tenochtitlan in 1520 they were awestruck. They had entered a city which at its height was home to more than 250,000 people, making it one of the largest in the world. The Aztecs thought Tenochtitlan was the centre of the Universe and built their symbol of power, the Templo Mayor, in 1325, on the exact spot where they first saw a symbolic eagle with a snake in its beak. Unfortunately, when the Spanish gained control of the city they demolished the temple, using its plundered stone to build their own religious monument, the imposing Cathedral Metropolitana. To add insult to injury they then erected colonial buildings on the vandalised site. In an ironic twist in 1978, these building were demolished so that archaeologists could excavate the site. The adjourning Museo Templo Mayor now houses many of the recovered artefacts. A wheel-like stone of a decapitated Coyolxaugqui rightfully takes pride of place in the museum. She was murdered by her brother Huizilopochtli, who also killed 400 of his brothers.

How did the Spaniards get their hands on this prize city and all its riches? Cortez's band of conquistadors was undermanned, without funds and a long way from home. His adversary, the enigmatic Motecuhzoma, on the other hand, was a strong and battle-experienced leader with a vast army. He had known about Cortez from the moment that the Spaniard had set foot on the Yucatan peninsula in 1519. However, from the outset something about the Spaniards spooked him and he may even have thought of Cortez as the incarnation of a deified king.

Cortez was an opportunist and, with a combination of guile and patience, tricked his way into the city. Motecuhzoma could still have disposed of him, but he hesitated and the longer he left it the more he lost his nerve. Cortez, sensing victory, moved in for the kill. In a daring raid he kidnapped the Aztec leader from his palace and the great god-king was soon little more than a puppet. Motecuhzoma died shortly afterwards as a result of a stoning by his own followers, although according to later Indian accounts he was secretly strangled by the Spaniards. In less than a year the Spanish had seized power and were busy building their own empire.

If the heady combination of daunting Pyramids, industrial-scale sacrifice and pulsating city centre proves too much, then a trip out to Xochimilco, 15 miles south of the city centre, is the perfect tonic. "The place of the flower gardens" is a serene network of canals and floating gardens where the Aztecs grew most of their food. I rented one of the brightly coloured boats, and punted down one of the canals. Maybe it is in this tranquil place that the Aztecs drew inspiration for those great works of art and architecture. Experts still argue as to who was sacrificed at the end of the legendary Aztec ball game, the winners or the losers. Common sense dictates that if you ended up sans heart then you were a loser no matter how many goals your side had scored. The true legacy of the Aztecs is not their cruelty but the wealth of art and architecture and their vision for the future.

The Facts

Getting there

Chris Coplans travelled to Mexico with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which arranges tailor-made or group packages. A seven-night trip costs £1,445 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with British Airways, transfers, room-only accommodation at La Habita hotel and guided tours.

Further information

"The Aztecs" exhibition at the Royal Academy (020-7300 8000; www.aztecs.org.uk) in London runs from 16 November to 11 April.

Mexican Tourist Office (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com).

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