There are few pages more vivid in the literature of the discoveries than Bernal Díaz del Castillo's description of the first-ever visit of people of the Old World to the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica (Aztecs), in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.
Moctezuma, the great Tlatoani, invites the Spanish delegation to visit the main city temple - where the attachment to human sacrifice of the ancient Mesoamerican peoples reached its zenith, with numerous bloody offerings almost every day. The diplomatic demeanor of the accompanying priest, Mercedarian Father Bartolomé de Olmedo, is poignant in its contrast with Cortés' rashness - Olmedo's words would almost be amusing if the situation were not so dramatic all around.
|Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo celebrates the |
first Mass (Traditional, naturally) in Mexico-Tenochtitlan
Before reaching the great Cue [Pyramid-Temple] there is a great enclosure of courts, it seems to me larger than the plaza of Salamanca, with two walls of masonry surrounding it and the court itself all paved with very smooth great white flagstones. And where there were not these stones it was cemented and burnished and all very clean, so that one could not find any dust or a straw in the whole place... .
When we arrived there, Montezuma came out of an oratory where his cursed idols were, at the summit of the great Cue, and two priests came with him, and after paying great reverence to Cortés and to all of us he said: “You must be tired, Señor Malinche, from ascending this our great Cue,” and Cortés replied through our interpreters who were with us that he and his companions were never tired by anything. Then Montezuma took him by the hand and told him to look at his great city and all the other cities that were standing in the water, and the many other towns on the land round the lake, and that if he had not seen the great market place well, that from where they were they could see it better.
So we stood looking about us, for that huge and cursed temple stood so high that from it one could see over everything very well, and we saw the three causeways which led into Mexico, that is the causeway of Iztapalapa by which we had entered four days before, and that of Tacuba, along which later on we fled on the night of our great defeat, when Cuitlahuac the new prince drove us out of the city, as I shall tell later on, and that of Tepeaquilla, and we saw the fresh water that comes from Chapultepec which supplies the city ... .
After having examined and considered all that we had seen we turned to look at the great marketplace and the crowds of people that were in it, some buying and others selling, so that the murmur and hum of their voices and words that they used could be heard more than a league off. Some of the soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, and all over Italy, and in Rome, said that so large a market place and so full of people, and so well regulated and arranged, they had never beheld before.
Let us leave this, and return to our Captain, who said to Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo, who has often been mentioned by me, and who happened to be near by him: “It seems to me, Señor Padre, that it would be a good thing to throw out a feeler to Montezuma, as to whether he would allow us to build our church here”; and the Padre replied that it would be a good thing if it were successful, but it seemed to him that it was not quite a suitable time to speak about it, for Montezuma did not appear to be inclined to do such a thing.