Spanish conquest – The empire reached its height during Ahuitzotl’s reign in 1486–1502. His successor, Montezuma, had been Hueyi Tlatoani for 17 years when the Spaniards, led by Hernándo Cortés, landed on the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1519. Despite some early battles between the two, Cortés allied himself with the Aztecs’ long-time enemy, the Confederacy of Tlaxcala, and arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519.
The Spaniards and their allies became increasingly dangerous and unwelcome guests in the capital city. In June, 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Main Temple and the death of Moctezuma II. The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized as La Noche Triste (the Sad Night). They and their native allies returned in the spring of 1521 to lay siege to Tenochtitlan, a battle that ended on August 13 with the destruction of the city. During this period the now crumbling empire went through a rapid line of ruler succession. After the death of Moctezuma II, the empire fell into the hands of severely weakened emperors, such as Cuitláhuac, before eventually being ruled by puppet rulers, such as Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuh, installed by the Spanish.
After landing in Veracruz, Hernán Cortés heard about the great city and the long-standing rivalries and grievances against it. Although Cortés came to Mexico with a very small army, he was able to persuade many of the other native peoples to help him destroy Tenochtitlan. Cortés first saw Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519. Upon viewing it for the first time, Cortés and his men were stunned by its beauty and size. The Spaniards marched along the causeway leading into the city from Iztapalapa. Although Montezuma came out from the center of Tenochtitlán to greet them and exchange gifts, the camaraderie did not last long. Cortés put Montezuma under house arrest, hoping to rule through him.
Tensions increased until, on the night of June 30, 1520 – during a struggle commonly known as “La Noche Triste” – the Aztec revolted against the Spanish intrusion and managed to capture or drive out the Europeans and their Tlaxcalan allies. Cortés regrouped at Tlaxcala. The Aztecs thought the Spaniards were permanently gone. They elected a new king, Cuitláhuac, but he died after a few months due to smallpox; the next king was Cuauhtémoc. Cortés decided to lay siege to Tenochtitlán in May 1521. For three months, the city suffered from the lack of food and water as well as the spread of smallpox brought by the Europeans. Cortés and his allies landed their forces in the south of the island and fought their way through the city, street by street, and house by house. Finally, Cuauhtémoc had to surrender in August 1521.
After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the lands controlled by the Aztecs became part of the Spanish empire. All the temples, including the Templo Mayor, were sacked, taking all objects of gold and other precious materials. Cortés, who had ordered the destruction of the existing capital, had a Mediterranean-style city built on the site. Essential elements of the old imperial center, including the Templo Mayor, were buried under similarly key features of the new Spanish city in what is now the historical downtown of the Mexico City. The Templo Mayor and Sacred Precinct were demolished and a Spanish church, later the main cathedral, was built on the western half of the precinct.
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The Aztec Empire • Locations & Activities