Five-hundred years ago, two men met and changed much of the world forever.
About 500 Spanish conquistadors — ragged from skirmishes, a massacre of an Indigenous village and a hike between massive volcanoes — couldn’t believe what they saw: an elegant island city in a land that Europeans didn’t know existed until a few years before.
“It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before,” wrote conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo.
The date was Nov. 8, 1519. Bernal’s leader, Hernán Cortés, walked them down a causeway leading into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and was greeted by this land’s most powerful man: Emperor Montezuma II. (Montezuma was Mexica, but the term Aztec is often used to denote the triple alliance of civilizations that made up his empire.)
According to Cortés, Montezuma immediately recognized the divine right of the Spanish and the Catholic Church to rule these lands and he surrendered his empire.
But according to historian Matthew Restall, author of the book When Montezuma Met Cortés, this is simply wrong.
“The more that I thought about [the surrender], the more I decided it just didn’t quite make sense,” he tells NPR. “But then what really got me interested was this question, ‘If it’s a lie, how has it lasted for 500 years?’ “
The meeting of Montezuma and Cortés — in what today is Mexico City — and the true story of the conquest that followed it still weigh heavily in Mexico half a millennium later.
Twice this year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has publicly asked the Spanish crown to apologize for atrocities against native people.
“We have not forgotten this issue and continue believing they should offer an apology for the invasion,” he said during a news briefing in October. So far, Spain has rejected that request.
The story of the Spanish conquest, as it has been commonly understood for 500 years, goes like this: Montezuma surrendered his empire to Cortés. Cortés and his men entered Tenochtitlán and lived there peacefully for months until rebellious Aztecs attacked them. Montezuma was killed by friendly fire. The surviving conquistadors escaped the city and later returned with Spanish reinforcements. They bravely laid siege to Tenochtitlán for months and finally captured it on Aug. 13, 1521, with the Spanish taking their rightful place as leaders of the land we now know as Mexico. Conquest accomplished.
“History is messy, and this story tidies up all of that mess and turns the messy, unpleasant war that took place 500 years ago into a nice, tidy dramatic narrative that has a hero [Cortés] and antihero [Montezuma] and has some kind of climactic, glorious ending,” says Restall.
In When Montezuma Met Cortés, Restall revises this story. He ditches the word “conquest” and instead refers to the time as the Spanish-Aztec war. He says Cortés was a “mediocrity” with little personal impact on the unfolding of events and refocuses on complex territorial battles between the Aztecs and their rivals. The Tlaxcallan Empire, which allied with the Spanish, was the driving force, outnumbering conquistadors 50-to-1 during the war with the Aztecs. Smallpox and a betrayal from an Aztec ally dealt the final blow. The wondrous island city fell, but it would take years for the Spanish to establish control in New Spain.
The messy history of the Spanish and Aztecs is still strikingly visible in the center of Mexico City. Right next to the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral (a centuries-long expansion of the first Spanish church built here, in the 1520s) sit the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, buried beneath the city surface.
“After they arrived here on Nov. 8, it’s likely that the first place the Aztecs brought the Spanish was here to the Great Temple,” says Carlos Javier González González, former director of the Great Temple project. “Symbolically, the Great Temple was the center of the universe to the Aztecs. It was the point from which the world turned.”
NPR joined González and Raúl Barrera Rodríguez, director of the urban archaeology program at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, for a tour around the Great Temple’s remains.
For centuries, Spanish testimony portrayed the Aztecs and other Indigenous groups in the Americas as uncivilized, savage barbarians. But continued excavation of the Great Temple and Tenochtitlán has helped change that perception.
“Tenochtitlán was a huge city,” says Barrera. “It had public institutions, a whole system of government, public servants, schools, public services — it was a totally organized city.”
After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish built their city directly on top of it. Barrera’s urban archaeology program, which has first rights to excavation at any buildings under construction or renovation in Mexico City’s historical center, aims to reveal this underground city.
“It’s like a puzzle we’re trying to put together,” he says.
In 2017, Barrera’s team uncovered the Huey Tzompantli, a tower of human skulls that was a monument to the Aztecs’ highest deity, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. The conquistadors described a terrifying satanic sight. It was precisely the opposite for Aztecs.
“It is important to understand the worldview of the Aztecs,” says Barrera. “The tzompantli was about giving life.”
As Barrera explains, the Aztecs had deep, complex rituals around death. Aztecs believed their gods needed nourishment to survive and made them offerings of people and animals. For example, offering warriors — primarily prisoners of war — ensured the sun would continue to shine and the Aztecs would be successful in war. The Spanish didn’t see it that way.
“The image we have of the Aztecs was overwhelmingly invented by Spaniards at the time,” says Restall. “They used it to not only justify the conquest and colonization but any and all acts of violence that subsequently emerged.”
About 650,000 people come to learn about the Aztecs at the Great Temple every year, 80% of them Mexican, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History. José María Rosas, a 62-year-old taxi driver in Mexico City, was visiting it for the first time in early November.
“Seeing this is like going back in time, and I’m recognizing that these are my roots,” he says. “Who am I as a descendant of the Indigenous people?”
González says he has seen that attitudes toward pre-Hispanic history have changed during his four decades of work at the Great Temple.
“The interest in and importance of all this is growing, to recover and incorporate our pre-Hispanic history into our identity as Mexicans,” he says.
And Restall thinks the implications reach even further.
“Misunderstanding and misrepresentation of something like Aztec civilization today can make it easier for us to misunderstand and misrepresent Indigenous peoples of the Americas,” he says.
With Mexico’s president still insisting on Spain’s apology and calling for “reconciliation” with the Spanish over the conquest, it will continue to be present in modern-day Mexico.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History as the National Institute of Archeology and History.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now let’s go back in time, 500 years. Two people are about to meet and change the history of the Americas forever. The result will be the fall of the Aztec empire and the creation of new Spain, which will become Mexico. James Fredrick tells us more from Mexico City.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: It’s November 8, 1519. Hernando Cortes (ph) and his 500 fellow conquistadors are walking into the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. They are amazed. Welcoming them is the empire’s ruler, King Montezuma II. He greets Cortes, and then something strange happens. The conquistadors said Montezuma immediately surrendered his empire to them.
MATTHEW RESTALL: The more than I thought about that, the more I decided it just didn’t quite make sense.
FREDRICK: That’s historian Matthew Restall from Penn State University. His 2018 book, “When Montezuma Met Cortes,” argues that our understanding of the Spanish conquest is all wrong.
RESTALL: How amazing that Cortes and a small band were able to defeat an empire of millions in a few years. That is this colossal of misconception and misunderstanding.
FREDRICK: Restall believes conquistadors secretly jailed and then murdered Montezuma but made up the story of surrender to make the conquest more palatable. He also says local enemies of the Aztecs and disease were keys to their downfall, not the Spanish. In the heart of Mexico City, centuries-old truths still lie underground.
Below me is the archeological site Templo Mayor, the great Aztec temple of its time. And in the background is the great Catholic cathedral that the Spanish built literally on top of this holy site once they had conquered the city.
CARLOS JAVIER GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: I’m joined here by Carlos Javier Gonzalez and Raul Barrera Rodriguez from Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History.
GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Gonzalez says that when the Spanish arrived to Tenochtitlan, the first place they were brought was here, the great temple, because it was the symbol of the empire’s power. This 200-foot-tall pyramid was seen as the center of the universe. And the city around it was impressive.
RAUL BARRERA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Barrera says Tenochtitlan was a huge city. It had public institutions, a whole system of governments, schools, public services. It was a totally organized city. I meet Jose Maria Rosas (ph), a 62-year-old taxi driver from Mexico City who’s visiting the ruins for the first time.
JOSE MARIA ROSAS: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says he feels like he’s going back in time here to try to understand his roots as a descendant of these Indigenous people. After the Aztecs were defeated and the city destroyed, Spanish accounts portrayed them as uncivilized, savage barbarians. They cite the tzompantli, a tower made of human skulls that Barrera and his team continue to excavate a few blocks away. He says the Spanish willingly ignored its significance in Aztec culture.
BARRERA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says it’s important to understand the world view of the Aztecs and their complex rituals around death. This tower was about giving life to their god of war and the sun. Historian Restall says the conquistadors later invented a savage image of the Aztecs.
RESTALL: They used it to justify not only conquest and colonization but any and all acts of violence that subsequently emerged.
FREDRICK: Correcting the historical record has modern day implications, he argues.
RESTALL: Indigenous peoples today can more easily be marginalized, mistreated, ignored if there’s a popular belief out there that in some sense their ancestors were barbarians who needed to be civilized.
FREDRICK: For NPR News, I’m James Fredrick in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.