“… When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments… great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream…”
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain
In The Rise of the Aztecs Part I we dealt with the incident of the flayed princess and the first time the Aztecs made their powerful neighbors angry.
So now we arrive to the end of the 14th century, when the Aztecs were somewhat better off. Not allowed to campaign on their own, they still thrived, fighting under the Tepanec leadership, relatively safe upon their muddy island. Required to pay tribute every full moon, they contributed to riches of the powerful Azcapotzalco, the Tepanec Capital. The tribute was reported to be ‘oppressive and capricious’.
The island location has its benefits, separated from the mainland by a certain amount of water and thus safe from any military surprises. Yet, this location has its disadvantages as well. Bringing materials to the rapidly growing city was difficult. Most of the houses were reed-and-cane built and the markets were poor, while the city could not even dream of building a worthwhile temple or, gods forbid, a pyramid. Large slabs of stone and marble were impossible to bring by canoes.
But the Aztecs were not only a warlike nation. They turned out to be ambitious engineers as well. So, when Acamapichtli, a young and very vigorous ruler, was brought to lead the growing island nation, the Mexica energetic people launched into several breathtaking projects all at once.
First of all, the island was enlarged artificially, with much dirt and rock. Then a causeway was built to connect it with the mainland, making it possible for the large chunks of materials to be brought into Tenochtitlan, allowing the construction of the Great Pyramid’s second stage. Houses of cane and reed were replaced by the stone ones, temples constructed, laws made.
The agriculture was a problem. The island was too small to cultivate enough crops to support the rapidly growing population. Cultivating of many chinampas, the ‘floating gardens’, had helped. Yet the Aztecs needed more land. So far they were masters of their island only. They needed a permission to campaign on their own.
Well, Acamapichtli was a great diplomat. Careful not to provoke the Tepanec overlords, Tenochtitlan paid its taxes in time and when Azcapotzalco wanted a present in a form of a floating garden of beautiful flowers, a special chinampa was made in a hurry and floated over the lake straight to the shores of the Tepanec’s Capital.
Toward the beginning of the 15th century, after many such gestures and negotiations, the Aztecs were allowed to campaign on their own, provided their warriors kept reinforcing the Tepanec forces with the same vigor as before. The northern settlements of Texcoco Lake, such as Xochimilco were attacked immediately and many of their lake-shores chinampas captures and put to a great use.
Tenochtitlan was growing rapidly.
An excerpt from “The Jaguar Warrior”
Her eyes flashed.
“I was glad, very glad! My husband is a great ruler and he is just beginning his journey. Tenochtitlan will be the greatest altepetl in the whole Valley one day. It will make Azcapotzalco look small. But by then Azcapotzalco may very well be just a cluster of ruins.”
He stared into her eyes, mesmerized. What she said was completely ridiculous, yet for a moment he could not but believe her. Her eyes shone with such power, radiating her hatred but more than that. Was she having a premonition?
“What you say does not make sense. Acamapichtli is a very impressive man, I admit that. But he is leading a small nation that is stuck on the muddy island. His city has nowhere to grow. This altepetl cannot evolve beyond some mediocre status. You have no place to grow.”
“Oh, but you know so little. And you were never very bright, anyway. But Acamapichtli is wise, so very wise. Wiser than my father even. And he is patient. He plans for twenty, two, three-times twenty summers from now and he works to that end. His has grand visions and he his ability to apply his ideas is breathtaking. He invests all his energy in his plans, but he does so smartly and patiently. You just wait and see.”
He watched her animated face. Two red spots colored the high cheekbones now and the large eyes shone brightly, almost excitedly. He had never seen her like that. Yet what she said made his skin crawl.
“It feels too familiar,” he said tiredly, difficult to tear his gaze off her glowing eyes. “But you should know better than trying to use me again. I cannot be trusted. In the end I will not betray my people. You should know it better than anyone.”