13 April 2009

Three Cities: Tenochtitlan, London, and Madrid

In 1520 Hernando Cortes and his conquistadors entered the capitol city of the Aztecs. It was huge, covering around 10 Kilometers of swampy land and boasting at least 200,000 inhabitants, more than most European cities of that time. A Spanish soldier called Bernal diaz del Castillo said the following about the city the conquistadors entered.

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 (...) on account of the 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? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain[2]


Fourteenth century Aztecs had reclaimed the land from the lake and built a city similar to Venice upon it. Most of the city could be traversed by canoe as well as on foot. The Aztecs called their city Tenochtitlan (tay-nohch-TEE-tlan), which translated means "the place of the cactus stone". In contrast to European cities of the time Tenochtitlan was meticulously clean, free of pestilence, and well organized. The following is a list with links for source reference concerning the Architectural and Hygienic advancements of Tenochtitlan compared to London and Madrid.

1. The Aztec Emperor employed 1,000 men to clean the streets every day. These were the historic forerunners of our modern day garbage men :) "Garbage boats" went from house to house carrying away refuse and human waste to be disposed of properly and put to good use as recycled crop fertilizer. Many Aztecs had their own private latrines, something

2. The Aztecs reclaimed land from the swamp by building "chinimpas" .

[Chinampas] were made by staking out narrow, rectangular strips in marshy lakes. Narrow canals were built between them for canoes to pass along.Each chinampa was built up with layers of thick water vegetation cut from the surface of the lake and mud from the bottom of the lake. They were piled up like mats to make the plots. Willow trees were planted around the edge of each chinampa to make it more secure. DK Eyewittnes Books: Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas.

Lake Texcoco had a depth of about 13 feet at its deepest part, which made the Chinampas possible.
The primary chinampas crops were maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes, and chilies, although chinampas were also used to grow flowers. Wikipedia The Aztecs also built houses on chinampa plots.

A modern day Chinampa plot...

3. Tenochtitlan had a fresh mountain water available to its citizens thanks to a dike built in 1453 A.D. which restrained the swampy marsh waters while keeping spring fed fresh water around the city. It also had two huge aqueduct's built of terra cotta which ran into the city. The Aztecs were crazy about cleanliness, all of its citizens, rich and poor, washed every day. This overall good hygiene eliminated most of the problems European cities were dealing with at the time, plague and pestilence.


London has its roots in ancient time. The Romans originally built it on the river Thames at around 50 A.D. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and survives to this day as one of the most important city centers of the world. For this comparison we will be looking at London in the 1500 hundreds around the time Tenochtitlan was discovered by Europeans.

1. London had a poor sewage system for years. Human waste and garbage's of all descriptions were tossed out of windows onto passerby's heads. There were no indoor latrines and few hygiene precautions. Over time the Thames river became a "dead" river as a result to the extreme amounts of filth tossed into it.

2. Not only did London lack in the sewage department, its inhabitants were less then clean themselves. Most Europeans of the time thought that taking baths would wash away the body's protective covering and upset the humors. As a result people rarely bathed more than once a year. Outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death, and other diseases were common due to the peoples uncleanliness and living conditions.

3. It is no wonder that the Spaniards were amazed when they entered Tenochtitlan and found it contained more than 200,000 inhabitants, London itself did not have more than 75,000. Not only did the Aztec city have a larger population, they also maintained higher living standards which made for one bright beautiful city!


Another large and growing city in Europe was Madrid. Originally a Muslim city Madrid was taken by Spain during the Holy Wars and became the capitol when Phillip II moved his court there in 1561. Today it is the 3rd most populous municipality in the European Union. Wikipedia

We can sum up for Madrid that it was essentially as advanced as London in the 1500dreds, possibly less. Its population was certainly smaller, being around 40,000 people.

When Phillip moved his court to Madrid in 1561 the city saw a huge increase in population which resulted in a shortage of living space and proper sewage. It has been called the filthiest city in Europe at that time.

In Conclusion:

This comparison has been conducted to show the differences of living standards between two cultures, European and Aztec /Mesoamerican. It does not reflect on their religious beliefs, nor should we base our opinions of a race on its citizens personal hygiene standards. However it does prove the Aztecs were more than a "savage" race, they had a supieror civilization and minds able to learn. Europeans razed a great city to the ground, and lost the advantages they might have had in sharing the gospel in their lust after gold. If anything the story of Tenochtitlan shows the depravity of a supposedly "enlightened" people, who used their Christianity as a cloak for vice and an excuse for enslaving others. It is a dark blot in the history of the Kingdom of God.