How big was Mexico City in 1519?

Another possible interpretation is that “she” represents the Aztec main temple, the Templo Mayor. In Mesoamerican literature, the temple is often referred to as “she,” since both men and women were sacrificed there and a considerable part of the main temple was dedicated to the Aztec rain god, who is often described as a female. The temple was uncovered in 1978 (three years after the album was released) after being buried beneath Mexico City for nearly 500 years.

On a more cynical note, in Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, entitled Shakey, the author asked Neil if his songs were autobiographical. Young replied, “What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer” like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.”[1]

Reader Amanda W. in Connecticut writes:

Much as I enjoyed your post about A Bachelor’s Mexico I think we’re all wondering: why did you need the letters of Cortes?

Great question Amanda.  I needed them because I was writing about Mexico City.  And I was trying to figure out the size of the city that was there before, Tenochtitlan.

I got distracted reading the incredible recollections of Cortes expedition veteran Bernal Diaz, but let’s pick up:


Tenochtitlan Seeds of Change 32

from the mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Tenochtitlan was the great city of the… well, Aztec is not the preferred nomenclature anymore.  The great Charles Mann calls the people in charge of Tenochtitlan “the Triple Alliance.”  They might’ve called themselves “Mexica.”

In the middle of a fifty-some square mile lake, there was this massive city.


Here’s Diego Rivera’s mural of it, which is in the Palacio National I think. Stole this photo from

How many people lived in Tenochtitlan?

212,500, says Professor Michael E. Smith of SUNY Albany in this article in the Journal Of Urban Studies.

But even he counsels cautious.  He takes awhile to pause and talk about rank-size analysis:

In the 1950s and 1960s, geographers developed the technique of rank-size analysis to study the sizes of cities within nation-states.33 An empirical pattern was observed in a number of areas of the world in which the second-largest city has roughly one-half the population of the largest city, the third-largest city has one-third the population, and so on down the size scale. This distribution, known as the log-normal distribution, is illustrated by plotting city size (Y axis) against rank (X axis). When these variables are graphed using logarithmic scales, the log-normal distribution is expressed as a declining straight line. Two major kinds of deviations from the log-normal pattern have been noted for various nations and regions: primate distributions (in which the largest city is “too large” for the log-normal pattern) and convex distributions (in which there are “too many” very large cities). Much of the literature on rank-size analysis is devoted to exploring the causes and implications of deviations from log-normal distributions.34 Archaeologists seized on rank-size analysis as a potentially useful tool for analyzing settlement patterns, and they joined the discussion of the determinants of the various rank-size distributions. Most applications by archaeologists have been conducted on a regional scale, such as the Valley of Oaxaca and the Basin of Mexico, or the plains of Mesopotamia.35 A number of archaeologists went beyond the limits of the method to address the distribution of the sizes of tiny settlements that were not central places.36 To summarize the findings of geographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists, log-normal distributions tend to be found in large urban systems with a long history of commercial and demographic interaction among central places.

The great Charles Mann again:

Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders – it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis.  The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away.  Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland.  Long Aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city.  Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens — none existed in Europe.  The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage!  The conquistadors had never conceived of such a thing.)

open air model

Open-air model of Tenochtitlan, in the Zocalo of Mexico City, so what was once more or less dead center on this model.   found at

Cortes himself said:

The great city of Texmixitan is built on the salt lake, and from the mainland to the city is a distance of two leagues.

(a Spanish league at that time was 2.6 miles, the word originally meant the distance a man could walk in an hour). 

The city is as large as Cordoba or Seville.


16th century Seville painted by Alonso Sanchez Coello maybe?

Cortes and his guys arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519.  Two years later the whole place was destroyed.

Brief Digression about William Prescott:

 The first American — talking United States American here — to really write a history of Cortes and the conquest of Tenochtitlan was William Prescott.


Prescott’s eyes were fucked up because he got hit with a crust of bread in the eyeball during a food fight when he was at Harvard.  As far as I can tell he never went to Mexico.  But he had been to Spain, he was pals with aristocratic Spaniards who sent him “eight thousand sheets of manuscript beautifully copied from the Spanish archives, all the original documents, diaries, letters, never yet published, never seven seen.”

So says Van Wyck Brooks, who describes Prescott like this:

He had an extravagant love of jolly parties.  He talked with a joyous abandon, running over with animal spirits, laughing at his own inconsequences, with always some new joke or witty sally.  He could be happy in more ways, in spite of his defective eyes, and happier in every one of them, than anyone else his friends had ever seen.  One met him in the street, with his rosy air, with his gay blue satin waistcoat, tall, graceful, with light brown hair and a clear and ruddy complexion… One of his relatives, meeting him on the street, not long before his book appeared, urged him to undertake some serious task.  It would be so good for him.  It would be more respectable than leading this unprofitable life.

… He did not like to get up in the morning, and had to instruct his servant, the faithful Nathan, to pull away his bed-clothes.  He did not like to work.  He had to make bets with his secretary that he would write a certain number of pages or carry out some other resolution… When he broke too many resolutions, he introduced into his reckoning sets of fixed exceptions, amendments on amendments; then he scored them all off and opened a new account.  By this means, and others, he made himself a causist, able to comprehend the Spanish mind.

Anyway.  Prescott wrote a monster History of Ferdinand and Isabella, and then he took on the History Of The Conquest of Mexico.
 Here’s what Prescott has to say about Tenoch, which gives a pretty good sense of his vibe:

IMG_7406 IMG_7407 IMG_7408

Prescott’s history came out in 1843.  When the US Army stormed Mexico City three years later a bunch of the officers had copies with them.


I prefer Bernal Diaz:

who rode with Cortes and saw Tenochtitlan with his own eyes in 1519.  Fifty years or so later he dictated what he remembered.


Here’s what Bernal Diaz says he saw when they crossed the causeway into Tenochtitlan:

IMG_7677At first things were groovy.  Montezuma took them to a banquet:


Mexican food:


In Tenochtitlan, they had their own Hollywood:


What really impressed Diaz though was the shopping:


One unique item:


Montezuma took them to the top of the temple for a view:IMG_7683 IMG_7684

Well, things went downhill from there.

If you pull out some illustrations from the Florentine Codex, you can read it like a comic book.

Things fall apart, basically:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.07.09 PM

Montezuma gets killed — Diaz says by his own people while he was trying to give a speech:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.08.02 PM

They chucked his body:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.08.15 PM

Cortes and his guys got driven out of the city.
Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.08.41 PM

The Spanish are driven out into the cactus lands:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.21.41 PM But they round up allies:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.21.35 PM Meanwhile, the Aztecs get smallpox and everybody dies:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.08.55 PM

The Spanish attack:
Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.09.04 PM

Diaz says:


There was a guy, Diaz says, who claimed to Cortes that he knew how to build a catapult.  Turns out he didn’t.  Cortes was piiiiiiiiiiiiissed.

More battles.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.09.20 PM

Maybe ninety days of continuous fighting, Diaz says.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.09.46 PM

This sounds horrifying:

IMG_7686 IMG_7687

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.09.55 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.10.02 PM

Geez.  Even Diaz, who’d seen plenty already, says he came pretty close to losing it:


Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.10.14 PM

In the end, Diaz’s team won.  The aftermath:

Why did Bernal Diaz write this book?  I don’t know enough about 16th century Spanish or Latin American publishing to speak to that.  He says at the beginning that he’s poor and maybe he can leave something to his descendants this way.  Maybe it was a like a pop war hero bestseller like American Sniper or Lone Survivor.

Here’s what he says happened to Cortes:


Very last words in the book:


I wonder if he was.

That’s the story of Tenochtitlan.  On its ruins arose Mexico City.  The big cathedral is right on top of where the rubble of the Templo Mayor was buried.


The cathedral’s off-center, sinking, because the ground underneath is soft.  There was a fifty mile lake around it once.

Mexico City

Thanks for writing, Amanda!

(I have no idea if I’m allowed to put up whole chunks of books like this without permission.  The Florentine Codex is online and free here, and if there are any descendants of Bernal Diaz out there lemme know, I’ll paypal you a couple bucks.)

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