Aztecs Blood, Beauty and Brutality - METRO LIFE; They May Have Had a Penchant for Human Sacrifice but the Aztecs Also Loved Art and Politics, as a Glittering New Exhibition Reveals

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Byline: ISABEL CARLISLE

The Aztecs are one of the world's great, lost civilisations. The meeting in 1519 of their emperor Montezuma with Cortes, the conquistador from Spain who two years later would destroy the Aztecs, ranks as one of those defining moments of history when two opposing world views collided. Montezuma saw Cortes as an emissary of the gods - Cortes saw the Aztec gold and used his steel weapons, sailing ships and horses to get it.

Yet apart from their bloodthirsty appetite for human sacrifice we seem to know very little about the Aztecs. The Royal Academy's blockbuster exhibition that opens this week is about to change all that. It is the largest and most spectacular exhibition on the Aztecs ever held, for which Mexico City is emptying its museums of their treasures. As well as affording us the opportunity to marvel at their craftsmanship and their civilisation, the exhibition allows us to step inside the Aztec mind and see what made them tick.

The Aztecs - named after the mythical place of Aztlan where they claimed to have originated - have obscure origins in a wandering tribe who arrived in the basin of Mexico in around 1300.

Their violent behaviour towards the peoples they encountered on their search for a homeland had forced them to stay on the move, until they landed on swampy ground in the middle of Lake Tetzcoco. Far from feeling unfortunate, they considered this spot to have been divinely ordained when they saw an eagle landing on a cactus with a snake in his beak. This potent image, which fufilled the legend of where they should build their city, is at the centre of the Mexican flag today.

The god that had guided the Aztecs was called Huitzilopochtli.

He was their supreme god who took the form of a hummingbird and communed with the sun. To worship him, the Aztecs built the great pyramid, or Templo Mayor.

From here streets led in a grid pattern out into the new city of Tenochtitlan (the site of presentday Mexico City), a city not unlike Venice in that it was built on reclaimed land. It was criss-crossed by canals, and causeways led across the lake in five directions to join with the mainland.

When the Spaniards arrived they were astonished at its beauty.

Fresh water was brought into the city by an aqueduct and food came from artificial raised fields.

Some of these seedbeds, called 'chinampas', still survive in the south of Mexico City in the area of Xochimilco. Maize was grown here in abundance, as were chillies, amaranth, cacao and many kinds of vegetable, fruit and flowers. …