VERY CIVILISED SAVAGES; It Was One of the Greatest Yet Most Bloodthirsty Civilisations in History, Practising Human Sacrifice on an Industrial Scale. but a Major New Exhibition Asks Who Were More Brutal - the Aztecs, or the 300 Europeans Who Annihilated Them?

Article excerpt

Byline: by Tony Rennell

THE battle-hardened, armour-clad soldiers stopped in their tracks and stared in amazement.

Rising out of the waters of the vast lake before them was a majestic island-city of wide streets and white stucco-fronted houses.

Bathed in bright sunshine and against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, palaces and temples towered into the clear blue sky.

'Glorious!' exclaimed the Catholic monk who accompanied the goldseeking adventurers from Spain on their journey of exploration from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

They might have expected to find little more than a settlement of mud huts when they landed on this foreign shore more than 5,000 miles from home. Instead, gleaming there in the winter sunlight of November 1519, was the magnificent capital of the rich and thriving Aztec civilisation.

It went by the name of Tenochtitlan and was larger than any place these Europeans had ever seen or even dreamed of. With a population in excess of 200,000, it was bigger than Rome, Madrid and London put together. It drew its immense wealth presiding over an area three times the size of Ireland.

As the Spanish captain, Hernan Cortes, and his conquistadors, rode in procession through an arrow-straight causeway into the city, there were more sights to amaze them. Venice-like canals criss-crossed it. Artificial gardens floated on the water. Man-made dykes protected it from flooding.

Compared to the crowded, rubbish and excrement-strewn conurbations back in Europe, the place was pristine, as were its people. Sweepers kept its streets clean. There were public bathing places and even public lavatories.

'On all the roads, there are shelters made of reeds or straw so the people can retire when they wish to and purge their bowels, unseen by passers-by,' wrote one contemporary Spanish chronicler, well impressed. This was the height of civilisation.

In the marketplace, gold, silver and precious stones -- notably bluegreen turquoise -- were traded, along with jaguar skins and brightly-coloured parrot feathers. Food of all types was plentiful, as were tobacco and a heady alcoholic potion made from cactus juice.

Prized above all else were cocoa beans for mashing into chocolate, a potent bitter-sweet beverage that was highly addictive. It was served cold and frothy in small, gold cups and reserved for the royal family, noblemen and warriors.

At the heart and head of this sophisticated civilisation was the imposing figure of the god-like Aztec ruler himself -- Moctezuma (or Montezuma, the more recognisable version of his name). He is the centrepiece of a ground-breaking exhibition opening at the British Museum in London this week.

Sculptures, idols, gold artefacts and dazzling, jewel-encrusted masks and skulls from half-a-millennium ago bring a forgotten era back to life. Around them, a story unfolds of a world-changing power struggle, political intrigue and brute force as two cultures, Europe and America, clashed head on.

A key historical figure, it was Moctezuma's inexplicable submission to the Spanish invaders without a fight nearly 500 years ago that was the starting point of the colonisation of the Americas.

The exhibition's organisers hope visitors will reach a deeper and more sympathetic appreciation of this maligned and misunderstood native emperor.

What has over the centuries been held against him, and his people, was discovered by Cortes and his men as they reached the precise geometric centre of the city, a huge plaza containing the Great Temple.

From a platform high up on this stone pyramid ran steep flights of wide steps. The horror was that, from top to bottom, they were streaked red with human blood, while alongside them were rack upon rack of skulls. A rank smell of putrefaction hung in the air.

It became clear to the invaders from Christian Europe that, in this otherwise perfect city of hospitable and well-mannered people, human sacrifice was practised on a massive scale. …