Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, an exhibition at the British Museum

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, an exhibition at the British Museum

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An introduction to the last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II. Promoting a exhibition at the British Museum, exploring Aztec (Mexica) civilisation through the divine, military and political role of the last elected ruler, Moctezuma II (reigned AD 1502--1520).

Moctezuma, last Aztec ruler 'was no traitor', British Museum exhibition to claim

Moctezuma, the last ruler of the Aztec empire, was not a traitor who sold out to the Spanish conquistadors, a new British Museum exhibition will claim later this year.

To date, history has cast him as the man who ceded his empire to the Spanish in 1520 largely without a fight.

However, evidence never before presented in public in Britain will show that he was humiliated before his people by being paraded in chains, supporting an alternative theory that power was wrested from his grasp.

Two portraits from the 1560s will show that he was bound in chains and rope before being paraded on a balcony.

Colin McEwan, curator at the British Museum, said it was likely that the conventional picture of Moctezuma as a willing agent of colonial rule had been painted by the Spanish victors.

He thought the version of events indicated by the 1560s manuscripts – which were produced by indigenous scribes under Spanish patronage – was "probably closer to what actually happened".

He argued: "Is it likely that a feared military ruler just completely changes his complexion and weakly and willingly subjects himself to ceding his empire to the Spanish? Is that plausible?"

Moctezuma came to power in 1502, ruling over one of the day's largest and most advanced civilisations, which straddled much of Central America from the Caribbean to the Pacific.

While the Aztec empire was at its zenith, its politics were fragile. Moctezuma consolidated power by heavily taxing his subjects, in the form of raw materials or precious art works. One such object is thought to be the turquoise, gold foil and mother of pearl mask that will go on display in the exhibition.

Consequently the Spanish found it easy to find high-powered enemies of the emperor among his ranks, said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

He said: "What is so interesting is that this is an empire that is at the top of its form when it falls. The way it was constructed made it vulnerable because it made it easy for the Spanish to recruit disaffected allies."

Ironically, the lasting picture of Moctezuma as a turncoat meant he has become more celebrated more in Europe than in Mexico, noted Mr McEwan.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, which opens in September, is the fourth and last exhibition in a British Museum series about great historical rulers.

It began two years ago with The First Emperor, which brought a small selection of China's Terracotta Army to London. That coup earned the museum 850,000 visitors over seven months.

Last summer Hadrian: Empire and Conflict attracted 244,000 over three months while 50,000 have seen the third, about the Iranian ruler Shah Abbas, since it opened in February.


The exhibition Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, at the British Museum until 24 January 2010, is sombre and disturbing &ndash the chirpy half-rhyme in the title hits a wrong note. (The catalogue says not only that Montezuma is better spelled Moctezuma, but that his subjects are properly called Mexica, not Aztec.) What is shown is fascinating but often repellent. The carvings of skulls, hearts, feathered serpents and individual figures have a lugubrious weight, the bird-beaked gold ornaments are fierce, the figures ground out of hard greenstone, indeed all the free-standing figures, have a totem-like frontal symmetry. Many menace the viewer with staring eyes. The richest and most colourful objects, like the turquoise mask on the poster, are finely crafted, but the snarl of large white teeth threatens. In its own time much of what is here was frightening because it was supposed to be. The message is that the future is uncertain, that bad times are probably coming, that nature is malicious and must be propitiated.

A tribute list from the Codex Mendoza

The catalogue is not easy to read: a picture of the early history and late collapse of Mexica society must be extracted from overlapping contributions that draw on different disciplines, and one&rsquos inexperienced tongue stutters over the names of the Mexica Gods: Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, her brother Huitzilopochtli, who defeated and dismembered her, the sun god Xiuhtecuhtli. But it is worth the effort particularly as the story of Moctezuma&rsquos empire and the nature of its downfall treats anxieties and problems oddly close to our own.

Scenes of hell in pictures by Signorelli or Michelangelo, like the ghouls in a horror movie, are now less a real fear than a safe thrill. Contrast those with a reading of Moctezuma&rsquos coronation stone. It is a rectangular slab of basalt, carved in low relief on all six sides. In the exhibition it stands on its side originally it was probably laid flat on the ground, so the rabbit with improbably large Bugs Bunny teeth would have been hidden. This date glyph (1 Rabbit) relates to the creation of the earth: it is the &lsquocalendar name&rsquo of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli. In each corner of the upper face a glyph represents a past era three ended in entirely familiar modern disasters &ndash hurricane, flood and rain of fire (volcanoes?). The fourth, a plague of jaguars, is more exotic, but the glyph in the centre of the rectangle that represented the current era, the one during which Moctezuma would have to keep the forces of nature at bay, predicted earthquakes. The disasters the Mexica knew or dreaded are those we see on the news, or have explained to us over sonorous music in science documentaries. (We turn the plague of jaguars on its head and fear their disappearance rather than their proliferation.) Round the stone, filling its narrow sides, are four images of Tlaltecuhtli, her skirt decorated with skull and crossbones: &lsquoHer open mouth and bared teeth remind us of the constant sacrifices needed to feed the earth and to maintain the stability of the present era,&rsquo the catalogue reports.

Then as now, society was vulnerable both to the forces of nature and to inherent instability. Moctezuma&rsquos city, Tenochtitlan, occupied an island in the shallow lake that once spread across the basin of Mexico on the site of what is now Mexico City. When Cortés arrived in November 1519 the island population may have numbered as many as 200,000. The city was rich, supplied with staples from surrounding territories and luxuries from more distant provinces: bird skins and feathers, cacao, cochineal, live eagles, salt, seashells, jaguar and deer skins, canes, chillies, cotton, turquoise, paper, gold and greenstones. Tribute was enforced by wars fought by a warrior aristocracy that was rewarded lavishly with gifts and whose captives supplied the hearts and blood the gods hungered for. Not all battles were won, but the warriors expected their presents even so, and an expanding population needed feeding. The tributary provinces and alliances of the Mexica empire that supplied the city&rsquos needs were, like famine, a threat, and famine was not a theoretical disaster. A prolonged drought began in 1451 by 1454 there was nothing to eat and traders travelled from the coast to purchase the Mexica as slaves for a few corncobs. Horses, steel weapons and smallpox enabled the Spanish conquest, but it was aided by disaffected subjects.

King Nexahualcoyotl from Tetzcoco, wearing a gold eagle-headed labret

Three kinds of material are on show in the exhibition. There are objects connected with Moctezuma and his kingdom: carvings, weapons, gold work, jewellery and so forth. There are paintings and engravings, made after Moctezuma&rsquos defeat and death, that record the events of the Spanish conquest. And there are manuscript &lsquocodexes&rsquo made by Spanish ecclesiastics or by descendants of the Mexica ruling class in the latter part of the 16th century. In the codexes what was known and remembered of the history, customs and culture of the Mexica people is recorded. Several codexes are on display it is from accounts in the catalogue based on them that one gets some notion of the lives of the Mexica. Artist-scribes working in the indigenous tradition produced sheets in which pictographs and diagrammatic representations are combined with alphabetic transcriptions. Two pages from the Codex Mendoza identify things to be delivered to the Mexica royal court in a style very like that used by a modern pictorial encyclopedia when it lines up diagrammatic ears of corn, say, to compare agricultural outputs.

A fragment of a giant sculpture of a rattlesnake, the scales and rattle wonderfully well observed and confidently carved (the kind of thing 20th-century sculptors looked to and admired when they were pursuing authenticity by doing direct carving), was once part of a decoration in Moctezuma&rsquos palace. It is evidence of its size and splendour. There is much information available about what the Mexica ate and how they dressed. Now that body piercing is commonplace it is easier to imagine the effect a gold eagle-headed labret might have had when it was plugged into the lower lip of a warrior (one of the nastier humiliations suffered by captured warriors was to be left constantly dribbling after the removal of their labrets). Modern fashion has also made the large ear-spools easier to envisage in use than they once would have been.

The feelings that sustained the ritual life of Moctezuma and his people are harder to imagine. We know its outward manifestations in considerable detail. The gods were thirsty for blood the ruler supplied it in small quantities at his investiture from scratches made with the sharpened bones of eagles and jaguars human sacrifices supplied it in quantity. The Templo Mayor, still being excavated in the centre of Mexico City, was topped by the twin temples of Tlaloc, the rain god, and Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica ancestral hero a representation by a Mexica scribe in a late 16th-century manuscript shows blood flowing down steep steps from the temple doors. It gives one a chill, as might the wiring diagram for an electric chair.

The abundance of material that can be traced back to native sources shows up the aesthetically undistinguished images in the Western tradition included in the exhibition: the long early 18th-century screen describing scenes from the conquest of Mexico in overwhelming and confusing detail, for example, or the late 17th-century portrait of Moctezuma, commissioned by Cosimo III de&rsquo Medici. We now have more real objects and more near-first-hand accounts to draw on. But when it comes to sacrificial blood, the Spaniards, who in the 17th century developed a style in painted sculpture that put much emphasis on Christ&rsquos wounds (it is the subject of a current exhibition in the National Gallery), had much in common with the Mexica. For them, too, anxiety about divine intentions and the need to ask for divine intercession were facts of life.

Moctezuma: the leader who lost an empire

Moctezuma was a proven military commander yet in just two years his rule and the supremacy of his Mexica people collapsed, conquered by a few hundred Spanish adventurers. Greg Neale investigates the story of two worlds in collision.

Two images of a singular man confront visitors to the new British Museum exhibition, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler. One, an idealised portrait painted long after Moctezuma’s death in 1519, reflects European fascination with the New World’s apparent mixture of native sophistication and savagery, showing him as the proud ruler of an exotic civilisation. Another painting, displayed towards the end of the exhibition, and similarly idealised, shows Moctezuma pledging allegiance to the conquistador Hernán Cortés, representing the Spanish crown.

“That’s the agenda, that’s the spin,” says Dr Colin McEwan, head of the museum’s Americas section, who has curated the exhibition with support from leading Mexican academics. “The suggestion is that this handing over of power was taking place voluntarily – whereas the truth is that this was a violent conquest.”

That theme of conflicting representations of the past runs through the exhibition that the museum hopes will be its winter blockbuster. It is a story of worlds in collision, of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519-21, but it is also, McEwan says, an attempt to see one of history’s more enigmatic figures through the context of his own traditions and culture. It has contemporary relevance, too, as across South and Central America indigenous peoples and their concerns are increasingly contesting political agendas.

Moctezuma II ruled over the empire of the Mexica, as they called themselves – it is pronounced Mesheeka, while the term Aztecs was introduced by later writers – from 1502. The ninth elected leader of the Mexica, Moctezuma consolidated an empire that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, and was centred on the fabulous city of Tenochtitlan, set amid a vast lake and housing perhaps 200,000 people, probably larger than any western European capital of the time. A proven military commander and able administrator, Moctezuma had semi-divine status for his people, whose religious life revolved around regular ceremonies that sought to ensure stability amid a threatening universe and which also included human sacrifice, the feature that horrified the arriving Europeans above all.

Aztec culture was sophisticated: its language, Nahuatl, a rich one its mathematics, advanced. Its empire was won and controlled by a fiercely successful military and an elaborate system of taxation and tribute. Yet in just two years, Moctezuma’s rule, and that of the Mexica, collapsed in the face of an invasion led by a few hundred Spanish adventurers. As a result of the diseases brought by the Europeans, notably smallpox, native populations crashed, while Spanish colonial rule would subject indigenous Mexicans for three centuries.

Today, Moctezuma is a controversial figure for the many historians and commentators who see his response to the Spanish invasion as vacillating and weak by contrast to the defiance shown by some Aztec leaders. Other interpretationssee him as a fated figure, doomed along with his culture to defeat in the face of superior historical forces. That might make him a surprising choice as the last subject of the British Museum’s series of exhibitions exploring power and empire – following the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi (whose tomb complex contained the extraordinary Terracotta Army), the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Iran’s influential Shah ’Abbas – but McEwan stoutly disagrees.

“The question has been posed on more than one occasion: would Moctezuma stand in his own right in this series if it wasn’t for the historical significance of Cortés? The answer is an emphatic 'yes’, on a number of grounds,” McEwan insists. “In the first place, Moctezuma inherited a tradition of imperial rulership which was in the process of inventing and consolidating itself. Moctezuma had an imperial agenda there’s no doubt about that.”

Archaeological discoveries have also allowed us to see Moctezuma as having been a vigorous ruler, McEwan says, embarking upon an ambitious building programme – including a new palace complex that may have included fine gardens and a well-stocked zoo – while instituting other reforms that placed him squarely at the apex of empire. In particular, Moctezuma, who would have received a religious as well as military training, befitting a Mexica noble, disseminated his image through sculptures, carvings and other artefacts, in a manner similar to a modern leader using the media to present a strong and compelling image.

“What Moctezuma does is actually take the turquoise-encrusted royal diadem and he uses that as his name glyph. This is a departure from tradition and it says, 'I not only represent the state, I am the state. I am everything which embodies the Mexica succession,’?” McEwan comments.

That succession was still comparatively new when Moctezuma, a great grandson of the ruler Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (1440-69), was elected tlatoani by the Mexica council of elders – together with the heads of two allied cities – in succession to his uncle, Ahuitzotl (1486-1502). Ahuitzotl is said to have died from the effects of a blow on the head when an aqueduct system he had ordered to be built to bring drinking water to Tenochtitlan, collapsed, flooding parts of the city. More importantly, he had significantly expanded the empire, increasing its income from the peoples of the region Mexica arms had subjugated. Still, Moctezuma would need to use his political leadership to ensure the empire’s consolidation continued: Mexica domination was resented by some of the subjected peoples, a resentment that Cortés would later exploit.

Our knowledge of Moctezuma the man is limited. According to McEwan and the Mexican scholar Leonardo López Luján, once chosen, the tlatoani was not only the Mexica’s political leader, but also a personification of the gods, whose public visibility was carefully managed. Contemporary representations of him are mostly highly stylised carvings or symbolic representations, while later drawings or paintings of Moctezuma are often idealised and executed many years after his death. We do, however, have some accounts of the man, though again, written sources need to be regarded with caution. Even so, some sources may illuminate the Mexica ruler’s character. In the wake of the Conquest, many Spanish missionaries arrivedin Mexico. Some were genuinely interested in the customs and beliefs of the Mexica, and their writings reflected something of the society that was now being transformed. When in 1581, Friar Diego Durán wrote his History of the Indies of New Spain he recorded that Moctezuma had been described as being “very modest and virtuous and very generous and with an invincible mettle and adorned with all the virtues that a good prince should have, whose counsel and opinion was always very sound, especially in matters of war, in which they had seen him give orders and engage in certain acts that were of invincible mettle”.

We know something of Mexica court life: Moctezuma drank cocoa served from gold cups, was an enthusiastic huntsman, played the vigorous ball game tlachtli, observed courtly etiquette in the dispensation of gifts – and apparently took seriously omens and portents, reflecting the dominant Mexica cosmology.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo served under Cortés during the Mexican campaign, and as an old man wrote A History of the Conquest of New Spain. He recalled that: “The great Montezuma was about 40 years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon.”

Such vignettes, however, are of limited value (though it might indicate a conquistador’s unfamiliarity with regular baths). What focuses the historian’s attention are Moctezuma’s actions during the crisis that would turn the world of the Mexica upside down.

The first reports reaching Tenochtitlan of the arrival in the region of strangers from the east came from the Yucatan coast in 1517 and 1518, the territory of the Mayas. Two Spanish expeditions from the new colony of Cuba were exploring, in ships larger than any vessel previously seen. Sir John Elliott, the historian, describes how news of “towers or small mountains floating on the waves of the sea” caused Moctezuma to order a watch to be kept on the coast. In April 1519, when Cortés landed, Moctezuma’s apparent apprehension increased, the more so when the Spanish force began to make its way inland, forming alliances with some of the more resentful subject peoples of the Mexica, and massacring some of those allied to Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma’s indecision – variously sending diplomatic gifts to Cortés, dispatching “magicians” in an attempt to halt his progress, or advising him against journeying inland – suggests he was genuinely uncertain as to Cortés’s identity, purpose or threat.

Again, it is unclear why this should have been. Post-conquest documents suggest that Moctezuma had been persuaded by various signs or omens that his own defeat and death was imminent. Cortés, in a subsequent letter to the Spanish king, Charles V, suggested that Moctezuma believed him to be the exiled god of the wind and sky, Quetzalcoatl, come to reclaim his lands, and this thesis was widely discussed in post-conquest Mexican writings. Elliott points out, though, that Moctezuma could simply have been playing a waiting game.

As McEwan puts it, Moctezuma “is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. He took a calculated risk”. If so, it was a gamble that failed. On November 8 1519, Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlan, at the head of a force of some 300 Spanish soldiers, together with a larger number of Tlaxcaltec allies. Moctezuma afforded Cortés a lavish diplomatic welcome, installing his party in quarters close to his own palace and exchanging visits as well as gifts of gold and women. Within a week, as tensions heightened, Cortés executed an audacious palace coup, taking Moctezuma hostage without resistance, while outwardly permitting him to continue to rule. Cortés followed up by obliging Moctezuma and his leading nobles to acknowledge Spanish overlordship, then by destroying some of the Mexica’s sacred religious statues. Cumulatively, this destroyed much of Moctezuma’s credibility with his own people, a state of affairs that worsened when, with Cortés away from the capital – ironically, defeating another Spanish force sent to check his adventures – one of Cortés’s lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, led a massacre of leading Aztec nobles during a religious ceremony. Cortés returned to the city to find his fortress besieged, amid a general Mexica uprising.

Moctezuma’s fate may well have been sealed at this point, but the events that finally led to his death are still disputed. It seems that Cortés ordered him on to a roof or balcony, to order the Mexica to abandon their assault. Instead, he was hit by stones hurled from the crowd, having lost any authority. Some colonial sources say he refused treatment from the Spanish and died of his wounds. But McEwan notes that one fragmentary illustration produced for a subsequent colonial chronicle, the Codex Montezuma, shows Moctezuma appearing on a balcony restrained by a rope. “The inference is that it must have been to prevent him trying to escape by jumping into the crowd,” he says. Still another picture shows a naked body under a balcony, a sword protruding from its abdomen. “That could be suggesting that Moctezuma was killed by the Spanish, as he was of no further use to them,” McEwan says. While documents suggest Moctezuma’s body was recovered, there is no record, however, of a funeral ceremony significant enough to suggest his reputation with the Mexica was rehabilitated in death, though recently the Mexico-based historian Patrick Johansson has speculated that the fallen ruler may have sought his own death, possibly as a form of redemption. “Today, just as in the 16th century, the responsibility for Moctezuma’s death is still contested, still a sensitive historical issue,” he says.

The Mexica empire did not long survive Moctezuma. Cortés retreated from Tenochtitlan, but returned to besiege the city the following year. Moctezuma’s immediate successor, his brother Cuitlahuac, ruled only a few months before dying of smallpox – the invader that would prove even more fatal than force of arms to the native population over the following decades. On May 31 1521, Cuauhtemoc, the last tlatoani, was captured as Mexica resistance crumbled amid the ruins that now lie under today’s Mexico City. Tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the gold Cortés and his men craved, Cuauhtemoc was eventually hanged, but since the Mexican revolution against Spanish rule in 1810, his reputation as a national hero has grown.

By contrast, Moctezuma’s image in contemporary Mexico is an ambiguous one, admits Miguel Baez, of the country’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, who has been working closely with the British Museum to prepare the exhibition, many of the treasures having come from Mexican institutions or archaeological sites. “He was a great emperor who consolidated the Mexica empire, but he is also seen as the guy who lost against the Spanish, and I don’t believe any culture likes a loser,” Baez says.

That reputation may be changing, as a more nuanced image of Moctezuma emerges. For Elisenda Vila Llonch from Barcelona, an assistant curator of the exhibition, Moctezuma was an innovative leader, projecting his authority. “New narratives are emerging amid new archaeological discoveries and documents for us to interpret,” she says. “The process of history is an interrogation, a dialogue with the past that’s always going on.”

Greg Neale is Founding Editor/Editor at Large of 'BBC History Magazine’

Moctezuma at the British Museum, review

As a subject for a major exhibition, the British Museum’s Moctezuma couldn’t have failed. The life and death confrontation between two men, the Aztec leader Moctezuma and the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, is, quite simply, the most compelling story of all time – a thrilling adventure, a Darwinian struggle, and a human tragedy in which one civilization is destroyed and another is born.

Never mind the infuriating name changes on the labels – Mexica for Aztec and Moctezuma for Montezuma – the show’s narrative is easy to follow because the usual complexities of history are reduced to the events of a few months and the stark conflict between the living embodiments of the Old World and the New.

Moctezuma is one of those historical figures – another is Mary Queen of Scots – who fascinate us because with each wrong decision and each instance of misplaced trust they brought about their own destruction. From the moment a few hundred Spaniards land on the coast of what is now Mexico in April 1519, to their arrival in the capital Tenochtitlan in November, a voice in your head starts telling Moctezuma to watch out: the invaders have armour, horses and guns, the Mexica axes and blowpipes. Tension mounts when the living god invites the intruders into the city, and then becomes unbearable when he inexplicably agrees to accompany Cortez to his palace.

Now a prisoner, he is helpless when the Spaniards wantonly massacre the Mexica nobility. When Moctezuma appears on the roof of his palace to calm the people, he is stoned. Whether killed then or murdered later by the Spanish, from a political point of view Moctezuma deserved what he got. However much we may sympathize with the man, he was a weak leader who brought catastrophe upon his people.

So, by all means go to the BM for a ripping yarn, but don’t go expecting to see anything like the spectacle of the Royal Academy’s 2002 blockbuster Aztecs. That was an art exhibition, this one isn’t. That one overwhelmed you with over life-sized statues of terrifying deities and massive braziers of fired clay. This one is altogether more subdued in its focus on one man, his ancestry, coronation, and military and economic rule. Stone carvings of limited aesthetic interest are on view to help us understand Mexica calendar, religion, and agriculture.

Certainly, there are some splendid loans from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology – for example, a massive stone eagle, hollowed out at the centre to receive sacrificial offerings, or a free- standing figure carved in basalt representing a vassal holding one hand over his heart in a gesture of obeisance. The curators bring Moctezuma and his luxurious court to life through the objects and garments he might have worn or carried – gold and jadeite nose ornaments and ear spools, a rock crystal lip plug covered in gold at each end, a feathered fan and a ceremonial shield, as well as intricate gold and silver pendants cast by the lost wax process.

The sophistication of Mexican artistry is nowhere more perfectly expressed than in the British Museum’s famous mask of turquoise mosaic with the entwined forms of two green serpents, possibly worn by a priest to impersonate the rain god Tlaloc during ceremonies at the Great Temple. We see Moctezuma in his palace as well as Mexica customs and episodes from the conquest in rare codices – hand-written, illustrated manuscripts based on oral testimony.

The final galleries are turned over to paintings showing the conquest painted by European artists working centuries after the events depicted in them. Once again, these aren’t great works of art but historical documents.

What is missing from all this is the horror. By playing down the Mexica practice of human sacrifice, which took place on a scale unparalleled in history, the curators avoid sensationalism but also make it hard to understand what so horrified the Spanish about the culture they found in the New World. For the Mexica, the gods of earth, wind, rain and fire demanded propitiation with the blood both of warriors captured in battle and of Montezuma’s own people. As any schoolboy knows, the victim’s breast was ripped open and his heart torn from his body while he was still alive. Moctezuma – or at least his priests – also went in for cannibalism and child sacrifice.

Although the show is more theatrical than is usual at the BM, this all-pervasive death cult is not singled out for special attention. And so we are told almost in passing that patches of red paint on the skulls protruding from two pottery goblets represent the blood-streaked fat found inside the flayed skin of sacrificial victims. Several badly eroded stone skulls that once decorated the base wall of the temple are not particularly scary – until you picture them alongside row upon row of real skulls displayed, as in all the Indiana Jones films, to frighten the wits out of anyone who approached. A wooden drum in the shape of a bound captive awaiting his fate reminds us that the mass sacrifices must have been spectacles as expertly choreographed as the Nuremberg rallies.

What the show doesn’t mention is that (as far as I know) Mexica art is unique in having no representations of human love or kindness, either between mothers and children or men and women.

Here, I must admit that Mesoamerican art of any kind is pretty low on my pleasure-meter. The most innocuous-looking objects reek of death. A long-handled censer of painted clay in the form of the fanged rain god Tlaloc, for example, becomes sinister when you consider that incense must also have been used to make bearable the smell of the temple, which was, after all, a giant abattoir. A powerful clay head of a man wearing a lip plug becomes repugnant when you realise that it obliged the wearer to grimace ferociously in order to hold it in place, and that if removed, he would salivate constantly though the hole in his mouth. Even a disc of polished obsidian you at first mistake for a mirror was used not to reflect a woman’s beauty but for a magician to divine the future in fleeting images glimpsed on its dark surface.

A final section deals with Moctezuma’s posthumous reputation as a noble savage in Europe and the betrayer of his people in Mexico. Great stories bear constant retelling, and in this show it is the clarity of the narrative rather than individual objects that grab visitors by the lapels and keeps us interested from first to last.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

Between September 󈧍 and January 󈧎, the British Museum hosted an exhibition on Moctezuma II with the participation of the Mexican Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes and the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología e Historia.
It was indeed a very interesting and well put-together exhibition, housed in the Reading Room at the heart of the Museum. I was a bit surprised that thy used this space fir the exhibition, and I have to say that it did work vey well. The contrast betweent the architecture and he pieces in the exhibition brought an extra dimension to the exhibits.

There were six different parts to the exhibition, starting with a brief introduction to the ‘Mexicas’ as the Aztecs are commonly referred to in Mexico, and which gives the country it’s modern name. The main Mexica city of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 in the basin of the Texcoco Lake, in central Mexico. We are told how the Mexicas were organised and ruled, which gives the opportunity of talking about Moctezuma as head of the governments if the Aztec Empire. He was elected in 1502 and as any other ruler o this magnificent civilisation, he was considered a semi-divinity and acquired a number of religious responsibilities. A very importan one was the New Fire ceremony carried out in 1507, marking the end o one if the 52-year cycles of the Aztec Calendar. The third part adressed these religious tasks and the role that the Gods played in the day to day running of the Empire.
Moctezuma presided over a large Empire embracing much of the territory that is today central Mexico and as such he earned a reputation as a battle-hardened warrior and militay ruler, as shown in the fouh part of the exhibition. However, by 1519 Cortés was set to ensure the riches of the newly ‘discovered’ lands for Spain and the ‘Encuentro de Dos Culturas’ is bound to happen. The Conquest is the theme of this part of the exhibition, where we are told how Moctezuma was taken by surprise by the arrival of the Spanish and how he decided to send welcoming gifts and ended up housing them in the Palace. Moctezuma was taken hostage and kept under guard for several months, provoking great unrest among his people.
He died in suspicious circumstances in 1520, and most of the surviving information on the matter offer the version of the Spanish new rulers. Tenochtitlan, and thus the Aztec Empire, finally fell in 1521 and the colonisation started. On the 13 of August of 1521, the Spanish declared the new added territories as ‘New Spain’, followed by almost 300 years of colonisation. In the last part, we are shown the place that Moctezuma has in history and how his legacy and fame spread from Mexico to Europe.
The exhibition included a variety of of stone carvings and sculptures depicting Gods, religiosity, everyday object and artifacts. Some of them including Moctezumas glyph (see picture), composed by a Royal diadem (xiuhuitzolli) on straight hair, an ear-spool, a nose-piece and a speech scroll. My favourite two pieces are 1) a stone box that was carved with Mocrezuma’s glyph and which he would have used to keep some of his personal belingings, and 2) a monument with the shape of a throne, placed in the centre of the exhibition, which was dedicated to ‘la Guerra Florida’ (Sacred Warfare) dating back to 1507, and that is normally hosted in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Aztec ruler Moctezuma unmasked

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Aztec ruler Moctezuma unmasked



Aztec ruler Moctezuma unmasked


Aztec ruler Moctezuma unmasked


Much is known about the rule of Moctezuma II, the great 16th-century supreme military commander and "divine leader" who inspired worldwide awe with his battle-hardiness and wondrous ability to mediate with the Gods.

Historians have marvelled at his creative achievements over the largest empire in Meso-America, feared for its military might and bloodthirsty human sacrifices. The tale of his downfall, on the other hand, is a cautionary example of the dangers of trust: the Aztec ruler met his end at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors who arrived on his shores and apparently beguiled him into a friendship that ended in incarceration and death.

Yet after centuries of study and archeological discovery, Moctezuma, the man, remains virtually unreachable to historians.

Almost nothing has been gleaned about the personality of the last great elected Aztec ruler, who leaves the loyalties of Mexicans utterly divided to this day because he is believed to have colluded with the incoming Spanish colonial power against his own people. Now, though, a new blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum will attempt to solve some of the mysteries surrounding a myth that has long been impenetrable.

"Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler" is the fourth and last in the British Museum's series of big shows about emperors. It will present a revisionist view of the leader that looks set to reveal the monarch in more intimate detail than has ever been possible before. That progress is the result of new evidence emanating from an archeological study currently being undertaken in Moctezuma's palace, in what is now Mexico City.

The show's curator, Colin McEwan, admitted that personal details about Moctezuma are so scarce that one academic thought the exhibition, which opens on 24 September, would be impossible.

Even first-hand descriptions of his life are full of contradictions, which means that the style in which he ruled, to say nothing of the character of the man, remain elusive.

But there are some details that can be pinned down. We know that Moctezuma II, or Montezuma as he is sometimes called, was the last elected Aztec emperor and ruled over an empire that stretched from the shores of the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. As a battle-hardened general, he was appointed supreme military commander before being elected as "ruling lord" in 1502, when he built a new palace in his capital Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City).

While we will never have the benefit of a full character study, we can surely glean something of the emperor's personality from his name, which means "he who frowns like a lord".

By all accounts, this was a lord with good reason to frown: Moctezuma wrestled with a great number of woes during his reign. Although he was seen as a cunning and fearsome legislator, heavy centralised taxation provoked resentment in outlying areas. And that headache paled in comparison with the problem of how to deal with the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Herná*Cortés, who landed at Veracruz with just a few hundred men in 1519.

When Cortés attempted to march on to Tenochtitlán, he was well received by Moctezuma, but that kindness was not returned, and eventually the emperor was taken prisoner. Although he was eventually restored to the throne, he was never again more than a vassal of Spain: the long-accepted version of events is that dissident groups among his people rebelled and stoned him to death. But the truth, the British Museum suggests, is rather different. In fact, the new exhibition claims, he was ruthlessly murdered by the Spanish when he was no longer of use.

Curators point to the evidence gathered in the new show, which will display together for the first time two 16th-century manuscripts brought in from Mexico and Glasgow University. The documents feature small figures among a wealth of detailed illustrations of the first encounters between Aztecs and Spaniards which have have only recently caught scholars' attention. In the images, both manuscripts show Moctezuma shackled or with a rope around his neck.

Descriptions of the emperor's death have documented the grief felt among the colonial force. The account of Bernal Díaz del Castillo's "True History of the Conquest of New Spain" portrays a noble leader who won the hearts of his captors.

He wrote: "Cortes and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good.

"It was stated that he had reigned for 17 years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead."

Díaz del Castillo went on to provide a detailed description of a debonair leader who cared about his personal appearance, kept "many mistresses", and had a grand total of 19 children – 11 sons and 8 daughters.

"The Great Montezuma," he wrote, "was about 40 years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin.

"His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon.

"He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again until three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him."

But not every observer agreed with that essentially benign image. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary to the Aztec people, for instance, portrayed Moctezuma as a weak-willed, superstitious and indulgent ruler.

Some historians, including James Lockhart, explain that disparity by suggesting that when the Aztecs were searching for a scapegoat for their defeat, Moctezuma was unfortunate enough to fit that role. Claims that he was killed by his people could be seen to confound that myth.

Whatever the truth about Moctezuma's demise, one thing is certain: the arrival of the Spanish represented the collapse of the naive world order and the imposition of a new civilisation that ultimately gave birth to modern Mexico.

Unveiling details of the exhibition, British Museum director Neil MacGregor said the story of Moctezuma presented "perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of implosion of power and the clash of civilisations".

Moctezuma's reputation is still contentious in Mexico, according to MacGregor. "There has never been an exhibition on this man, a great emperor of an extremely sophisticated empire," he said.

The exhibition will bring together spectacular loans from Europe and Mexico, including 132 objects, some of which were recently excavated from remains of the Aztec city. Next year it will coincide with the anniversaries of the independence of Mexico in 1810 and of the Mexican revolution of 1910.

If the picture of Moctezuma is still a little hazy, there remains hope of a resolution. Objects are still emerging from beneath Mexico's modern capital as part of the excavation. With luck, those objects will have their own stories to tell. If so, it may well be that the mysteries lying under centuries-old dust and rubble explaining the character of the great Aztec king, who had the privilege and misfortune to rule at the cusp of a new era, may yet be fully revealed.

The exhibition runs from 24 September to 24 January 2010. For tickets call 020 7323 8181 or book through the British Museum website

Treasures from the new world

History is a kind of official memory, and it is arbitrary what a culture decides to honour and privilege. A Euro-centred version of art history puts an idea we like to call &ldquothe Renaissance&rdquo beginning somewhere around 1456 with the printing of the three-volume bible by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz and sees it ending with the death in old age of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 and the early death of Raphael of Urbino in 1520.

In the nature of things, of course, some art historians would have it begin earlier and end later. One is reminded of Woody Allen in an early film, dressed up as a mediaeval man, exhorting his friends &ldquoto hurry up or before you know it the Renaissance will be here and we&rsquoll all be painting&rdquo.

But this is not the art that Hernan Cortes, a young, opportunistic government employee from Salamanca in Spain, found awaiting him in Anahuac, &ldquothe land between the waters&rdquo when he landed on the Yucatan peninsula via Haiti from Old Spain in 1519.

Proceeding westwards towards the heart of the empire, accompanied by a large army of God-fearing Catholic soldiers, the conquerors or conquistadores, abhorred the pagan rituals of the people they encountered, were disgusted by the crude architecture and art forms of the people whilst being all too delighted by their gold.

Leaving behind the grand palaces, churches and art of the Old World, with all the immense subtlety and sophistication of the European Renaissance, they crossed a peninsula where what they observed was &ldquobarbarous&rdquo and &ldquocrude&rdquo to their eyes. As for their minds, one can only assume that the indubitable cruelty and ruthlessness towards the indigenous peoples was un-informed by irony.

Gold finger ring, 1200 - 1521, gold pendant of human
face and warrior-ruler figurine with ritual regalia.
Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Observance of ritual involving human sacrifice was contemptible to the Spanish and unworthy of their greater European sensibility. This accepted that an Inquisition under Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 was warranted, but was disgusted by the equally-bloody practices of the Mexica and the Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs and Mayans. That human sacrifice was seen by the Mexica as a way to restore cosmic order was ignored and obviously misunderstood by a people who were steeped in the same story under another name.

One of the reasons &ndash incomprehensible and tragic as it now seems &ndash that the Aztec leader Moctezuma virtually embraced Cortes with open arms is that he seemed to embody a long awaited Messiah, known as the Plumed Serpent or Quetzalcoatl. Tenochtitlan, the capital, had been founded in the numinous place where a serpent had been seen perched upon a cactus &ndash still the national image of Mexico.

When Cortes entered the city from the coastlands of Veracruz, the indigenous people and their leader Moctezuma had been awaiting the arrival of the plumed serpent or his avatar for centuries. Quetzalcoatl was revered above all other gods in a richly pantheistic culture. He was the spirit god, the morning star. He was Venus. He was a quetzal bird. He was a luminous intellect. He could assume the guise of a bearded, pale-skinned man.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca. Aztec/Mixtec,
15th-16th century AD. From Mexico
Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Tragically, it seems that the arrival of Cortes and his men was a tragic case of misperception and &ldquoCem Anahuac Yoyotli&rdquo, (the Heart of the One World) was in crisis. A comet with three heads was hanging over the land. The temple of the Aztec war god Huitzilipochtli had recently burned to the ground in Tenochtitlan. Most importantly, the defining legend decreed that in the solar year of Ce Acatl, the solar calendar heralded the return of the lost god-king from the East. The heart was cracking in two and could only be saved by a messianic lost saviour, who like Christ, would rescue broken souls.

Moctecozoma Xocoyotzin, the 9th Huey Tlatoani (he who speaks with authority) known to us until recently as Montezuma, or as the British Museum have called him Moctezuma II, embraced Cortes as this presence and thus a great culture came to its end in flames and rivers of blood.

The focus of this show uses this moment as a way of bringing the great work of Tenochtitlan, lodged mainly in what is, to my mind, one of the greatest museums in the world &ndash the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City &ndash to the British Museum. For this we must be eternally grateful.

In its long series about charismatic and powerful leaders, we have thrilled to The First Emperor, Hadrian, Nebuchadnezzar, Shah Abbas and now the last elected ruler of the Aztecs. This exhibition has brought over treasures from the New World, and displayed in the beating heart of European culture in the Old World they hold their own superbly.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, British Museum to 24 January 2010

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Moctezuma at the British Museum

As a new blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum sets out to reveal the truth about the Aztecs and their last emperor Moctezuma, Mark Hudson explores one of the most sophisticated - and bloodthirsty- civilizations the world has ever seen.

I'm looking down into a hole, a sharp-edged rectangle of dark earth, of no more inherent interest than the average drains excavation outside your house. Yet it marks the entrance to one of the most dramatic archaeological finds ever made in Mexico.

Beneath a colossal stone slab, shattered into four pieces, bearing the image of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli, the biggest mass of Aztec burial offerings yet found has been unearthed - heaps of wolf and puma bones, shells, coral, sculptures and masks, and the entire skeleton of a dog, the animal who in Aztec mythology guides the soul to the underworld.

What lies beyond is in all probability the first Aztec royal tomb ever discovered. And some of the most important results of this find - a set of 14 gold funerary objects - will be seen in public for the first time not here in Mexico, but in London, at the British Museum's autumn blockbuster, Moctezuma - Aztec Ruler, the background to which has brought me to this extraordinary country.

As your plane tilts down through the smog that wreaths Mexico City, giving you a view over the immense sprawl of the third largest city in the world, the last thing on your mind is the fact that much of this area was once a lake. Indeed, as you stand in the Zocalo, Mexico City's central square, amid the bawling touts and encampments of political protesters, the traffic thundering beneath the façade of the cathedral, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the centre of the Aztec world lay far away - out in the countryside, at great sites such as the pyramids of Teotihuacan or half-submerged in jungle. In fact, you're standing on top of it. Tenochtitlán, lake city of the Aztecs, was right here - a thriving metropolis of some 250,000 to 300,000 souls, twice the size of any European city of the time.

That the Zocalo was paved and the cathedral and surrounding buildings built from the rubble of the demolished Aztec capital has always been known. The Spanish conquistadors sought to obliterate the spiritual symbols of the Aztecs with their own monuments. It was only in 1978, when a group of electricity workers happened upon a massive stone roundel beside the cathedral showing the moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, that the precise location of the Templo Mayor - the city's great central pyramid - was discovered.

It is now possible to walk though the layers of dark volcanic stone that form the foundations of this vast structure, built in seven stages - each new superstructure consecrated through human sacrifice - on the summit of which stood the twin temples of the rain god, Tlaloc, and the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, patron deity of the Aztecs.

In the adjacent palace resided the divine emperor who, on his election from among the greatest warriors, was ritually transformed from a man into a god his blood, elicited through self-inflicted wounds to the limbs, face and genitals, the most potent of all sacrificial substances.

That Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, was a formidable ruler by any standards is demonstrated in the British Museum exhibition through a range of extraordinary objects: monumental stones bearing the emperor's symbol, turquoise and gold exacted as tribute and ceremonial weaponry used by the Eagles and the Jaguars, elite warrior orders over which he presided.

Moctezuma restructured the Aztec court and rebuilt the royal palace, while ruthlessly continuing the Aztecs' subjugation of neighbouring peoples. Idealised European portraits, also shown in the exhibition, perpetuate the image of Moctezuma as an exotic, even erotic figure - all bronzed limbs and feather headdresses. Yet while he is the most famous Aztec in the world at large, Moctezuma remains an ambivalent figure in Mexico. For reasons that remain unclear, he allowed the Spanish to enter his capital, precipitating the collapse of the Aztec empire and his own death.

Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan at dawn is an awe-inspiring experience: the rays of the sun glancing around the vast pile of earth and stone the nearby Pyramid of the Moon wreathed in mist. While we tend to lump together every manifestation of pre-Columbian Mexican culture under the term "Aztec", these structures - lying in the countryside outside Mexico City - are evidence of a civilisation that predated the Aztecs by nearly a millennium. A nomadic people from the north, the Aztecs - properly the Mexica - migrated into central Mexico from the 6th century, becoming a significant power only in the 13th. Yet they venerated the ruins of Teotihuacan, the so-called City of the Gods, and drew on its culture, just as they did on many other previous civilisations, to lend credibility to their own.

Of all the cultural ideas that were common to the peoples of ancient Mexico, human sacrifice is the most difficult for the modern mind to contend with. Since the gods had sacrificed themselves for the world - the earth, sun, rain and crops created from their dismembered limbs and blood - so man must repay the debt, atoning for his own sins through sacrifice.

At the end of each 52-year cycle in the pre-Columbian calendar, every light and fire was put out, according to age-old practice, and a captive warrior's heart torn out. If the sun rose the following morning, the sacrifice was believed to have been accepted and a fire, lit in the victim's body, was used to relight every fire in the empire.

Under the Aztecs, these ancient principles were pushed to an orgiastic extreme in the belief that only daily sacrifice could maintain the order of the universe. Children, offered up by their parents, were dispatched to the rain god, Tlaloc. A young male volunteer, believed a reincarnation of the god, was butchered for Tezcatlipoca, Lord of Night, while the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, was placated through the sacrifice of captive warriors on the top of the great pyramid, their still palpitating hearts held up to the sun by the sacrificing priest, their heads placed on a special rack, their dismembered bodies employed in ritual cannibalism. It has been suggested that as many as 20,000 may have died in four days during the rededication of the pyramid in 1487.

Appalling though this all sounds, those dying in such a way were believed to pass directly to the second highest level of the after life - "close to the sun". Every Aztec warrior was mentally prepared to meet such an end and the last words a victim might hear as he lay on the sacrificial stone were those of the emperor: "Today you, tomorrow me." That this brutal, yet extraordinarily rich culture could have been brought to its knees by a few hundred Europeans in the space of only a few months still gives pause for thought. Yet while Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors had the advantage of horses - though only 15 - and firearms when they arrived on the east coast of Mexico in 1519, the key to their success was the alliances they formed with other indigenous groups hostile to the Aztecs.

Romantic histories down the centuries have told how Moctezuma welcomed Cortés because he believed him to be the incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, predicted to appear in a year of the Aztec calendar corresponding to 1519. But evidence for this is slender. Moctezuma, then an old man by Aztec standards at 54, allowed the Spaniards to cross the lake into Tenochtitlán because he felt he had no alternative. Other indigenous forces had failed to defeat the invaders and their allies in open battle, and he hoped to contain the Spanish in the city and destroy them there.

The confusing and contradictory events that followed are examined in the exhibition through a range of Aztec and European imagery - including a series of extraordinary oil paintings inlaid with mother of pearl - which places wildly different interpretations on events. What is clear is that at some point Moctezuma was taken hostage by the Spaniards against their safety, and though he attempted to save face with his people, the divine emperor allowed a shrine to the Virgin to be erected on top of the great pyramid.

Cortés wasn't quite the hoodlum he is often made out to be, but having undertaken this unauthorised expedition with the aim of making himself and the Spanish crown rich, he now had no obligation but to destroy or be destroyed. While he was away from Tenochtitlán, dealing with another Spanish force sent to apprehend him, a massacre of 600 Aztec nobles took place below the great pyramid in circumstances that remain unclear. Finding his forces under attack, Cortés persuaded Moctezuma to appear on the balcony of his palace to appeal for calm. Met with a hail of stones and arrows, the emperor collapsed and was taken into the palace. While Spanish sources claim he died from a blow to the head from a rock, indigenous chronicles claim he was strangled by the Spaniards since he was of no further use to them.

Attempting to evacuate the city by night, the Spaniards were set on by a much larger force and would have been completely annihilated, except that the Aztecs, concentrating on plunder and captive-taking according to their traditions, allowed the head of the column, including Cortés himself, to escape. The Spaniard returned with a larger force, laying a siege that involved the systematic demolition of much of Tenochtitlán and the near extermination of its population through starvation, imported smallpox and massacre.

It's convenient to see the Aztecs as a vanished civilisation, whose cultural and spiritual values were obliterated by the Europeans. Yet the resonances of the Aztec period are felt everywhere in modern Mexico, not just in cultural survivals such as the Day of the Dead - All Souls' Day festivities based on the Aztec festival of Mictecacihuatl - but in the way successive regimes have used indigenous culture to define Mexican identity.

During the 1810 revolution that secured independence from Spain, Moctezuma's nephew, Cautehmoc, who led the last resistance against the invaders, was rediscovered as a national hero. Yet while statues to him and his father, Quitlahuac, loom over Mexico City's busiest traffic intersections, there is no monument to Moctezuma, a figure still regarded with some embarrassment.

Was he a coward in thrall to superstition, who nonetheless failed to sacrifice himself for his people in accordance with the Aztec warrior code? Or was he a tragic hero, who tried to employ a more modern, political solution, only to be overwhelmed by forces beyond his comprehension? In a country where matters of indigenous rights make front page news every day, where 90 per cent of the population claim some indigenous blood - where the vital issue is not so much who were the Aztecs, as who are the Mexicans - such questions still feel relevant even today.

A brief history of the Aztec empire

T he people widely known as the Aztecs called themselves Mexica, after their patron deity Mexi, who according to their legends brought them out of captivity into the region of Lake Tezcoco, at the heart of what is now modern Mexico, in the middle ages. In 1325AD they founded the city of Tenochtitlan on an island off the western shore of the lake. The city grew large and prosperous, and a war of independence from local overlords in 1428-30 led to it dominating the region. By the end of the 15th century the Mexica ruler, the "tlatoani", ruled over a powerful and growing empire. The tribute of neighbouring states helped make its capital splendid. In the lake city, radiating "suburbs" of the common people's houses surrounded the ruler's palace. Above that loomed a pyramid-like temple on whose high platform thousands of people died in mass sacrifices.

The deities who demanded such slaughter included Quetzalcoatl, the "feathered serpent", god of procreation, desire and the winds Tezcatlipoca or "smoking mirror", the patron of rulers, warriors and magicians and Tlaloc, god of rain. A complicated calendar and an elaborate festive cycle unified all the different gods and myths in one baroque system of intense beliefs. The sun, the calendar, and the gods are given visceral, yet sometimes unexpectedly delicate and moving form by the great works of Mexica art, which owes a lot to the art of the neighbouring Mixtec people. Mixtec craftsmen were employed by the Mexica for their superb skills. The results earned the admiration of the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.

In 1492, a Genoese sailor named Columbus sailed west from Spain in search of the Indies. It was the ironic fate of this newest in a long line of native American city cultures to coincide with the coming of the Europeans – yet Mexica culture did not vanish with the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Native artists continued to make painted books telling their history in the "glyphs" of their own pictorial script. Tenochtitlan itself rose again – as Mexico City. The Spanish built their colonial capital on top of the ruins of the fallen Mexica capital. Today, archaeologists are constantly finding spectacular art and artefacts under the streets of Mexico City. Mexico's famous Day of the Dead festival, with its grisly yet comic cavortings of the dead, recalls the skull motifs and the sacrifices of the lost world of Moctezuma. Mexico's pride in its past is reflected too in the desire to reclaim the "Aztecs" – as the Mexica.

New exhibition challenges view of Aztec emperor Moctezuma as traitor

Contrary to popular belief, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma was murdered by his Spanish captors and not by his own people, the British Museum will argue in a new exhibition that will try to rehabilitate the emperor's image as a traitor.

The exhibition will bring together spectacular loans from Europe, where the Spanish conquistadors brought many of the Aztecs' greatest treasures, and from Mexico, where recently excavated relics from the lost civilisation continue to be found under its modern capital, Mexico City.

Scientific tests on objects including a spectacular turquoise mask, from the British Museum's own collection, show that in a single piece, the gold, precious stone and feather decorations were drawn from many different places.

"What we are trying to do is look at an absolutely key moment in the history of the world through the filter of one man," museum director Neil MacGregor said.

"There has never been an exhibition on this man, a great emperor of an extremely sophisticated empire in ways which seemed very strange to European eyes."

The traditional account of the death of Moctezuma – the museum has adopted the spelling as closer to his name in his own Nahuatl language than the more common Montezuma – is that having been taken a willing hostage by Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors, he was killed by his own outraged people.

According to several versions of the story, in 1520, the Spanish brought him out onto a balcony of his own palace to try and calm the riotous mob, but he was pelted with stones and killed.

One Spanish account, written years later, even insists that he refused medical help and food from his Spanish captors, who "spoke very kindly to him", before suddenly dying.

However, the exhibition will include two small images from later manuscripts, one now in Glasgow, one in Mexico, both probably made by Aztecs working for Spanish patrons, which show the leader distinctly less kindly treated, brought out with a rope around his neck, or shackled. Once the Aztecs began to revolt against the presence of the Spanish in their capital city, Tenochtitlan, this version suggests, Moctezuma was useless to them, so they killed him before just managing to escape with their lives.

"Moctezuma is the last in our series on great rulers and their legacies and presents perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of implosion of power and the clash of civilisations," MacGregor said.

The series included China's first emperor, Qin, the Roman emperor Hadrian, the wall builder, and the 16th-century Iranian ruler Shah Abbas. While there were writings by, and many contemporary accounts of, the characters, curator Colin McEwan admitted that authentic personal details about Moctezuma are so scarce that one academic he consulted said he thought the exhibition would be impossible.

"We will raise many questions but we may not succeed in answering them all," Mc­Ewan said.

The exhibition, with a related show of 20th-century revolutionary posters and images opening in October, with both running into next year, will mark both the bicentenary of Mexico's declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, and of the Mexican Revolution 100 years later.

Watch the video: Fall of the AZTEC Empire. King Montezuma. Conquistador Hernan Cortes. History of North America