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Mexico City: Tales of an Aztec emperor, Hernan Cortes and a god-king

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Cathedral in Mexico City was built over the ruins of an Aztec pyramid. Photo by Bob Schulman

Next time you're on a jet landing at Mexico City, try to imagine what happened here 505 years ago when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his 500 soldiers marched into the capital city of the Aztecs – buried below the modern day city – while their emperor and a quarter-million warriors stood by. This is the story of one of the strangest coincidences of all time, and how it paved the way for Cortes' victory.

For centuries, Aztec emperors got worried when the year 1-Reed rolled around in each “sheaf” of 52 years. And they got really antsy during each 365-day sheaf when the sun came up on the day 8-Alligator.

On that day, Aztec legends predicted the return of the god-king Quetzalcoatl, who'd left the country to do penance for, well, an unspeakable act he'd committed when he ruled the empire. When he got back, the stories said, the rulers-in-power at the time would – at best – find themselves jobless.

Quetzalcoatl was said to have sailed away “across the eastern sea (the Atlantic)” to atone. When he returned someday, it would be on “a large raft manned by fair-skinned, bearded sailors.”

The god-king didn't say when he'd be back, but the emperors assumed it would be on his birthday, the day 8-Alligator in the year 1-Reed.

During the watch of Emperor Moctezuma II those dates corresponded to the Christian year 1519, and the day of April 11. And guess who showed up that day at a city now known as Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes had no idea there was anything special about that day – other than it was Good Friday – when his 500 bearded troops came charging ashore from their 11 galleons yelling “por Santiago” (for St. James, the patron saint of Spain).

Moctezuma wasn't sure all this marked the return of Quetzalcoatl, but he wasn't taking any chances. Spies brought him daily messages of the invaders' progress and the battles they fought with local tribes on the 200-mile trek from the coast to the capital, Tenochtitlan, a city in the middle of a huge lake.

On Nov. 11, 1519, when Cortes and his troops showed up at Tenochtitlan, the emperor welcomed them into the city and treated them like gods. He even put them up in the luxurious palace of his father.

Big mistake. After awhile Cortes put Moctezuma behind bars, and the emperor was later killed.

Historical notes: There's a lot more to the story of the conquest, of course. For instance, after their emperor's death in mid-1520 the Aztecs booted the invaders out of Tenochtitlan. A little over a year later the city was recaptured by Cortes, aided by thousands of Indian allies. With the Aztec capital in the hands of the conquistadors, the empire collapsed and became “New Spain.”

The Spaniards built their capital on the ruins of Tenochtitlan (which had been linked to the mainland by a number of causeways). The lake filled in as the centuries rolled by, leaving Mexico City and the 9 million or so folks who live there today on dry land.

More info on Mexico: Visit the Mexico Tourism Board.