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Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

Between September ’09 and January ’10, 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.