With abundant food, settlements grew and leisure classes arose—artists, architects, warriors, and ruler-priests—who had time to think and create. With a calendar, they harnessed the constant wheel of the firmament to life on earth, defining the days to plant, harvest, feast, travel, and trade. Eventually grand cities arose.
Teotihuacán, with a population of perhaps 250,000 around the time of Christ, was one of the world’s great metropolises. Its epic monuments still stand not far north of Mexico City: The towering Pyramid of the Sun at the terminal of a grand, 150-foot-wide (152-meter-wide) ceremonial avenue faces a great Pyramid of the Moon. Along the avenue sprawls a monumental temple-court surrounded by scowling, reptilian effigies of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of gods.
Teotihuacán crumbled mysteriously around A.D. 650, leaving a host of former vassal states to tussle among themselves. These included Xochicalco, not far south of present-day Mexico City. Freed from tribute to Teotihuacán, Xochicalco flourished.
Xochicalco’s wise men tutored a young noble who was to become a living legend. In A.D. 947, Topiltzín (literally, Our Prince) was born. He advanced astronomy, agriculture, and architecture and founded the city-state of Tula in A.D. 968, north of old Teotihuacán.
Contrary to the times, Topiltzín opposed human sacrifice; he taught that tortillas and butterflies, not human hearts, were the food of Quetzalcoatl. After his two decades of benign rule, Topiltzín’s name became so revered the people began to know him as the living Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent- god incarnate.
Bloodthirsty local priests, lusting for human victims, tricked him with alcohol, however; Topiltzín awoke groggily one morning in bed with his sister. Devastated by shame, Quetzalcoatl banished himself. He headed east from Tula with a band of retainers in A.D. 987, vowing that he would return during the anniversary of his birth year, Ce Acatl. Legends say he sailed across the eastern sea and rose to heaven as the morning star.
The civilization that Topiltzín founded, known to historians as the Toltec (People of Tula), was eventually eclipsed by others. These included the Aztecs, a collection of seven aggressive immigrant subtribes. Migrating around A.D. 1350 from the mysterious western land of Aztlán into the lake-filled valley that Mexico City now occupies, the Aztecs survived by being forced to fight for every piece of ground they occupied. Within a century, the Aztecs’ dominant tribe, whose members called themselves the Mexica, had clawed its way to dominion over the Valley of Mexico. With the tribute labor that their emperors extracted from local vassal tribes, the Mexica built a magnificent capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the middle of the valley-lake. From there, Aztec armies, not unlike Roman legions, marched out and subdued kingdoms for hundreds of miles in all directions. They returned with the spoils of conquest: gold, brilliant feathers, precious jewels, and captives, whom they sacrificed by the thousands as food for their gods.
Among those gods they feared was Quetzalcoatl, who, legends said, was bearded and fair-skinned. It was a remarkable coincidence, therefore, that the bearded, fair-skinned Castilian Hernán Cortés landed on Mexico’s eastern coast on April 22, 1519, during the year of Ce Acatl, exactly when Topiltzín, the Living Quetzalcoatl, had vowed he would return.