Fall of the Great Inca and Aztec Empires
The fall of the Aztec Empire occurred because of the Aztec belief that Cortes was a god and because of an alliance between Cortes and other Native Americans. The Inca Empire fell to Pizarro after it had been weakened by a previous war.
A Legend Comes True
According to an Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl would return someday to claim his kingdom. The god, who was light-skinned, would come across the sea in the east. The prophecy told that he would return in a 1 Reed year of the Aztec calendar.
The Aztec emperor Moctezuma became nervous as the 1 Reed year approached. It was 1519 in the European calendar. That was the year that Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors arrived on the east coast of Mexico. Moctezuma heard that light-skinned people who rode strange beasts had arrived in great ships. Assuming this must be Quetzalcoat, Moctezuma became fearful.
Two Emperors are Defeated
Shortly after arriving, Cortes met Malinche, a native American woman. Her people had been conquered by the Aztecs, and she was willing to serve Cortes as interpreter and guide. As he marched toward the capital city, Cortes picked up more support. Malinche told him the people resented their mistreatment at the hands of the Aztecs. Through her, he offered to free them. Cortes and his men killed the emperor and laid waste the Aztec Capital.
Farther south, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro was also lucky. When he reached Peru, Atahualpa, the son of the former Inca ruler, had just defeated his brother in a war for the throne. The fighting had left the Inca Empire in a weakened condition.
The victorious Atahualpa was arrogant. He took lightly the threat posed by the small number of Spaniards. When Pizarro took him prisoner and executed him the next year. Without a ruler, the Inca Empire was easy prey for the Spaniards. Pizarro soon captured the Inca capital city of Cuzco.
Cortes’ men set fire to the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The victorious Spaniards built their new capital on the site of the old one. Defeated Aztecs were put to work tearing down the old city’s statues and buildings. The stones of Tenochtitlan were turned into new buildings for the Spanish capital. Catholic churches were built on the sites of Aztec temples. The conquerors built palaces for themselves.
Tenochtitlan was renamed Mexico, “the place of the Mexicas,” another name for the Aztecs. It became the capital of New Spain. Today it is Mexico City, capital of the nation.
In Peru, Pizarro also ordered a new capital to be constructed. But the Inca stronghold of Cuzco was high in the Andes Mountains, far too remote for the capital of a Spanish colony.
In 1535, Pizarro founded a new city near the Pacific cost. He called it “the City of the Kings.” The city was laid out in Spanish style. A large plaza, surrounded by a cathedral and government buildings, formed the heart of the city.
Later called Lima, the city became the headquarters of Spanish viceroys. The vast wealth of Spanish America was used there to build lavish homes and to decorate the churches and monasteries with gold and silver. Today, Lima is the capital of Peru.
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