TenochtitlÁn has been rebuilt, or at least a 3D version of it has, and the fascinating work has quickly gone viral. Digital artist Thomas Kole, originally from Amersfoort, Netherlands, has re-created the capital of the Aztec, or Mexica, empire with so much detail that it looks like a living metropolis. “What did the ancient, enormous city built atop a lake look like?» wondered Kole, as he explored Mexico City on Google Maps. Finding no satisfactory visual answers, he opted to re-create it in his spare time using open source software like Blender, Gimp, and Darktable. For a year and a half, he turned to historical and archaeological sources as he sought to bring Tenochtitlán back to life while remaining as faithful as possible to what we know about the city.
“My interest grew as I explored maps of Mexico City. First, however, I am originally from Europe, where we hardly learn about Native Americans and pre-Columbian civilizations. We are too often taught that they were very primitive peoples. But, as I learned more about the Mexica capital, I came to understand it was a very organized city and one of the largest in the world at the time,” says Thomas Kole, in an interview with WIRED.
“I was intrigued, and I started reading more and delving deeper into the subject. However, I couldn’t find images that satisfied my curiosity about what exactly the great Tenochtitlán would have looked like at that point in history. Although there are famous paintings and detailed maps that provide interesting context, they are often stylized, lacking in a certain realism. Much was still left to the imagination. That’s how this project was born, driven by the desire to satisfy my curiosity,” Kole, a video game software developer, says. (He works at YIPP, a company that creates video games for science museums, cultural centers, and art museums.)
The Dutch artist, who has never visited Mexico, was not satisfied with only re-creating the center of the capital of the empire. He also brought the lake, the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, and the Tlacopan causeway that connected Tenochtitlán to the shore of the lake to life. He captured both the city’s residential quarters and its monumental buildings, such as the Templo Mayor, in a golden sunrise. The palace of the tlahtoani Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin gleams again, as does the sacred precinct of Tlatelolco.
His 3D images of the great Tenochtitlán include views of the lake basin during a rain storm, from the Paso de Cortés [the mountain pass where Hernán Cortes entered the Valley of Mexico] to the levees constructed during the reign of Nezahualcóyotl, a 15th-century ruler of Texcoco, another nearby Aztec metropolis. You can also admire the cool chinampas, floating beds where flowers and produce were grown, smaller settlements like Tlacopan and Azcapotzalco and even the New Fire ceremony, performed once every 52 years, as seen from the Cerro de la Estrella, or Hill of the Star, in Kole’s illustration. His work can be seen on his website, which he named a Portrait of Tenochtitlán. The website copy is in English and also Spanish and Nahuatl, with translations by Rodrigo Ortega Acoltzi.
The Aztecs did not count time on an infinite scale, as we do, but in cyclical 52-year periods, and at the completion of each cycle, life and the world would begin anew. To initiate the start of a new cycle the New Fire ceremony was held, the most important Aztec ritual. Every 52 years the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán discarded the images of their gods and all their domestic utensils and extinguished any fires in their homes and temples. As the city sat in complete darkness, priests would leave the Templo Mayor and travel to Huixachtlan (Cerro de la Estrella, or Hill of the Star), and at the summit they would perform a ceremony to light a new fire. The ritual was surrounded with uncertainty and fear because it was believed that if the new fire was not successfully lit, the world would end and the stars would turn into monsters that would devour humanity. During the five days prior to the ceremony, the people let their fires go out and destroyed their household goods, and then they waited, fasting and lamenting, pondering the possibility of the collapse of the world. That moment was beautifully re-created in 3D by Kole.
“The really hard part was gathering all the information and then trying things out,” explains Thomas Kole. “How do you create a city when you don’t really know anything about it? How do you start gathering that information? That was really difficult and involved throwing out a lot of things when I found different sources with conflicting information. That’s part of being a pioneer, venturing into the unknown, into what no one has done before, but that’s also very difficult because it takes a lot of time. Also, I don’t speak Spanish and I’m not an academic, so I really approached this as an outsider,” Kole says.
“The year is 1518. Mexico-Tenochtitlán, once an unassuming settlement in the middle of Lake Texcoco, is now a bustling metropolis. It is the capital of an empire ruling over, and receiving tribute from, more than five million people. Tenochtitlán is home to 200,000 farmers, artisans, merchants, soldiers, priests, and aristocrats. At this time, it is one of the largest cities in the world. Today, we call this city Ciudad de Mexico—Mexico City,” reads the site, which opens with a stylized Tenochtitlán glyph, made by Mi Corazón Mexica.
“I spent most of my time on Blender, and then there was a little bit of work on Gimp, the open-source alternative to Photoshop, and also a little bit on Dark Table, which is like an alternative to Lightroom for image processing. But Blender has been the absolute cornerstone of this whole project, and especially its recent developments have been amazing. It wouldn’t have been possible without this new system they’ve called ‘geometry notes,’ where instead of an artist having to placing each house individually, I can create room-based systems where I have a map of 10 drawing regions, and I can say, ‘This is urban, this is agricultural,’ and the houses and fields will automatically be placed based on that. I can’t imagine having completed this project without a system like that. It was critical,” he says.
“The world looked very different 500 years ago. As you view these images, imagine the smell of salty air and smoked peppers. Imagine the sound of people speaking Nahuatl, a canoe gliding through the canals, and birds chirping in the trees. Imagine the warmth of the sun on your skin. The people around you are dressed in white cotton and work their fields, cook, trade, and practice their craft in the shade of trees and awnings,” Kole writes. “The grid layout shows that Tenochtitlán is a city of hierarchy. Neighborhoods are planned in advance, each with its own markets, schools, and places of worship. Canals are maintained to allow for easy transport of goods and people. Walkways with bridges weave the city together,” he continues.
Kole’s work has quickly gone viral. Archeologists, photographers, and digital artists have poured over his 3D reconstruction of the Aztec city. “Wow, this is great. We finally have images that show what Tenochtitlán was like as a city,” Arizona State University archaeologist Michael E. Smith told him. “I’ve been talking to a lot of researchers, historians, professors, and also other artists interested in this subject. And I didn’t imagine it reaching such a wide audience. My phone keeps ringing off the hook. It’s pretty cool, really. And, of course, I’m really happy. I understand that it’s part of Mexico’s cultural heritage. It’s a legendary place,” says Kole.
“Large buildings stand out against the single-story houses, from the massive twin-temple pyramids in the centers, to the smaller temples and shrines in neighborhood community centers. The Sacred Precinct, with the Templo Mayor, forms the epicenter of the city. Next to it is the palace of Emperor Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, among various other temples, schools, gardens, and a zoo,” Kole writes about the heart of the capital.
His images of the city’s lake are accompanied by an explanation of the engineering feats that were necessary to built Tenochtitlán: “Building a city in a lake means a permanent battle against water. A complex system of causeways, canals, locks, and a 16-kilometer dike allows the Mexica to flush the city with fresh water from the mountains. This compartmentalizing makes it so that the city is surrounded by brackish water, keeping the saltier water on the east side of the lake. An aqueduct from the Chapultepec hills provides the city with drinking water.”
Thanks to drone photographs taken by Andrés Semo García, it is possible to compare the city of Tenochtitlán seen in Kole’s illustrations with Mexico’s capital today. “Mexico City is built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlán. The temples were demolished and the stones were repurposed after the Spanish conquest. The lake has been drained, the canals made way for streets. Almost nothing of the original city remains,” he writes. Thanks to his work, however, we have been provided a glimpse of that legendary, vanished metropolis.
If the world did not end in 1507, the last time the Aztecs performed the New Fire ceremony, and the stars did not turn into deadly monsters, the Mexica people would begin again, renovating their temples, restoring their houses, and making new utensils for religious and domestic uses; feasts with special foods were celebrated and sacrifices, both with the shedding of their own blood and that of their prisoners, were demonstrations of their gratitude. What would the ancients think of seeing their city re-created in 3D models? Would they say it looks like theirs? What would they think of the New Fire ceremony? Would it resemble their memories? Thomas Kole hopes so, and now he wants to travel to Mexico City to see with his own eyes the remnants of the empire’s capital and its setting in the Valle de Mexico.
All images are courtesy of Thomas Kole.
This story was originally published by Wired en Español. It was translated and adapted by John Newton.