The Stolen Treasure of Montezuma

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In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the mighty Aztec Empire. It has been said that to the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, Cortes and his men were regarded not as mortals, but gods. Cortes himself was said to be the returning Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. Thus, the Spanish conquistadors were welcomed by Montezuma with pomp and circumstance. Yet, eventually these so-called ‘gods’ would betray Montezuma and his people, demonstrating to the Aztecs that there was nothing godlike about Cortes and his crew.

Montezuma’s offering of gold to Cortés and his men was done in the hope that the ‘gods’ would go away. This bribe, however, failed to get rid of the Spanish conquistadors. Instead, it fuelled the Spanish greed for gold even further. As a result, Cortés decided to place Montezuma under house arrest. Subsequently, with the help of their Tlaxcalan allies, the conquistadors set up their base in one of the city’s temples, and began ransacking Tenochtitlan for its treasures. In the following months, many of Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants were tortured and killed by Cortés’ men in their attempt to obtain even more Aztec treasure.

The great city of Tenochtitlan

The great city of Tenochtitlan. Image source .

Whilst the Aztecs were almost certainly not pleased at all with the behaviour of these ‘gods’, they took no action against them. The last straw came in late May 1520, when the conquistadors massacred many of the Aztec nobility during a religious festival at Tenchtitlan’s main temple. This prompted a fierce reaction from the Aztec population, who rose against the conquistadors. The besiege Spaniards, in an attempt to save themselves, decided to use their hostage, Montezuma, to pacify his subjects. This failed, however, and Montezuma was killed, either mortally wounded by the conquistadors themselves, or by rocks thrown by the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan.     

The death of Montezuma

The conquistadores had only one option left – flee the city. As the Aztecs had removed all the bridges connecting Tenochtitlan to the mainland, the conquistadors had to build a portable bridge over the causeway. On the night of the 1 st of July 1520, the Spanish made their escape. Their movement, however, was detected, and the Aztecs attacked the fleeing conquistadors, killing many in the process. This incident came to be known as ‘ La Noche Triste ’ (the Sad Night).

On that disastrous night, Cortés lost not only many of his men, but also the Aztec treasure that was amassed over the previous months. As the conquistadors were making their desperate attempt to escape from the Aztecs, much of the treasure was cast into the causeway to lighten their loads. No doubt, some of the men would have been killed holding on to their ill-gotten gains. This huge amount of precious items eventually came to be known as ‘Montezuma’s Treasure’, and like all good treasure stories, numerous legends have sprung up around it.

The only thing that is certain about Montezuma’s treasure is that it has not been found till today. Numerous theories have been put forward to suggest the location of its final resting place. For instance, the most popular theory is that the precious objects remain where they were dropped, i.e. at the bottom of Lake Texcoco. Numerous treasure hunters have searched the lake, however, but to no avail. It seems that one former president of Mexico even had the lake dredged, but as one may guess, nothing was found. Another theory claims that the treasure was retrieved by the Spaniards when they returned to Tenochtitlan, but the ship that was carrying the treasure back to Spain was sunk in a storm. Perhaps one of the most intriguing theories is that the treasure travelled north, and eventually ended up in Utah. Perhaps Montezuma’s Treasure will remain lost for many more years to come, safely hidden away from the greed of mankind.

As for how this sorry story ended, in May 1521, Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan to exact his revenge.

Aztec warriors and civilians fled the city as the Spanish forces mercilessly attacked, even after their surrender, slaughtering thousands of civilians and looting the city.  As many as 240,000 Aztecs are estimated to have died, according to the Florentine Codex, during the eighty days. After a three-month siege the city fell on 13 August, 1521. This marked the final fall of the Aztec empire and Cortes became the ruler of a vast Mexican empire.

Featured image: Cortés and Montezuma . Photo source: Wikimedia.

By Ḏḥwty


Burns, C. M., 2008. Montezuma's Gold. [Online]
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Tsurugi's picture

"Yet, eventually these so-called ‘gods’ would betray Montezuma and his people, demonstrating to the Aztecs that there was nothing godlike about Cortes and his crew."

Let's see....Cortez showed up and was given homage and honored by the Aztecs, and showered with gifts. He demanded more and began slaughtering people so they would comply. They gave him more treasures, hoping he would go away, and instead he betrayed their leaders and killed most of them, so the people drove him out of the city, after which he returned and slaughtered them all and sacked the city.

Based on my understanding of the gods of ancient mythology, Cortez sounds like he fits right in.

how can you say that if you cant spell claims right

aprilholloway's picture

He is referred to with a number of different variants of his name including Montezuma, Moctezuma, Moteuczoma, and Motecuhzoma.


The name is MoCtezuma.

How am I supposed to read something that clams to be serious if you can't even spell right the name of the main character?

I know where it's at. I am just waiting for the war. It won't be long.

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