An earlier, evil empire

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No empire more vicious and cruel has ever existed than the Aztec (1428-1521).

The Aztecs were a sophisticated and powerful people who ruled over nearly 500 smaller states. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was a beautiful city of canals, gardens and temples.

It was also a charnel house, because the Aztecs demanded of the peoples they conquered a constant stream of men and boys whose hearts they'd cut out on their altars to feed to their gods. For the rededication of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, 84,400 prisoners were sacrificed over four days, according to an Aztec account.

The Aztecs were cannibals. They ate -- usually with tomatoes and chili peppers -- the arms and legs of the tens of thousands of sacrificial victims each year.

People who are so vicious and cruel rarely are popular with those they conquer, which is the fact key to understanding how a Spanish force that never numbered more than 1,200 could destroy a sophisticated, militaristic empire whose population at the time was estimated to be as much as 11 million. Jack Wheeler recounts in his novel, "The Jade Steps," how and why this happened.

Good historical fiction entertains as it educates. It describes events as they actually happened, and puts them in context. But it brings history to life.

All the characters in "The Jade Steps" are historical figures. But it's a thrilling adventure story, with a touch of romance. Once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down.

Hernan Cortez is one of the most remarkable men in history. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, feared Cortez might be Quetzalcoatl, the only god in their pantheon who opposed human sacrifice, in human form. But the central figure in "The Jade Steps" is not he, but the woman who made it all happen.

Her name was Malinali, a princess in one of the kingdoms conquered by the Aztecs. She was very bright, and beautiful. Her father died when she was 12. Her mother remarried, and bore a son by her new husband. To eliminate Malinali as a claimant to the throne, Mom sold her into slavery. Then about 18, Malinali was a slave in the Yucatan when her path crossed with Cortez.

Without Malinali, Cortez could not have communicated with most of the locals. Her native language was similar to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In captivity, she learned Mayan, a very different language.

Cortez landed in the Yucatan in February, 1519 with 500 soldiers and 13 horses. There he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan priest who learned to speak Mayan during eight years of captivity following a shipwreck. Malinali told Aguilar in Mayan what the Nahuatl speakers said. Aguilar translated it into Spanish for Cortez.

Women were chattel in Aztec society. They weren't permitted to look a man in the eye, much less to speak in public. So it was discombobulating to Aztec dignitaries to have to speak to a woman to speak to Cortez. They called him "Malinche," which means "the master of Malinali."

Malinali became a Christian, and Cortez' mistress. She more than he was responsible for forging the alliances among subject peoples that brought down the hated Aztecs. Once Cortez set her free, she became the first truly independent woman in Mexico. It was she who now was called "La Malinche," because Malinali herself was the "master of Malinali."

La Malinche is the mother of Mexico (a name Cortez derived from "Mesheeka," which is what the Aztecs called themselves). But to the Politically Correct in Mexico and elsewhere, she's a traitor, because she helped overthrow the Aztecs, who they regard as victims of Spanish oppression. This is like having sympathy for the Nazis. In an epilogue, Mr. Wheeler explains how this perversity developed, and discusses its consequences.

The Aztecs were devil worshippers, the conquistadores believed. They'd been sent by God to overthrow their evil empire. As I reflect on the macabre rituals Mr. Wheeler describes so vividly, the remarkable series of events which brought Cortez and Malinali together, and the enormous odds they overcame, often miraculously, I think that may explain better than a few muskets and horses why the Aztec empire fell.

You can buy "The Jade Steps" at

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Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio:, 412-263-1476. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to:


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