The Baths of Moctezuma were built in a pool-like fashion with almost transparent spring water for the Tlatoani (emperor) to relax in. In the Prehispanic era, these “pools” were part of Tenochtitlan’s water catchment system.
Archaeologist Guadalupe Espinoza, from the National Museum of History of Chapultepec, explained the origins of these baths. In 1450, as a result of a flood, the Mexica had to figure out a way to regulate the flow of water from the lakes that surrounded the Valley of Mexico. To do so, they created a system using ‘albarradas’ (a wall of overlapping stones) and an aqueduct that is believed to have been designed by former Tlatoani, Nezahualcoyotl.
During the Spanish conquest, these albarradas were broken, unbalancing the flow of drinking water that reached the city. During this time, the Mexica started scheming a way to rebuild the canals and aqueducts. They created a hydraulic system in Chapultepec that linked reservoirs, aqueducts, water boxes, pipes, and ponds in a sophisticated urban system.
“The pools function as containers or masonry boxes where spring water was stored; employing pressure and through the unevenness of the aqueducts, water was conducted to distributing fountains,” Guadalupe Espinoza added.
A place of rest and hidden treasures
The Baths of Moctezuma were spring water ponds that later became part of a system that supplied water to the Valley of Mexico. It is believed that in the 15th century, Moctezuma commissioned Nezahualcoyotl to make the design.
It is also said that Moctezuma kept all his treasures hidden in these baths as an offering to the gods of water. He believed that they constantly flooded Tenochtitlan because they were angry. In the 18th century, a search group attempted to find the alleged treasures. After thorough excavations on the site, no treasure was found; as a consequence, all the water was lost.
These baths were located in Chapultepec, located in the center of Mexico City. For the Mexica, this place was considered sacred, and it is also believed that it was a place where Tlatoanis used to perform different rituals. In terms of design, the baths were rectangular with several steps and red masonry.
The Baths of Moctezuma are located on the eastern slopes of the hill of Chapulin. These used to feed an aqueduct that has now disappeared; for that reason, it is not known how it looked during Colonial times.
Archaeologists believe there were other pools exactly like these located where the Fountain of Temperance and the Sculpture of David are resting nowadays in Chapultepec.
The place where the Baths of Moctezuma were built is not only the same place where the famous tlatoani was born. Throughout history, these pools became exclusive sites for leisure. In the 16th century, Hernán Cortés and La Malinche used to swim there; later in the 19th century, these pools were part of the Military College amenities. Even Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg and dictator Porfirio Diaz used to take a swim on the legendary Baths of Moctezuma.
By the end of the 19th century, José Yves Limantour began to detail the shape of the baths located in Chapultepec. During this stage, the Baths of Moctezuma were filled with earth to recreate their original shape.
During the remodeling of 1974, archaeologists discovered unique pieces including the heads of Tlaloc and Nappatechutli (considered the gods of rain) and the torso of a woman made of andesite. These are still displayed on the site.
Two decades after the discovery, in 1994 excavations were carried out as part of the research for the Chapultepec Castle Museum Restructuring Project; several objects made of ceramic, lyric, metal, and glass were found.
Currently, the baths are delimited by a concrete wall made in 1930, and in the center is the pool recreated by Yves Limantour. Limantour’s version has a depth of 5.26 meters, and at the bottom, there is an iron pipe that was used to draw and fill water connected to another container that was one meter high. Surrounding the container are planters that share space with some walkways that have been recently remodeled with round stones.
People can no longer swim in the Baths of Moctezuma, but they are still open for the public to marvel at these sophisticated Precolumbian systems.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards