March 29, 2010

Three Oaxaca Ruins: Mitla, Yagul & Monte Alban

We're hooked on archeological ruins! We like to explore places where people created societies in response to their surroundings and in doing so shaped history…for a while or for much longer. Their lives were a struggle, yet their achievements mattered. These civilizations rose and declined, or were destroyed by outsiders. Whether the ruins are large or small, we wander and imagine. The Americas have nurtured many rich ancient cultures. Mexico’s are very diverse.

We saw three sites around Oaxaca that differ in size, location choice, structures and the indefinable mood the place creates for visitors. Similarities common to all are pyramids, temples, altars, palaces with various rooms, and underground tombs. Structures and rooms were covered with plaster and painted in solid colors, images or patterns. Red was a favorite. Some aspects of these societies were brutal, including war and human sacrifice. It was a hard life, serving the gods and the rulers.

Mitla is a quiet hillside town of 7,500 people who live among the pre-conquest Mitla archeological ruins. Surely many Zapotec residents are descended from the old people. Shops along the street sell souvenirs in a low-pressure way. In back rooms, we saw looms and men weaving the white cotton, pastel-striped tablecloths and bedspreads sold in Oaxaca and in Patzcuaro. I’d thought they were machine made! I still wonder if some are?
Mitla, the most recent of these three old cities, was a Zapotec religious center, at its height for two or three centuries before the Spanish arrival in 1519. Built by Zapotecs, it was surrendered in wars to Mixtec, Zapotec again, and finally to the Aztecs, who were subjugated by the Spanish.

The Spanish destroyed most of the old site, and built the Mitla church on the largest ancient temple, using temple stones. Some palace rooms were used as stables and out-buildings, probably saving them from destruction.

The stonework at Mitla is unique, with 14 different patterns, each having a specific meaning. In most cases, stones were cut in small pieces and set in place without mortar. The solid stone lintels are also unusual.

Some of the ruins are scattered through town. Most are just foundations, wall remains and piles of stones. This adobe pyramid, different from others because it was never covered with quarried stone, has an apparently unused church atop, where two men in the doorway (look closely!) are lighting candles on a makeshift shrine.

All of Mexico's ancient places are preserved and protected by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), which has an excellent education program that includes site labels, displays and museums.


The Yagul ruins cap a hill, with fortified structures on stone cliffs high above. Isolated, they are dramatic, though not yet fully restored. Yagul, older than Mitla, was built mostly after A.D. 750.

Here, Yagul workers maintain an unexcavated temple.
The Yagul ball court is second largest in Mesoamerica. The largest is at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. No one knows the exact significance of the ball game/Juego de Pelota, but it must have been awesomely difficult. No hands! Players used only their body, shoulders or elbows to propel a hard rubber ball among team members and to pass it through a thick stone ring attached high on the sloping side of the court. There are many ideas about the game's purpose: to resolve disputes, gain honor, settle the fate of prisoners, and select the next human sacrifices necessary to appease the hungry gods. Outcomes were not pleasant.

Monte Albán.
To reach this site, we followed a sign uphill from the Oaxaca Abastos market. The road seemed unlikely, but an old neighborhood bus coming down said "Monte Albán," so ok! We should have paid more attention to the graffiti. The twisty road high above the city became remote...then narrowed to one lane, still with two-way traffic. Things got tense for Gigi, on the passenger side, because of its crumbling concrete edge! Just before Monte Albán, we finally met the wide tourist highway!
The Spanish couldn’t build a church on Monte Albán, its too immense! The people of Monte Albán flattened a hilltop 400 meters above the valley for a location with spectacular views. This site is truly ancient, begun about 500 BC, probably by Zapotecs. The civilization peaked from 300 to 700 AD, when the surrounding population was 25,000.  They used intensive irrigation, and controlled other populations in the valley of Oaxaca. The site was abandoned by 950. Perhaps population pressures became unmanageable.

At Monte Albán's heart are two huge connected complexes and additional outbuildings, many set aside for excavation by later generations of archeologists. Of our three sites, this is the only one with pyramids too daunting to climb – or too many to climb, at least after being slightly stunned by a long walk in the hot sun!
Above, a view of half the Grand Plaza.
In the first picture, this Observatory building is a small smudge in
the upper left, a bit off center in front of the large mound that is the Platforma Sur.
The huge Platforma Sur, over 300 meters away at the end of the Grand
Plaza, peeps over one of the North Platform patios.

The Danzantes is the name given to a group of large reliefs that originally covered a temple inside room. Most were moved outside many hundreds of years ago. They are thought to be images of conquered leaders who have been tortured and await a sacrificial death. The hieroglyphs accompanying the Danzantes are earliest known examples of true writing in Mexico, and date from 500-200 BC.
      Small figure in the very good site museum.                                        
                               Vendors grab exiting visitors.

That's all, folks! Whew, go take a rest!

1 comment:

Jim Cook said...

Chuck and Gigi,

Thanks for your nice comment on my blog, "Jim and Carole's Mexico Adventure". In fact, you have been regular viewers, it seems, from all the comments you have left. It also looks like you have been to quite a few of the same places in Mexico that we have visited. If you ever get to the Lake Chapala area, look us up! My email is jcmx07(at)hotmail(dot)com

Saludos, Jim Cook