Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oaxaca Part 2: Monte Albán, Zapotec city on a hill

View from the North Platform of the Zapotec's ancient Monte Albán. Much to our surprise, Carole and I fell in love with Monte Albán. Most published photos I have seen do not remotely do it justice. Not only are the ancient ruins wonderful, but they are sited at the very top of a mountain that provides a stunning 360 degree view of the three great Valleys of Oaxaca. The Zapotec civilization was one of the most remarkable in Meso-America, but not for the usual reasons. They did not create a great empire such as those of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, or the Aztecs. They did not build a broad constellation of city states like the Maya. What the Zapotecs achieved was a civilization with an almost unbelievable longevity. Beginning as early as 600 BC, they had contacts with the Olmecs, Meso-America's earliest and most mysterious civilization. Later, the Zapotecs formed an alliance with Teotihuacan, and traded with the Maya civilizations through the end of the Classic period 800 AD. Even after Monte Alban declined and was abandoned, the Zapotecs remained in the area. They came into conflict with the arriving Mixtecs and later the rising Aztec empire. They were still culturally active when the Spanish arrived. The Zapotecs developed the first full-blown writing system in the Americas (unfortunately still mostly undeciphered). Some linguistic historians think the Zapotec language may be derived from the Olmecs themselves! Altogether an astonishing accomplishment, when you consider that all these other civilizations rose and fell in much shorter periods of time. What the Zapotecs had was staying power.

Map of Monte Albán, the Zapotec's city on a hill. Monte Albán was a planned city, created by a confederation of Zapotec towns in the Central Oaxaca Valleys. The Zapotecs had been rising in power for some time, and their written language and an accurate calendar were fully developed as early 600 BC. Somewhere around 500 BC, using human labor only, the Zapotecs began building Monte Albán. They leveled the tops of three small interconnected mountains to hold their great pyramids and palaces. Terraces for living space and agriculture ran in concentric rings down the sides of the hills. The main city was built atop Cerro de Jaguar, or Jaguar Mountain. The city plan is shown above. The flattened area may have been as big as 12 acres, with a large platform on the south (upper left) and another on the north (lower right). The two platforms were separated by a huge plaza lined on both sides with temples and palaces. In the center of this Grand Plaza were several buildings constructed for religious and astronomical purposes. In the course of my two-part segment on Monte Albán, I'll show you many of these ancient structures.

View to the southeast from Monte Albán's North Platform. Three great valleys intersect in the middle of the State of Oaxaca. Monte Albán's mountain top sites occupy the center of that intersection, just west of the present-day city of Oaxaca which can be seen in the distance. For a map of the Valleys of Oaxaca, click here. Be sure to wait for the map which emerges as an overlay on the satellite view. Why build on the mountain tops? Archaeologists think there were at least three good reasons for this extremely difficult, costly, and time-consuming project. First, the river valleys at that time were prone to flooding. Second, the hilltop provided an obvious defensive position, and an excellent lookout point against approaching invasion forces. Third, in this deeply and pervasively religious society the height of the mountains placed the Zapotec religious and political leaders closer to their gods.

Twenty-five hundred-year-old terraces can be seen from a distance. Above you can see one of the other two hilltops which form the Monte Albán complex. The site above is not open to visitors as both it and the other small hill top are still under excavation. However, the terraces where common people lived and farmed can clearly be seen running from left to right just below the crest of the hill. The hill on which the main Monte Albán complex sits is at 1940 meters (6,400 ft.), rising 400 meters (1,300 ft.) from the valley floor. The Zapotecs of Monte Albán are sometimes called "People of the Clouds." At its height, there may have been as many as 30,000 people living in and around the city.

North Platform

Rounded corners of the North Platform are an unusual feature. When leveling off the main platform, the builders left a large rock formation on the north end and used it as part of the foundation for the North Platform. The platform is surrounded by high walls with rounded corners, seen above. These corners are a very unusual feature not found else where in Zapotec structures, and rarely found anywhere in Meso-America, with the exception of the Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal in Yucatan. Keep in mind as you view all these structures that, in the full glory of Monte Albán, they were smoothly stuccoed and beautifully painted. Even as ruins, however, the ancient natural stone holds a warm beauty of its own.

North Platform grand staircase viewed from the west side of the Great Plaza. The North Platform is a whole complex unto itself, and I have devoted a good part of my second Monte Albán segment to it. Some of its complex of temple pyramids can be seen rising above the top of the great staircase.

The Ball Court

View of the main Ball Court, looking directly south toward the South Platform. The main Ball Court lies along the eastern side of Monte Albán, just south of the North Platform. It is constructed in a similar fashion to those found at Tollan, capital of the Toltecs, and the Maya city of Chichen Itza. The layout resembles a capital "I " with short cross pieces at the top and bottom, and a long trunk bordered by slanting walls. The walls would have been smooth in ancient times so that the hard rubber ball could be bounced off them in play. Spectators would have sat along the tops of the walls and the ends of the court.

Another view of the Ball Court, looking slightly southeast. The temple known as Building II can be seen in the background. This Ball Court is unusual in two respects. First, the large stone rings found on either side of some of the other great ball courts are not present and were apparently not part of the Zapotec's game. Second, unlike nearly all other ball courts discovered in Meso-America, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was connected with the game. No one knows all the rules of the original game, nor do we fully comprehend the religious significance it had for the Zapotecs. The game may have played some role in settling disputes. The Mixtecs moved into the area after the decline of the Zapotec civilization (750-800 AD) and adopted many of its practices. In the highland Mixtec areas of the State of Oaxaca, they still play a ball game related to that once played in this great Ball Court at Monte Albán, to the shouts and cheers of ancient spectators.

Stela rises above the Ball Court. Stelae are upright stone slabs placed near or in front of major buildings in many ancient Meso-American sites. They are often carved with scenes and dates to commemorate great events in that civilization's history. I was unable to approach any closer to the stela here because of the restricted access. Possibly it records a great victory for the "home team" like a statue put up to commemorate a victory in the World Cup soccer matches.

Another unusual feature of the Monte Albán ball courts. Unlike any of the other ancient ball courts I have seen in Mexico, the Monte Albán courts each contain niches in two diagonally opposite corners of the courts. These niches apparently contained statues of gods who were associated with the ball game. You can still see a relief carving in the stone at the base of the niche.

The Grand Plaza

East side of the Grand Plaza, looking toward the South Platform. At 300 meters long and 200 wide (984 ft. lg, 656 ft. wd.), the size of the Great Plaza is hard to capture without either using an extremely wide-angle lens, or photographing it from such a distance that much detail disappears. I have tried to show it three photos: the east side (seen above), the west side, and the central area. About half way down the east side of the Plaza are two temples with broad staircases facing each other. Between them in the grassy area is a sunken rectangular area that is called the Water Shrine. All of these structures have a religious and astronomical relationship with each other. The Ball Court is out of view to the lower left. The next large structure on the left is Building II, followed by Building P. On the right side of the photo are the structures in the center of the Great Plaza, Buildings I, H, and G, and The Observatory, also known as Building J, which is adjacent to the South Platform.

West side of the Great Plaza, looking south. The small figures of the visitors give a sense of the huge scale of the Plaza. On the left of this picture are the structures in the center of the Great Plaza seen in the previous photo. Due south is the South Platform. On the right (west) side are twin buildings, M and K, separated by the Palace of the Dancers. We'll take a look at the buildings on the west side in segment 2 of Monte Albán.

Center buildings of the Great Plaza, with the South Platform in the background. Because of their centrality in the entire complex, these structures must have had a special importance. In fact, Building J, the structure closest to the grand staircase of the South Platform, is among the oldest of the Monte Albán structures and records some of the history of the Zapotec conquests on its sides.

Temples of the Grand Plaza's east side

Building II (left) and Building P (rt.), looking northeast. Building P has an very unusual feature. About half way up the great staircase is an opening. A shaft reaches straight down to a small room inside the structure. Twice a year, in early May and August, the sun passes directly over this opening and sends a shaft of light to the room below. The shaft can also be used as a "site tube" to view the star system Pleiades. To the left of the picture you can see a small group of people gathered around the Water Shrine, which is located directly between the great staircases of Building P on the east side of the Plaza, and Building H of the central group.

The Water Shrine. Carole and our guide stand to the left of the shrine. Water filled the recessed area surrounding the central structure. Apparently this shrine filled both a religious purpose and a practical one as a water source. The great Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso found a wonderfully carved jade mask of the Bat God buried in the southeast corner, just out of sight on the right. Building P is in the background on the upper right of the photo. On the west side of the shrine (out of sight behind Carole and our guide) is a tunnel opening. There is a matching tunnel opening on the east side of the Water Shrine between it and Building P.

Stone steps lead down into ancient tunnels used by Zapotec priests. The tunnels lead to Building H of the central group, and Building P. The one to Building P is the access to the room where the vertical shaft rises to catch the light beam from the once-a-year passage of the sun overhead. The importance of the Water Shrine can be better understood if you think about the semi-arid character of the Oaxaca Valleys. Water was an extremely important issue to most Meso-American cultures, and the Zapotecs were no different, particularly in this semi-arid location. Accordingly, they had both a God of Rain and Lightning, called Cociyo in Zapotec, and possibly a Water Goddess.

Temples of the Great Plaza's center

Building H, of the central group, contains some unique Zapotec features. One typical feature of Zapotec temple architecture is a broad, flat, sloping surface on either side of the main staircase. Huge crowds of people could occupy the Great Plaza for religious ceremonies. The position of Building H, as the "center of the center" so to speak, would enable the ruler-priests to be completely surrounded by the awed throngs. A sort of ancient theatre-in-the-round, if you will. The sudden appearance of a priest who had secretly moved from the tunnel entrance to the top of the temple on Building H would have created a sensation.

Another unique feature of Zapotec architecture is called a scapula. This feature is found on numerous buildings at Monte Albán. It consists of a rectangle with the bottom side open, as can be seen in the photo above. A scapula is normally a decoration worn suspended from a person's neck and resting on their breast bone. Architecturally, these "scapulas" hang from each end of the rectangular stone design.

Staircase leads to the entrance of Building J, The Observatory. This building is unique not only to the Zapotecs, but within in Monte Albán itself. The Observatory is a five-sided pyramid shaped like a huge astronomical pointer. In addition to its unusual shape, its walls functioned as an historical record of the Zapotecs' conquest of their neighbors. The Observatory is located at the southern end of the central group in the Grand Plaza, just before the grand staircase of the South Platform.

The Observatory (Building J) is shaped like an arrowhead. The head of the arrow points southwest, a 45 degree angle from the strict north-south orientation of all the rest of the city. The stairs seen in the previous picture are the darkened area of the design on the lower left. There was a rectangular temple on top of the original structure to which only the priests had access. Archaeologists have used a planetarium to recreate the skies of 250 BC. A line drawn from the tip of the arrowhead on the upper right, and leading down (northeast) through the middle of the staircase will pass directly over top of Building P and its mysterious vertical shaft. Other measurements show orientations to the setting of the Southern Cross and the star system of Capella. On either side of the tip of the arrowhead are large flat areas with fascinating relief carvings celebrating early Zapotec conquests. The Observatory is one of the oldest structures of Monte Albán.

Relief carving on the arrowhead tip of The Observatory. The relief carving above is one of a great number that used to cover the exterior walls of The Observatory. The design on top, which appears to be a castle-like structure with twin towers, one on each side, is the symbol representing Monte Albán. Below this is an up-side down head, representing the overthrow of a neighboring town or city. Certain aspects of the design indicate the name of the conquered town. The Zapotecs did not build Monte Albán and their civilization through voluntary cooperation. They maintained an iron-fisted rule over conquered peoples through which they obtained tribute and forced labor to build their great pyramids and palaces.

View from the North Platform looking south. A single great column remains in this part of the ruin. To the right of the column is part of a wall that betrays the influence of the Teotihuacan Empire. If you look at the bottom of the wall, you can see that below the vertical section is a small section that slants outward to meet the floor. This is a very typical feature of Teotihuacan architecture that Carole and I saw when we visited that great ruin north of Mexico City. In fact, a good part of the North Platform may have been the "Teotihuacan Quarter" where their merchants and diplomats lived. There were apparently strong commercial and political relations between the Zapotecs and the Teotihuacans when that empire flowered between 100 BC and 500 AD, and a "Zapotec Quarter" has been found at Teotihuacan. However, as large and powerful as the Teotihuacans were, the Zapotecs long outlasted them.

This completes Part 2 of my Oaxaca series and is the first segment on Monte Albán. Next week we'll look at some of the interesting structures along the west side of the Plaza and at the temple pyramid complex of the North Platform. I hope you enjoyed this initial look at spectacular Monte Albán. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can either do it in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim, beautiful post and photos.

    I am curious if you drove there from Ajijic, and if so, how you found the trip.

    Earlier we sent you an email but I've not heard back. Either here or by email, I'd love to know more about travel there.


  2. hija de papi- I did reply in the comments section for Oaxaca Part 1. You did not leave your email in your comment you left previously and I cannot reply directly unless I have an email address. You can reach me at jimncarole(at)hotmail(dot)com

    Saludos, Jim

  3. Jim, you do such great work. Thanks. Oaxaca was my favorite place when I was there in the 70's.

    Greg Ledbetter


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim