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View of the valley at Monte Alban

About ten km away from Oaxaca City, Monte Albán is the most important pre-Hispanic capital in the Oaxaca Valley region. It was a sacred city in prehistoric times and the religious centre of the Zapotec culture, which flourished more than 2000 years ago.

This archaeological wonder was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is situated on a high mountain, 1,315 feet above the Oaxaca Valley at the point where three huge valleys meet. In spite of being extensively excavated, it is estimated that only about 10% of the site has yet been uncovered.

Excavations have revealed over 170 tombs, numerous ceremonial altars, free-standing sculptured steles, stepped pyramids, temples and palaces. But most of the ruins are off limits to tourists. Most of the artefacts and treasures found here are displayed at the Museo Regional de Oaxaca in Oaxaca City.

Ancient figurines at Museo Regional de OaxacaAncient pots & urns at Museo Regional de OaxacaAncient urn, Museo Regional de Oaxaca

Evidence of the first settlements in the Oaxaca Valley with a clear social hierarchy dates back to 1150 BC – 850 BC. Between 800 and 500 BC, there was an influx of new people called the Zapotec. Around 500 BC, these people began the monumental exercise of levelling the top of a mountain, at the junction of the valley’s three arms, to build Monte Albán, one of the most long-lived of the major pre-Colombian cities. Prior to that time, the ancestral Zapotec lived in scattered villages, one of which was San José Mogote, an important centre of the Zapotec.

At the beginning of the 17th century, this site came to be known as Monte Albán, which in Spanish means ‘White Mountain.’

Monte Albán was at its zenith in 300 AD. It declined in later years and by 800 AD, was largely abandoned. In the centuries that followed the Zapotec collapse, the Mixtec tribes of north-western Oaxaca began to develop and reach beyond their mountainous homeland.

Around 1300 AD, Monte Albán was occupied by the Mixtec who added little to the existing architecture but left magnificent gold-laden tombs for their royalty. The most famous of these is Tomb 7, because of its fabulous treasure. By the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1521, Monte Albán was already abandoned.

Gran Plaza at Monte Alban

The most important construction at Monte Albán is the Gran Plaza (Great Plaza), which is about 60,000 square metres in size and marks the centre of this site. This large open space was created by flattening the mountaintop. From here, a grand view of the Oaxaca Valley can be obtained. The centre of the Gran Plaza holds structures that served as temples and contained several tombs. A tunnel was discovered to lead from the Palace on the east side of the plaza to one of these structures.

The entire city of Monte Albán is laid out on a north-south and east-west alignment except for an arrow-shaped structure probably laid out with astronomical alignments which is believed to have been an observatory.

Ball Court at Monte Alban

On the eastern side of the plaza lies the Ball Court which is marked by two structures at the sides of a rectangular base, with slanting walls.

Ancient pyramids at Monte Alban

Also on the east side of the plaza are several altars and pyramids that were once covered with stucco. The sloping walls, wide stairs and ramps, are all typical of Zapotec architecture.

Monte Alban

On the southern side of the plaza is the Plataforma Sur (South Platform), a large platform structure. On climbing to the top, you get an excellent panoramic view of the main plaza. Earlier there were several carved steles here, most of which are now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Danzantes at Monte Alban

The oldest carved stones at the site are los danzantes (dancers), which are located in the earliest surviving structure at Monte Albán, on the western side of the plaza. The exterior was lined with a series of bas-reliefs of humans in strange, contorted and twisted positions. Because of the fluid movement represented in the figures, it was concluded that they represent human figures in dance postures and so the reliefs became known as the danzantes. The distorted bodies and pained expressions might connote disease or suffering; some have clear features of childbirth, dwarfism, and infantilism. Although the notion that they depict a dance is generally discredited now, there is still little agreement on what exactly the figures represent, but many archaeologists think that the ‘dancers’ are representations of tortured war prisoners. From their open mouths and closed eyes, it is assumed that they are meant to represent dead persons. On many danzantes one or more unreadable hieroglyphs appear near the heads of the figures, most likely standing for the names of the sacrificed lords of groups beaten in combat by the Zapotec. Over 300 of these stone slabs have been recorded till date. Though the ones on site are said to be copies, there are some originals in the site museum.

To the north of the plaza are the cemetery and tombs. These tombs contain magnificent glyphs, paintings, and stone carvings of gods, goddesses, birds, and serpents. The most famous tomb yielded some 500 pieces of gold, amber, and turquoise jewellery, as well as silver, alabaster, and bone art objects.

Ancient bone jewellery at Museo Regional de Oaxaca

Ancient jewellery at Museo Regional de Oaxaca

Gold jewellery at Museo Regional de Oaxaca

This amazing collection is on display at the Oaxaca City. Another is a tomb which, when it was opened in 1937, revealed a vaulted burial chamber containing a single skeleton surrounded by urns, perfume pots and other offerings.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. You can read more about Oaxaca, my travel experiences there and at many other beautiful destinations in Mexico in my eBook Discovering Mexico

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Now, enjoy this cool song by the German band E-Nomine : Der Ring der Nibelungen

Thanks for stopping by…hasta luego 🙂

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