Discover Monte Albán, the former city of the Zapotecs!

by Deborah Durrfeld

Lots of people have heard about the Maya and the Aztecs. But there are many more ancient civilizations in Mexico, such as the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs. It is said that the Zapotecs were the first people, inhabiting the central valley and mountains of the Oaxaca state, around 500 BC. One of their most important cities used to be Monte Albán, one of Mexico’s earliest cities and the political, cultural and religious center of the Zapotecs for 2000 years. Nowadays it’s a beautiful and an interesting archaeological site. In this article I’m taking you on a journey to Monte Albán, where I’m telling you more about this former city and the Zapotecs.

Monte Albán, the former capital of the Zapotecs!

The location of Monte Albán is truly beautiful! The temples and pyramids are almost part of the landscape, creating a mystical atmosphere. If you look out over the complex you want to go back in time and know how impressive it must have looked. Are you ready to discover Monte Albán?

History & background information

The Zapotecs built their cities and ceremonial centers, as early as 500 BC. As with many pre-Columbian cultures, it is not sure where they came from and what their origin was. It is said, that they were related to the Olmecs, one of the oldest Mexican civilizations.

The construction of Monte Albán probably started around 200 BC. The Zapotecs chose central and fertile locations for their ceremonial centers. Monte Albán, was a strategic place on a mountain where three different valleys were coming together. The city would become the religious, political and economic center of the Zapotec empire, for 2000 years. Even though power was divided between different settlements, most influence would have been exerted from this area.

The city flourished during the period, from 300 to 700 A.D, when most of the building were constructed. According to researches, around 30,000 people would have lived here around that time.  When the city was left behind for unclear reasons, the Mixtecs took over. They rebuilt the city, added new ornaments and decorations and started to use the city as a burial site for their elite. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the city was already abandoned. What is left of the city today, is therefore a mix of styles from different periods.

Monte Albán’s original name has been lost. And there are several theories about the current name of the city. Monte Albán means, white mountain, referring to the Cazahuate, an indigenous tree, which has numerous white flowers in winter. The Spaniards are said to have named the place “White Mountain”, because they found the mountain full with white flowers. Other names include “Holy Mountain”, ”Green hill” and “Hill of the Jaguar”.

Highlights

1. The Northern platform

This is the place where you will find the most important buildings, directly connected with the ceremonial squares. where the priests and officials lived. The broad staircases, connecting the upper part with the lower part, were a clear way of dividing the upper class from the lower class.  

The northern complex contains several buildings, most of them connected to each other. There are also courtyards, usually sunken, that were used for sacred ceremonies. The niches are said to have contained the sacrifices that went with the dead to the gods in the upper world. In a number of buildings you can still find old frescoes, depicting the rituals.

The Northern platform offers a beautiful view of the site, including the central plaza. At the backside of the Northern platform you will find some benches where you can overlook the valley and enjoy the birds of prey flying around.

 

2. Central Plaza

In the middle of the square you will see an observatory and altar, probably used for ceremonies and sacrifices. The surrounding buildings were used for public purposes and lower administrators. Common people, including farmers and craftsmen, are said to have lived on the slopes surrounding the complex.

Los Danzantes, is probably my favorite part of the complex. It’s a series of reliefs with special images, representing naked people in twisted poses, from around 500 to 100 BC. There are several theories and ongoing research on this. Are these figures maybe dancers? Is it perhaps a story about medical procedures? Or do the figures represent sacrificial victims? which would explain the morbid characteristics of the figures. According some latest researches, these monuments are seen to represent tortured, sacrificed war prisoners, and depict leaders of competing centers and villages captured by Monte Albán. Over 300 “Danzantes” stones have been found. Some of them can be viewed at the site’s museum.

On the edge of the square, you will find a ballcourt, as in many pre-Columbian cities. There are still so many questions about the way they played these games, including the goal of this ball game. Did people use their elbows, hips or hands while playing? Where exactly did the ball go through? Were the losers immediately after the game sacrificed?

The ballcourt

Via a staircase with large steps you can climb the southern platform for a nice view of the complex.

View from Southern Platform

3. Tumba 7 and museum

Around the entrance, there are several tombs. Tumba 7 is one of the most important ones.  Incredible amounts of treasures have been found at this place, that can now be visited in the museum of Oaxaca. The archaeological site itself also has a small museum. Here you can observe various objects, discovered in the tombs and buildings of the complex.

Interested in discovering Monte Albán?

Monte Albán is half an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca. It’s not that crowded, in comparison with other archaeological sites in Mexico. Go early in the morning and there is a big chance of having the place for yourself. Monte Albán, along with the city of Oaxaca, are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site list. Want to read more about Oaxaca and Monte Albán? I recommend taking a look at the website of Unesco.

Do you want to learn more about archaeological sites in Mexico? In this article you’ll find an overview of the most beautiful and best ruins to visit in Mexico.

Important note: for many archaeological sites, there are different theories, interpretations and ongoing research. Most of the information has never been officially confirmed and is still subject to speculation. The information in this article is based on my own visits, experiences, conversations with researchers and guides. However, there will be different interpretations and data available.

This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)

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