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Mexico Travel - Monte Alban and Milta
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL ZONE OF MONTE ALBAN LIES largely on a hill of that name about seven miles southwest of Oaxaca. If it is possible, you should schedule your sightseeing for Monte Alban so that you will arrive there fairly late in the afternoon in time to see the sunset from the top of the hill or on the way back. It is a rare sight.
The ARCHAEOLOGICAL ZONE OF MONTE ALBAN IS SO immense that up to the present time they have barely scratched its surface. So far, only a few buildings have been excavated, but these are so remarkable that it is quite plain that Monte Alban eventually is destined to be one of the most interesting ruins in Mexico. A conservative estimate of the age of the ruins is 900 to 1,000 years, but when you get there, you will find yourself interested, not so much in the age, as in the beauty and symmetry of the buildings that have been excavated in the old town which crowned the hill.
These old Zapotecan and Mixtecan Indians evidently had an extremely advanced civilization. The buildings which have been excavated seem to have formed a kind of forum or acropolis around which the town was grouped. Oaxaca is just about at the point where the two mountain backbones of North America meet, and as far as the eye can reach in every direction, you look out over a mass of jumbled peaks of unexcelled grandeur.
The most important building consists of a platform about 80 feet high which encloses a large court. A flight of stairs approximately 150 feet wide leads up to the top of this platform. The large stones which form the base of the platform and are around the bottom of the structure are elaborately carved and have been called the Dancing People on account of their attitudes, although it has been claimed recently by archaeological investigators that these stones have undoubtedly a phallic significance. It is remarkable that they are so negroid in character, because there is no record of any Negro tribe inhabiting Mexico except for one faint legend in far-off Yucatan telling of a wicked black people. The age of the carvings is estimated at 3,000 years, and although the Mixtecan civilization seems to have reached its height about 1,000 years ago, some archaeologists estimate the ruins to be from 1,500 to 2,00o years old.
Near Monte Alban is an interesting village. At QUILArAN there is a huge unfinished Dominican convent and the grave of the Zapotecan princess Donaji.
The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs were fighting long before the Conquest and at the time of the Conquest were engaged in one of their more serious wars. Princess Donaji had been given to the MiYtec king of Monte Alban as a hostage. She made the grave mistake of falling deeply in love with him, and he with her. When the Mixtec king left Monte Alban, her duty required that she get word to her people, the Zapotecs, and tell them that this would be a good time to attack the city of Monte Alban. Duty triumphed over love, and while the Mixtec king was away, the Zapotecs made their attack, but the Mixtec king came back in time to stop the siege and save the town, and Donaji's crime was discovered. She was put to death, and her blood flowing from the sacrificial stone turned the nearby lilies of the neighborhood purple. The lilies are purple to this day in her memory.
The Mitla Trip
At the moment the Mitla ruins are perhaps more interesting than those of Monte Alban, for more excavation work has been done there, and the ruins are the most elaborate in Mexico in point of decoration. They lie about 26 miles southeast of Oaxaca, and the best way to reach them is by automobile, taking in the various towns on the way.
The most interesting of these towns is SANTA MARIA DEL TULE. This is famous for the colossal AHUEHUETE TREE standing in the churchyard. The Forestry Department of Mexico estimates the age of this tree at about 2,000 years, but one of the most famous botanists in the world has estimated it as being between 4,00o and 5,000 years old. It seems probable in any case that this is the oldest living thing yet discovered on earth. It is not by any means the highest tree in the world (it towers about 142 feet in the air), but the circumference of its trunk 4 feet above the ground is 160 feet. Its diameter is 17 feet greater than that of the next largest single trunk known. The tree was worshipped by the Indians as the God of Growth. Beside the church is another tree called the KING'S SON, which might be outstanding anywhere else, but here is a mere baby only some 1,200 years old.
The CHURCH itself is interesting on account of its painted front, which shows a strong Central-American Indian influence. The bells which you will see hung in a shed beside the church fell out of the tower in the earthquake of 1931. Don't venture too near the bells, as they are reputed to be full of lizards and scorpions.
TLACOLULA is interesting on Sundays, market day. Here you can buy very good SARAPES from Teotitlan del Valle. The town has an interesting church with good paintings and with a chapel decorated like that of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca.
More interesting is TEOTITLAN DEL VALLE, where you can see the sarapes being made, and where the village church has the plaster falling off its walls so that you can see the extremely interesting stones with Zapotecan carving underneath.
On the way back there is a village near Oaxaca called TLACOCHAHUAYA, where the CHURCH is about as Indian in decoration as any that you will see elsewhere in Mexico. It is not a great sight, but it is one of those interesting things to visit for a few minutes if time permits.
The ROAD To MILTA is an interesting one, and most of it will eventually be incorporated in the Pan-American Highway. The Pan-American Highway through the State of Oaxaca will follow the general line of the old KING'S HIGHWAY connecting Mexico City with the Central-American countries, and this highway in turn follows the line of the old trail tramped by the Indians for thousands of years before.
MILTA itself was evidently built in the best period of Zapotecan culture. The village runs straight up to the ruins, and a modern church has been built next to one of the largest pyramids.
Mitla in the old days was a city of the dead. It seems to have been entirely a city of tombs, the abode of the living having been concentrated completely on one side of the city. Most of the tombs are cruciform and are surrounded by the auxiliary temples and dwellings for the priests.
The buildings are remarkable in that they are not decorated with carvings. The very elaborate designs on the buildings are done in a kind of high mosaic built right into the structure itself. The best of them is called the HALL OF THE MOSAICS, which is directly behind the church. It has been skillfully fitted together, and no mortar was used in erecting the masonry.
Behind the church there was a fine ruin which had been plastered over and was being used as a priest's home. Like all church property, it belonged to the government. In 1922 the plaster fell off and revealed the old ruin. The government took it over, forced the priest to move elsewhere, and carefully removed the plaster. Beneath the plaster they discovered a magnificent room frescoed in red.
Another noteworthy sight in the Mitla ruins is the HALL OF THE MONOLITHS, consisting of six immense stone columns, completely undecorated.
Under the middle palace in an underground chamber is a huge monolith supporting the roof. This is called the COLUMN OF THE DEAD, because local legend has it that if you put your arms around the column and measure the distance between your fingers, you can tell how many years you still have to live. I did so, and the guide looked astonished and gasped and told me that he was very sorry to inform me that I had died three years ago!
After visiting the ruins, you will probably be interested in rest and refreshment. The old inn, LA SORPRESA, at Mitla, is a perfect example of the old coaching inn. Whether or not you wish to eat or drink here, you should stop in and see the garden in the patio containing over three hundred varieties of plants. The food here has a reputation for being marvelous in a part of Mexico where all the food is famous.