Blog 19: Monte Alban

                                                           25 February 2014


Daughter Deborah is here from Oregon, and last week we were treated to the visit of Marianne Radke and her novio Ben Folsom from Kingston. Three weeks ago Jennie Raulston, a friend from Tennessee. Six weeks ago it was the Schechter-Devoe family from Boston. One of the many things that we enjoy about these visits is that for a time it kicks us out of our Etla-resident routines into tourist mode. Oaxaca offers an infinite array of fascinating things to do and see, of course. Some of the top tier places are World Heritage sites with parking lots that accommodate tour busses. But there are many other excavated and developed archaeological sites worth touring – Yagul, Dainzú, Atzompa, Mitla, San José Mogote (where we took Jennie and the Schwchter-Devoes), to name just a few – sites that in many other countries and some Mexican states would get top billing. And unexcavated archaeological sites? Those that have been cataloged and mapped number over a thousand. Pretty much the rule in the Oaxaca valley is: wherever people are living, they have always lived – or at least for the last 2,500 years or so.

The Valley offers are some world class events, too: one timers like the Guelaguetza dance festival in mid summer and the December Night of the Radishes at the Zócalo, as well as recurrent spectacles like the weekly markets in the Zapotec villages in the south valley: Zaachila (Thursday), Ocotlán (Friday), and Tlacolula (Sunday). The Wednesday market in Villa de Etla, just up the road from us, is a hoot too. In resident-mode we don’t shop at them. We buy staples at the Chedraui supermarket at the north entrance to Oaxaca City, fruits and vegetables from the Santa Rosa Market half way to the city, or at Concha’s abarrotes store, a two-minute walk from the house. Her bananas and mangos and avocados (“two for today, two for tomorrow”) can compete with anybody’s.

When we have tourist visitors, though, we pig out on star attractions. Our number one, everybody’s number one, is Monte Albán.


Way, way back when, before the Etruscans were beginning to think about turning their village on the Tiber into Rome, before London and Paris dreamed about becoming squalid hamlets clinging to the banks of their rivers, before the Aztec ancestors had heard of Tenochtitlán or the Mayan forebears had thought about piling up stones in Chichén Itzá, the great city of Monte Albán was soaring high into the air of south-central Mexico.


The people whose great-to-the-umpteenth-power-grandchildren are today’s Zapotecs, swept into this great three-pronged Valley of Oaxaca in the late 6th century BCE. 

They settled first at the north end of the north-western prong, today’s Etla Valley, at a place called San José Mogote, mogote being a local word for artificial mound, or pyramid. For their city they chose a long high ridge over a fertile floodplain, with steep, attack-thwarting banks on three sides. From their ridge top they had an unobstructed view for thirty kilometers down the Etla Valley to an even higher hump-backed hill that dominates the intersection of the three prongs. 


From the very first these proto-Zapotecs had a clear vision of what a city center should contain, and how it should look. It is as if the idea “city” had sprung into their heads fully developed. On the city’s highest ground there must be a temple with a square base oriented to the cardinal points, from which would rise a terraced pyramid, faced in stucco and painted in brilliant colors, on which a monumental staircase led to the priest’s precinct at the top. In front of the pyramid would be a square plaza with an altar to the gods in the center. On the other three sides of the plaza would rise the palaces of the rulers and the priests, and another temple or two, each of these structures sitting on the top of tiered platforms. As the city grew, always keeping the geographic limitations in mind, other temple/palace/plaza-with-altar compounds would accommodate

 the growing administrative and sacerdotal classes. The houses and garden plots of the merchants, artisans, farmers, and basically everybody else occupied the hillsides leading down to the most fertile farmland on the valley floor. And there must be a ball court.


With the northern Etla Valley fortified, farmed, and urbanized, the growing proto-Zapotec population spread south, and the ruling class chose the towering hill of Monte Albán, thirteen hundred feet above the valley floor, for their new capital. It is the best strategic cite in south-central Mexico. From the top the rulers could see every square meter of arable land for fifty kilometers in every direction. The hill is the cork that blocks travel from the south (the Isthmus, the Yucatán, Central America) to Mesoamerica’s high northern plains and valleys. The hillsides are steep enough to deter adventurism, and in fact archaeologists have found no signs that the city was ever invaded.


Around 500 BCE the founders laid out the city plan. They leveled the hill, shaped the removed fill in to platforms, lined them with stone, and began to build. Upward and ever upward. The operative concepts were order and big. The central plaza alone—and there are many others—measures 300 by 200 meters, and is completely surrounded by tiered structures. Picture a stadium enclosing nine football fields. One of the most amazing things about Monte Albán is that while individual buildings were often expanded, built over, refurbished and repainted, every subsequent generation of builders continued to adhere to the central plan. For the next 1,250 years! 


Many of the buildings are honeycombed with rooms and tunnels. Some shelter tombs. Public art, in the form of huge carved stone plaques and steles, reminded the populace about the power of their gods and rulers. They commemorate inaugurations, battles, the tribute paid by vanquished peoples. While the originals of these carved stones are in the site museum or the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City, replicas have been placed where the originals once stood.


The place is overwhelming to look at, and exhausting to explore, requiring good legs, a broad hat, quarts of sunscreen, and lots of water. It is even more overwhelming to think about. About the amount of labor it took to build these skyscrapers. How construction went on for 1,250 years. About how the hoards of laborers we

re housed and fed; how the sewage was disposed of; how the labor gangs were scheduled, supervised. Where the different varieties of stone were quarried, and how they were hauled up this 1300-foot mountain in a society without beasts of burden or wheels. How water was collected, stored, and distributed, and how many people it took to bring up water an amphora at a time from the Atoyac River at Monte Albán’s base.


And why, around the year 750 CE, the rulers decided to abandon the city, and why the population disbursed to other sites mainly in the south valley. Actually, of course, a remnant continued to inhabit the site until the arrival of the Spaniards, 750 years later.  And remnants of those remnants still live on the mountain’s lower slopes, on small farms on the mountain’s western side, and large suburbs of Oaxaca to the mountain’s east.


Oh, the ball courts. From north-central Mexico to Nicaragua, the Mesoamerican peoples all seemed to play a ball game on an court shaped like a capital I, with a long central alley and another crossing perpendicularly at each end. On both sides of the central alley a sloping bank, stucco over stone, returned errant shots to the field of play. The ball was hard rubber; evidence suggests that some of them weighed as much as 9 pounds. Like soccer, you couldn’t use your hands. Mostly people hit the ball with their hips (sometimes wearing leather or cane hip protectors), but in some versions they hit the ball with paddles, or their hands, or their heads. The object, like handball or ping pong or jai alai, seems to have been to keep the ball in play, though in some versions there were hoops through which the ball had to be hit. This game, at some places and times, seems to have ritual purposes. Soldiers against captives, with the losers forfeiting their lives. Or the losers being sacrificed so as to provide the gods with their required ration of blood.


A couple of weeks ago we were on a dirt road high on the other side of the Etla valley and we stopped to talk with a farmer. He told us with pride that his village—he pointed to a fold in the hills—was turning into a town, with the four requisites that for him defined town: a paved street, an elementary school, a government health clinic (one day a week), and a cancha (a covered basketball court). It may be a different version, but folks around here are still playing the game . . . .


‘Nuf said.


To the friends who visited us this year, thank you for spurring us to go visit all these fabulous places. We are eager to do it again. We hope these pictures will bring back some fond shared memories. To those who missed their chance this time around, we hope that the pictures will move you to pull out your calendars for next season . . . for barring the unforeseen, we will be back.