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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Atzompa: casting a watchful eye over the Zapotec heartland

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The strongholds of the classical Zapotec in the mountains of what today is the periphery of Oaxaca de Juárez are among the most impressive in Mesoamerica.

Today, Monte Albán is understood to include more than just the archaeological site of the same name, but rather an entire region of allied city-states. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest and most well-known of these is, of course, Monte Albán. Despite the grandeur of this capital, it by no means existed in isolation, depending on vassals across the region’s vast mountain chains. 

The Zapotec region is home to some of the most impressive works of pottery and sculpture in all of Mesoamerica, and are in many ways on par with even the most sophisticated pieces of art produced by the Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gacht / Yucatán Magazine

While these communities varied in size and strength, they are generally understood to have been part of the extended city-state of Monte Albán, contributing to its growth through tribute of foods, luxury goods, and labor. 

But the greatest advantage that these allied cities offered Montel Albán was security from their enemies from practically every direction.

One of the largest and most important of these satellite states of Monte Albán was Atzompa, which was plenty grand and powerful in its own right. 

Aside from its grandeur and historical significance, Atzompa is notable for its stunning views of the mountains and valley below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The name Atzompa derives from the Nahua language, not Zapotec, and roughly translates as “the city above the water.” 

Atzompa is located on “Cerro El Bonete,” within the municipality of Santa María Atzompa, Oaxaca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The remains of Atzompa visitable today date to the late classical period, or sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, though evidence of occupation at the same site dates at least several centuries before that. 

In a straight line, the distance between Atzompa and Monte Albán is only five miles, but the narrow mountain passes and rugged terrain makes it feel a world away, even today.

Atzompa is shown in relation to Montel Albán and the City of Oaxaca de Juárez. Map: Google

Even from the parking lot adjacent to the site, visitors must do quite a bit of climbing to get to the site along a fairly steep path. 

Exploring Atzompa is not for those uncomfortable with high altitudes or with weak knees. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entering the site, visitors encounter several large unrestored mounds and the remains of an elite residential complex known as La Casa de Oriente, or East House.  Within the residence, archaeologists discovered a sizable interior patio containing a temazcal or Prehispanic sauna.  

La Casa Oriente with suburbs of Oaxaca de Juárez visible in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At the end of another steep path is a large ceremonial ballcourt, much influenced by the great cities of the valley of Mexico.

Mesoamerican ballcourts come in many configurations and sizes, though their ceremonial purposes were likely similar across the region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Past the ballcourt, the area opens into a large esplanade containing several chambers and funerary complexes within which the remains of Atzompa’s elites have been found, along with a good deal of ceramics, jewelry, and other precious goods from across Mesoamerica.

This large esplanade or plaza follows the pattern of other Zapotec sites of the same era but is particularly large. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Further up still is Atzompa’s main acropolis, which features its largest pyramid flanked on all sides by large artificial platforms.

In its orientation and architecture, Atzompa resembles Monte Albán, this being, of course, no coincidence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Atzompa’s largest pyramid (Structure 5) has been pillaged extensively, leaving it bare of stucco everywhere except its base but is still quite a sight.

More than a pyramid, Structure 5, in reality, is part of a larger interconnected series of construction inside a plaza that appears to have served a remarkably wide array of functions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Behind Structure 5, it is possible to observe a large residential complex, complete with one of the best-preserved kitchens in Mesoamerica. 

The kitchen within the residential complex to the west of structure A has been restored extensively and features a large oven as well as some of the largest cooking pots ever found intact in Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Atzompa from Oaxca de Juaéz (Oaxaca’s capital) is easy via taxi or ride-sharing services. But because the site is seldom visited by tourists getting back to town may not be as easy. A good way to solve this problem is to hire a driver for a few hours and have him/her wait for you while you are at the site. If you don’t want to go this route, you may have to wait for quite a while before another cab can arrive for the pickup. 

Map of Atzompa archeological site in the state of Oaxaca. Photo: INAH

Entrance to Atzompa is free, but the services offered by the INAH are limited to an eco-toilet, and there is often no running water in these bathrooms, so make sure to bring your own along with a little soap or sanitizing gel. 

Despite being so impressive, Atzopan is largely overshadowed by its more famous older cousin Monte Albán, the good news is that this means you are likely to have the site to yourself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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