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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mitla, the ‘new’ ancient capital of the Zapotec

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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.

For reasons that are still not completely understood, the Zapotec began to abandon their ancient and exceptionally well-defended capital of Monte Alban sometime in the 1st century AD.

Mitla is known for the exquisite state of preservation of several of its structures, and even a good amount of bright red frescoes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Sometime soon after abandoning their great capital, the Zapotec began construction of a new settlement we today call by its Nahuatl name, Mitla, but was then known as Yooꞌ Baꞌ ⁠— the place of rest or place of the dead

An ancient fresco is found in the interior of one of Mitla’s many elite residential structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Today Mitla is in the middle of a town of the same name, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Though the best preserved and restored structures lay within the federally protected archaeological site itself, temples and tombs can be found across the community in backyards and agave plantations. 

Zapotec elite burials tend to follow a similar design with a steep staircase leading to an underground chamber. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Mitla’s influence began to grow through the entirety of the first and second half of the second millennia of our era and still had an active ceremonial center by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

The remains of Mitla’s 16th-century Church and Zapotec architecture dating back to the 7th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

By the time the Spanish arrived in Mitla, they had already amassed a considerable army commanded by Europeans but mostly comprised of Mesoamerican mercenaries and upstarts looking for a favorable position under the new order. 

Columns stretch through the Temple of the Columns, which is also home to ancient Zapotec burial chambers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Late in the same century, the Spanish began construction of the Temple of Saint Paul using materials from the surrounding Mesoamerican structures.

Though the practice of reusing materials from ancient temples in more modern constructions is common throughout Mesoamerica, the contrast between ancient and medieval Spanish architecture is especially striking in Mitla, sometimes making it a bit difficult to tell where one ends, and the other begins. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The layout of Mitla’s ceremonial center is laid out in self-contained patios reminiscent of Monte Alban, though on a smaller scale.

A map of Mitla’s ceremonial center shows the only section of the site open to visitors. Illustration: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like several other Zapotec ancient cities, Mitla also features a number of internal patios surrounded by highly ornate structures which served as palaces for the local elite.

An enclosed patio in Mitla is surrounded by decorated facades in a configuration that very much resembles that of Teotihuacán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The elegance of their geometry aside, these patios are also notable for the surviving frescoes which survive on their walls and lintels.

A detail of one of the surviving frescoes in Mitla. Sadly, the vast majority of these ancient artworks have fallen victim to erosion and vandalism. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like all major Zapotec settlements, Mitla is known for its many elaborate tombs, more often than not adorned with images making reference to the Mesoamerican deity, Mixcóatl.

Many of the geometrical designs on display at Mitla are similar to those at other Zapotec sites like Monte Albam, though others have variations that are unique. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When entering the site, you will immediately notice the intricate geometrical designs that characterize Zapotec facades and art more generally since before the advent of a Zapotec script or a truly centralized political system. 

The interior of a chamber in Mitla, Oaxaca, is adorned with the design commonly known as “Greca Zapoteca.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most interesting aspects of these ancient designs is that they are still extremely common in contemporary artworks in Oaxaca, including the tapestries the state is so well known for.

Zapotec families continue to produce artworks in ways that would have been very much recognizable to their ancestors several millennia ago. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from its tombs and frescoes, Mitla is also famous for the exceptional state of conservation of much of the paint on the facade of several of its structures, though these have of course been restored by INAH. Note: The photo below has been Photoshopped to “take out” several tourists. 

The place of the columns is one of the best preserved in the entire sight, with much of its geometrical facade seemingly intact and the bright red of its base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

The red paint found on the structures of Mitla was made by grinding small insects called cochinilla, which are found on certain species of cacti, with other materials such as limestone. The higher the concentration of the cochinilla, the more vibrant the resulting color. 

Artisans in contemporary Mitla and several surrounding communities still use ancient techniques to produce natural pigments in the same way their ancestors did. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Given its fame and proximity to the city of Oaxaca, tours to Mitla are easy to find and usually also include a visit to the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua and one or two textile shops.

The nearby petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua are certainly beautiful but require a good amount of hiking to fully appreciate. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though these other stops are worth it, if you are mainly interested in Mitlas’ archaeology, the best course of action is to take a taxi or bus to Mitla and spend the night to ensure you are able to get in as early as possible, beat the crowds and not be rushed by the rest of the members of your tour. 

Because the size of Mitla’s ceremonial center is compact, visitors should arrive early to get some tourist-free photos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Mitla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is only 30 miles from the state capital. Graphic: Google Maps

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