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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Monte Alban, lofty stronghold of the mighty 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.
The ruins of Monte Alban must be visited in person to truly appreciate its size, scope, and unique feel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Monte Alban was easily among the largest and most influential city-states during early Mesoamerican history. 

Monte Alban’s enormous Northern Platform is topped with two large plazas of its own. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Established by the Zapotec civilization in the 5th century BCE, Monte Alban flourished for 1,500 years. Its eventual collapse coincides roughly with the fall of the great classic Maya city-states of the Petén, such as Tikal, over 800 miles away. Though this may just be a coincidence, many archaeologists argue that climate change and demographic collapse were at least in part to blame in both regions. 

During antiquity, Monte Alban was known by several names but got its current designation during the European conquest as the area was said to resemble Montes Albanos in Italy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It was assumed that the Náhuatl name Zapotec shared its linguistic origin with the fruit known as the zapote, or sapodilla, as it is known in English. But recent research suggests that the true name of the Zapotec people is best transcribed in the Latin alphabet as Zapochteca, derived from the words zaa (sky) and pocheta (merchant).

Despite being the largest Zapotec city, Monte Alban is far from the oldest known Zapotec settlement, with that distinction going to the site known as San José Mogote, founded in 1500 BCE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But despite its antiquity, Zapotec culture developed during a time of great cultural exchange with other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Olmec, Teotihuacan, and even Maya.

The southeastern end of Monte Alban’s ceremonial center has structures, including El Palacio and several Teotihuacan-style monuments. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

But other than the Zapotec themselves, the Mexica — who called Monte Alban by the name Oselotepek (or Jaguar Mountain) — had the most influence over the great city’s history. Towards the end of the first millennia of the current era, the Mexica had begun to assert their power over Oaxaca’s highlands.

A ceramic depicts a Zapotec noblewoman wearing jaguar ceremonial regalia. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The dynamic that played out between the Zapotec and the Mexica has several parallels with the relationship between the Maya and Toltec at Chichén Itzá. While the details will likely never fully come to light, the story appears to be much more complex than one of simple hegemonic control of one person over another. 

When the Mexica arrived in Oaxaca, they brought with them their own pantheon of gods, including their lord of the underworld Mictlantecuhtli, who shares many features with his Mayan analog Ah Puch. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite the size of the ruins or archaeological site of Monte Alban, it is important to keep in mind that the restored area open to visitors comprises but a small percentage of the great city’s extension into several other hills in every direction. 

An aerial view of Monte Alban, taken from the highway, nearly a mile away. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

You will begin to notice the ruins of large monumental structures before you even enter the archaeological site. 

The sun hovers over the entrance to Tomb 105 just to the north of the main entrance to Monte Alban. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The archaeological site of Monte Alban is contained atop the plateau of a large hill and is flanked by large plazas with pyramids and artificial platforms in every direction. 

The core of Monte Alban and a few of its most important surrounding structures, including Tomb 7. Graphic: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Click here for a larger view of our Monte Alban archaeological map.

Once inside Monte Alban, you will ascend a staircase and make your way to an elite funerary complex.

Several of the tombs at Monte Alban are open to the public, but all artifacts have long been sacked or removed. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Next, after ascending a steep set of staircases all the way to the northern platform, visitors are treated to a superb view of the ancient city.

View of the pyramidal complex at Monte Alban’s Northern Platform in the Teotihuacan tradition. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Descending the northern platform, one enters a large central plaza featuring dozens of structures, big and small, as well as the city’s sunken patio. 

Sunken structures, including patios and ballcourts, are fairly common in Mesoamerica, with most Maya city-states in Yucatán being notable exceptions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The eastern flank of this large plaza is comprised of several architectural groups, including the city’s largest ballcourt and a pyramid known simply as The Palace. 

Monte Alban has three restored Mesoamerican ballcourts, with the largest located to the east of the main ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To the west of the main plaza sits a large pyramidal structure known as Los Danzantes, or the Dancers. This temple got its name from a great many sculpted monoliths of what archaeologists once thought were dancers, but now suspect were actually prisoners of war.

Dozens of these “dancing” figures can be found carved into the structure itself, as well as in its interior and at Monte Alban’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The temple of the Danzantes is quite stunning and full of corridors and chambers, some of which are open to the public. It is often noted that the Danzantes exhibit physical features associated with the Olmec, perhaps hinting at a large-scale confrontation with La Venta

Danzante figures are found at the end of a corridor within Monte Alban’s temple of the same name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most unique structures at Monte Alban is its main astronomical observatory. This type of construction is fairly common across Mesoamerica, but the configuration and eclectic style of Monte Alban’s observatory is unique, to say the very least.

It is likely that Monte Alban’s astronomical observatory owes its irregular shape to several additions made over the centuries, including by the Mexica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But aside from serving as a place to observe the cosmos, this construction also known as Temple J, also served another purpose — to warn potential enemies of the cost of going to war with the great city. 

Temple J is covered with monoliths depicting the heads of vanquished enemies turned upside down. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Toward the southern end of Monte Alban’s ceremonial center is yet another enormous platform topped with large pyramids. 

From the bottom of the plaza, the southern platform resembles a step pyramid itself, with its extremely wide staircase and more structures hidden further towards its rear. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The southern plaza features some of the oldest surviving Zapotec scripts at Monte Alban, dating from the 5th Century. 

The view from Monte Alban’s Southern Plaza is breathtaking not only because of its monuments but also because of its stunning natural environment. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The majority of structures within Monte Alban’s main ceremonial center have been restored to a remarkable degree, but a handful of structures remain virtually untouched.

A large, partially restored mound lies toward the southeastern corner of Monte Alban’s main plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because there is so much to say about Monte Alban’s Tomb 7, I will save this topic for a future article. Its unearthing was one of the greatest discoveries in the history of Mesoamerican archaeology.

The sophistication and beauty of the jewelry found in Monte Alban’s Tomb 7 is considered second to none in all of Mesoamerica, and that is to say nothing of the rest of its contents. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Being so close to Oaxaca de Juárez, making your way to Monte Alban will also offer you some stunning views of the city and the surrounding countryside.

It is well worth your time to explore the surrounding countryside around Monte Alban archaeological park, as dozens of interesting structures lay well outside. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Monte Alban from Oaxaca de Juárez (the state capital of Oaxaca) is very easy, as the site lay just five miles away. There are several tour companies that include Monte Alban as part of an all-day itinerary, but in all honesty, you are probably better off going on your own via taxi (between 150 and 200 pesos) to avoid being rushed.

Stelae depict a noble dressed as a jaguar across from a jaguar and the severed head of an enemy of Monte Alban. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

For such an impressive and influential archaeological site, Monte Alban receives relatively little tourism when compared to comparable ancient cities like Chichén Itzá or Teotihuacan.

The grounds at Montel Alban are very well kept and are a credit to the INAH’s efforts, even though the same can not be said for similar attractions in the state. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Monte Alban is not particularly hard to get around when compared to some other ruins in Oaxaca, such as Atzompa, but still requires a decent level of physical fitness to fully enjoy. 

Structures G, H, and, I are at the core of Monte Alban’s ceremonial plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gacht / Yucatán Magazine

The facilities at Monte Alban are fairly good and include clean bathrooms, a couple of cafes (which are not great but certainly overpriced), and a fantastic onsite museum exhibiting some remarkable artifacts. 

Just like so many other ruins in Mexico, stray dogs have made their way into Monte Alban, but are generally well-behaved. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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