Monte Alban was easily among the largest and most influential city-states during early Mesoamerican history.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
You will begin to notice the ruins of large monumental structures before you even enter the archaeological site.
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.
Once inside Monte Alban, you will ascend a staircase and make your way to an elite funerary complex.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Toward the southern end of Monte Alban’s ceremonial center is yet another enormous platform topped with large pyramids.
The southern plaza features some of the oldest surviving Zapotec scripts at Monte Alban, dating from the 5th Century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.