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Zaachila: The final resting place for kings of old and the last Zapotec princess

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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.

If you arrive at Zaachila knowing nothing about the site and take a quick look around, you may ask what exactly is so special about this place.

The entrance to the archeological site of Zaachila is well-marked and easy to find, as the downtown area in which it is located is not that large. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Sure, the surrounding Oaxacan town and its market are extremely charming, but aside from the remains of a handful of pyramids — now turned into mounds littered with ancient pottery — Zaachila does not seem to have too much going on. 

The landscape in Zaachila is dominated by hills and vegetation, especially cacti. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But to the very south of the site, you will surely notice something enticing: a pair of metal doors protruding from the ground. 

The large metal doors protecting Zaachila’s tombs are hard to miss. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once you get a little closer, you will notice a couple of staircases descending into subterranean vaults ⁠— or tombs, to be more precise. 

Smaller, less ornate tombs have also been found outside of the archaeological site proper, even under the foundations of Zaachila’s church, which is visible from the archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Four large tombs have been discovered in Zaachila, though Tombs 3 and 4 are not open to the public and were apparently severely damaged in the 1970s. 

Map of the archaeological site of Zaachila in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Map: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entrance to the tomb is adorned with a design that archaeologists believe makes reference to a belief similar to that of the monster of the earth in the Mayan religion. The frame of the doorway into the tomb retains most of its original bright red paint, which is stunning to see.

A design appears on the stone lintel supporting and adorning the entrance to Zaachila’s Tomb 1. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once you have peaked in, you will immediately begin to notice several stucco figures related to themes of death and the underworld in Mesoamerica folklore. 

A wide shot of Zaachila’s Tomb 1 shows, right-to-left, stucco reliefs of an owl, and flayed figure and a human figure in a horizontal position adorned by a turtle shell. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As you have probably already guessed, these are not the tombs of commoners. Tomb 1 is, in fact, the final resting place of Lord 9 Flower, a direct descendant of the famous Zapotec king Cocijoeza, whose name translates as “storm of knives” and was famous for his many battles against encroaching Aztecs. Discovered inside the tomb were also the remains of Donaji, the last known Zapotec princess.

The Zapotec King Cocijoeza handed a ceremonial mask by one of his attendants, painted by the famous Mexican muralist Diego Riviera. Photo: Courtesy

Both Tombs 1 and 2 are of a similar mirrored design, though Tomb 2 is much more austere. The first thing you will likely notice inside the tombs are two mirrored stucco images of an owl with its wings spread wide open and talons sharp, as if welcoming the dead but also serving as a warning to trespassers. 

Owls were considered sacred animals among several Mesoamerican peoples, including the Zapotec, who believed they served a function as go-betweens between the realms of the living and the dead. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This distinctive owl figure has become the symbol of Zaachila and is prominently displayed in several parts of town, including the outer facade of the market, wings spread, of course.

Zaachila’s market is extremely colorful and full of exotic sights, sounds, and smells. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Also featured prominently is the Zapotec deity of death and the underworld, Pitao Bezelao, who takes on the form of a flayed man with a protruding trunklike nose. 

Pitao Bezelao was worshiped across the Zapotec world but grew in importance during the postclassic period at his main shrine in the city of Mitla. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most unique pieces of imagery found at Zaachila is a figure of a man in a horizontal position as if he were swimming. The figure is largely covered by a turtle shell and is also adorned with a reptile headdress. 

Given its location adorning the deepest niche of the tomb, it is safe to assume this location would have been reserved for the city’s high king. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As mentioned earlier, the rest of the site is made up of the remains of temples and pyramids, which have been ravaged both by time and pillaging. 

Today the remains of Zaachila’s pyramids are covered in vegetation but are still extremely interesting to explore. Just be careful with all the cacti. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine. 

Residents of Zaachila appear extremely proud of their ancient heritage and, to this day, perform rituals at the archaeological site in honor of deities such as the corn goddess Pitao Ko Shuub.

Front on view of Zaachila’s Tomb 1 in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Zaachila was likely founded sometime in the 5th century, but its tombs date to the 14th century and were constructed around older temples.

Mural of a man dressed in Zapotec regalia and surrounded by the iconography of Zaachila. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Several sculptures, stelae, and ceramic vessels were also discovered within Zaachilas tombs, but they have all been extracted for safekeeping and are kept at several museums across the state.

If you go

The best way to get to Zaachila is to take a bus or taxi from Oaxaca de Júarez, the state capital. The approximately 15-mile ride is quite picturesque, and if you opt for a taxi, it should not run you more than 100 pesos or so.

Map of the town of Zacchila in the state of Oaxaca. Photo: Google Maps

General admission is 85 pesos, and free for students and teachers, as well as Mexican residents on Sundays.

The site itself does not have very much in the way of services, but this is not much of a problem as it lies only a couple of blocks from the main market. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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