09 May Mitla: Zapotec Gateway to the Afterlife
Just 27 miles South-East of Oaxaca City sits the town of Mitla, home to an archeological site at the heart of Zapotec culture and one of the most popular tourist destinations for visitors of Oaxaca. While we tend to avoid “touristy” locations, we can also appreciate that epic places will often attract visitors. Such is the case with Mitla.
The unique site began as a small outpost on the edge of the Oaxaca valley, maybe even before the Common Era, but grew to become the Zapotecs’ main religious center. A gateway to the underworld, Mitla represented a leap from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Lyobaa means “a place to rest” in Zapotec, the Nahuatl translated the term as Mictlán, “the underworld”, which is the basis for the Spaniards’ spelling, Mitla. Ludovic Celle, our Mitla expert, explains that, “Not long before the Spanish Conquest, Mitla, as well as most of the valley, faced invasion by the Aztecs, which explains the renaming of Mictlan (A nearby weavers’ town, Teotitlan, was renamed by the arriving Aztecs too, and many more places).”
But Mitla became much more than a key religious center. Ludovic describes the transition of power, saying, “Monte Albán had been the capital town of the Zapotec culture for over 800 years, dominating both religious and political stakes, radiating power, but then declined and finally fell (for reasons many historians and archeologists still debate today) around 800 AD, leading to what is called the ‘balkanization’, dividing the Zapotecs into many small entities of power, local dynasties and areas of influence, including Mitla.” His work in 3D digital reconstructions of Mitla and its surrounding city is shedding much light on our previous understanding of the area.
Likely living quarters for the Zapotec high priests, Mitla was a place of great prestige. When the Spanish arrived in 1520, the high priest of Mitla, the Uija-tào, was regarded as a pope of the Zapotec people. The nobles that Mitla received in death carried an important destiny; they would become cloud people, ascending to the sky to intervene on behalf of the living. Because of the site’s great significance to the area, the Spanish destroyed it as quickly as possible (both literally and metaphorically), demolishing the buildings and reallocating the building materials for churches as well as inviting Spanish clergy to occupy the remaining rooms. They maintained, however, some of the design elements in the new church to indicate to the Zapotec people that this church was the new rule of law.
“Besides being a major religious center, Mitla was also a key market checkpoint on the road to or from Guatemala. And the Spanish put an end to this role by moving the market activity to the new nearby colonial town of Tlacolula,” Ludovic says.
It’s easy to imagine why the famed Mexican politician and revolutionary, Porfirio Diaz, chose Mitla as a beacon of pre-Hispanic identity and honored it in celebrations of Mexico’s independence. Unlike the opulence of Monte Albán, Mitla lacks such prepotency – instead of the impressive pyramids with sweeping views, the buildings rest on the valley floor, their builders more interested in the comfort and ease of its visitors than demonstrating its grandeur.
Mitla’s columns are one of the most interesting architectural elements. They allowed for wider rooms, likely holding up timber beams covered by a stucco flat terrace roof. While columns appear at Mitla and Monte Albán, we’re used to seeing narrower rooms with corbel vaulted ceilings in our travels, like in Mayan sites such as Tikal, Calakmul and Palenque. But perhaps Mitla’s most unique design details are the “grecas” – precisely-cut stonework forming geometric patterns without the use of mortar. Mitla has around 18 different grecas. “It is fascinating,” Ludovic says, “because it also appears (in the same historical period) as far away as Peru, for instance in the Moche city of Chan Chan, and in Pachacamac, another pilgrimage site of the Americas.”
(The image below came from Ludovic Celle.)
The Zapotec civilization was one of the earliest in Mexico, perhaps in the Americas. As agriculturists, they traded with the Olmecs (thought to have preceded the Mayan and Aztec civilizations), and eventually became the dominant power in this part of Mexico. The Zapotecs were highly advanced; they possessed sophisticated techniques for architecture, terraced agriculture and irrigation, a writing and dual calendar system, and sustained a population of 500,000 people. Their primary food sources included maize, beans, squash and hot peppers.
If you’re not traveling in this region by car, use a shared taxi, known as a colectivo, to get a cheap ride out to Mitla (see the map of where to catch the colectivo below). Once in Mitla, there is a short stretch of road to walk to the site but you can also hire a moto-taxi (tuk-tuk) to take you all the way there. Don’t pass up the clothing vendors along the way – we found some beautiful pieces here, including some cool manta pants for Sean (loosely woven of raw cotton). Also, this is a stopping point on the way to Hierve el Agua, so you may wish to see both in one day. (Read more about the stalactite waterfalls called Hierve el Agua here.)
Special thanks to our friend and great Zapotec resource, Ludovic Celle. Check out his 3D reconstruction of Mitla here: https://www.behance.net/LudovicCelle