27 May Monte Albán: Capital of the Zapotec Civilization
Meet the Zapotecs, the “cloud people”, who lived in the central Valley of Oaxaca. From 500 BCE until 900 CE, their capital was the magnificent Monte Albán. Rivaling Teotihuacan and Tikal in size and grandeur, recent archaeological evidence suggests that it may actually be “the first city in ancient Mesoamerica” (1), dating back to 1150 BCE. This gorgeous archaeological ruin, located just outside of Oaxaca City, is well-worth the visit. Steeped in ancient history and mystery, the intrigue around the rise and fall of this powerful Zapotec city is fascinating to say the least.
Sean and I set out to discover the archaeological ruin without much of an idea of what to expect; we drove there from our favorite Oaxaca City hostel, Hostal EL Pochon, just a few miles away. When we arrived, it was high noon and we decided to spend some time in the cool temperatures of the site’s museum before heading to the ruins. Well, aren’t we glad we did! The museum is not to be missed. Artifacts found at the site, including skulls that were intentionally deformed, tell the story of life at this grand locale. While skull deformation has been popular in many places and still exists in some today, the impetus may vary. For ancient Mesoamericans, it was likely a show of status, intelligence or even beauty.
We head out onto the grounds and begin to look at some of the impressive initial structures. We still have no idea what we’re in for. Monte Alban will be significantly more immense and stately than we could have imagined. In addition to being one of the oldest Mesoamerican cities, Monte Albán was also the Zapotec political and economic nexus for nearly 1,000 years. In the late Preclassic period (the Preclassic period stretches from 2000 BCE to 250 CE), Zapotec cities enjoyed advanced architecture and engineering, including irrigation networks, as well as writing and arts. For instance, Hierve el Agua’s natural springs supplied water for terraced agriculture through a comprehensive system of canals. (2)
We drove to Monte Albán from our favorite Oaxaca City hostel, Hostal EL Pochon, just a few miles away. When we arrived, it was high noon and we decided to spend some time in the coolness of the site’s museum before heading to the ruins. The museum is not to be missed. There you’ll see artifacts found at the site, including skulls that were intentionally deformed. This has been done all over the world and still happens in some places today; for ancient Mesoamericans, it is thought to have been more physically appealing and may have been associated with higher social status and/or intelligence.
The Zapotecs traded and shared culture with the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Mayan societies, and in the same period benefitted from their trade exchanges, particularly in the case of the Olmecs who were located on the Gulf Coast. Their support empowered the Zapotec to build a monumental capital city, Monte Albán, and rule over the zone during the Classic period (250 CE – 900 CE). (2)
We crest the first hill and are looking over the central Valley of Oaxaca from a mountain top. This tactical location may be why Monte Albán replaced (at around 500 BCE) the existing Zapotec capital of San José Mogote at the time and took on great significance as the burial site for Zapotec kings. It held this role for more than 1,000 years. The city boasted as many as 25,000 inhabitants and governed over about 1,000 communities in the Valley. (2)
But Monte Albán didn’t just dominate the central Valley. It incorporated and even colonized areas through military force. With an excellent view, it was in the perfect position to defend itself against any threat.
Monte Albán had friends too, like Teotihuacan to the north. A bas-relief in Dainzú (a Zapotec site not far from Monte Albán) showing the head gear and ball traditionally used in Mesoamerican ball games is proof of their interaction. There was even a Zapotec quarter in the city of Teotihuacan to receive visitors. (2) Due to this influence, Monte Albán constructed a ball court of its own, starting a trend in the region.
What caused the decline of this grandiose metropolis is still unknown. Scholars believe that their end wasn’t a violent one, or at least there is no indication of that. Their decline coincides with the decline of Teotihuacan, however, and an escalation of inter-state discord. The Mixtec people later gained control of Monte Albán, adding to its constructions and burying kings there. The Zapotecs continued to flourish in the Post-Classic period, though, moving their capital to a small though important religious center, Mitla.
To visit Monte Albán by car, take the Ignacio Bernal leaving Oaxaca City to Monte Albán Highway. It’s about 25 minutes out of the city. Buses and shuttles go there too, though that means you’ll be arriving with a lot of people, so a shared taxi may be a better option.