What makes this site special?
intricate mosaic fretwork. And a cactus garden.
This 'city of the dead' was built by the Zapotecs as a burial place and was later conquered by Mixtecs so you get two for one: a combination of two cultures. And a bonus? You can go inside the tombs.
The ruins sit in the Oaxacan desert so no matter what time of the year you arrive, expect hot weather.
After the abandonment of Monte Albán in about 800 AD, the region's inhabitants established themselves in various small centres such as Mitla and Yagul.
The ruins of Mitla are the remains of a town called Mictlán, which in the Nahuatl language means 'Abode of the Dead'. Mictlán was Hispanicised to Mitla.
This is where the Zapotec people buried their elite. The Zapotec called this place Lyobaa, which translates to 'Place of Rest'. So Mitla was solely a resting place for kings while the kings lived in the city of Teozapótlan, about 55km from Mitla (and possibly Monte Albán, about 44km away). I consider it quite a distance for building a burial place. Teozapótlan is the name of the city in the Nahuatl language. The Zapotecs called it Zaachila, after Zaachila Yoo, the Zapotec ruler from the late 14th and early 15th century. It was the last Zapotec capital.
Sometime before the arrival of the Spaniards, the capital was conquered by the Mixtecs. The same fate met Mitla itself, in around 1000 AD. The term Mixtec comes from the Nahuatl word mixtecah and means 'cloud people' (people from the hills?).
There is a Zapotec legend that says that the builders of the city lived in a time before the sun and when the sun appeared they tried to flee back to the underworld, but were turned to stone. The stone idols became a source of great mystic power.
It is believed that when Monte Albán’s empire fell (around 800 AD), many Zapotecs moved to Mitla to establish their political and religious centre.
The site was inhabited perhaps from as early as 900 BC (different sources give different dates). It began as a fortified village on the outer edge of the valley and later became the main religious centre for the area. The oldest groups of buildings that survived are dated 450 and 700 AD. The construction of Mitla as a ceremonial centre began in 850 AD, and the city was still expanding when the Spaniards arrived and destroyed it.
Its peak was between 950 and 1521, under Mixtec rule. The Mixtecs took control of the area around 1000 AD.
The People: The High Priest
The Spanish missionaries destroyed the Zapotec codices so the earliest written account of Mitla is from the middle of the 16th century, by a Spanish chronicler named Toribio de Benavente. According to his record, the name Mitla meant 'hell'. Well, it was not just that the Spanish did not like the rituals that they witnessed there. Hell corresponds to the site's original name, the Place of the Dead, or the Underworld.
At the time of their arrival, the high priest called the Uija-tào ruled Mitla. The high priest and ruler were often the same person, as was the case here. None of the common people saw him or dared to look into his face, as was common practice in ancient times (for that reason he wore a mask). He lived in a palace with four rooms above ground and four rooms below. This seems to be a reference to the Palace of the Columns, with the walls decorated with geometric carvings. He ruled from an inner chamber of this palace, seated on a throne covered in jaguar skin.
The high priest offered his blood to the gods by perforating his tongue, penis, thighs and earlobes. This was common practice among the nobles and royals of other tribes as well, including the Maya. They did this by using stingray spines, obsidian blades, or agave spines. Only the highest noblemen were chosen to be priests and they underwent intensive training. Rites performed at Mitla involved fasting, penance, stone and wooden idols, the sacrifice of both animals and humans, and ritual cannibalism. Priests sacrificed quail, turkeys, dogs, slaves, children and captives of war. Of course, the priest would have been in a trance during the rituals (using hallucinogenic substances), which the Spanish would have detested.
Mitla was a centre for the worship of Coqui Bezelao, the Zapotec god of death and the Underworld (associated with the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli) and Xonaxi Quecuya, the Zapotec goddess of death. Apparently these gods of the Underworld resided in the building in the North Group. In other words, that is where the High Priest would have done all his rituals, offering human hearts to the Death Gods and their idols. Mixtecs would have continued that tradition. So the Spanish destroyed it, using the palace's platform to build the Catholic Church of San Pablo on top of it. This happened by order of the Oaxacan Archbishop Albuquerque, in 1553. In essence, the Church was built here to keep the devil from escaping.
The Focus: The royal tombs
Visitors usually just see the two main groups in the town: the Group of the Columns in front of the Church of San Pablo, and the North Group beside and behind the church. Other groups are outside the urban centre. Altogether there are five groups: of Columns, of the Stream, of Adobe, of the Mound and of the Fortress.
The main activity is to go inside the Palace of the Columns and go inside the tombs. I do urge you to do just that! It is a rare chance that we don't get at other ancient ruin sites in Mexico. The tombs are small and have low ceilings; you have to crouch a bit, but it is worth it.
Palace of the Columns
This is the main building that I recommend you focus on. You can see the mosaic fretwork. The palace sits on raised platforms around two spacious courtyards, north and south.
Steps lead from the courtyard to three entrances to the palace and within is the Hall of the Columns. Huge monolithic columns once supported the roof of the palace.
The south courtyard has two tombs. Once you descend, it feels like walking in a network of tunnels. That is because the tombs have a cruciform shape. This is most likely related to the four cardinal directions that the Mesoamericans used in all their rituals. Funeral traditions of the time allowed for more than one burial in the same tomb; earlier burials were moved to one side to make room for the new occupant. Needless to say, you won't be able to see the skeletons or the offerings.
There is a column in Tomb 1 with a curious legend. It was created for a ritual: hug it, and you will see how long you have to live. One version says that if you wrap your arms around the pillar and feel it move, you are going to die soon. Other people believe that if you hug the column, a curse falls on you. The column is now so damaged that it has lost its decoration.
So who were the people buried here? The archaeologist Alfonso Caso believes that the person buried in Tomb 1 was probably 8 Deer Fire Serpent, a ruler who was born in 1400 AD. Such names were, by the way, based on the Day signs of the Tzolkin Calendar (the king was named from the day in this calendar when he was born). His ancestors would have been 5 Flower and 9 Flower, as is apparently deduced from the stucco figures of humans on the walls of the tomb (I personally did not see these figures although I inspected the walls). Alongside the human figures there was a painting of the God of Death, Coqui Bezelao. In this tomb there were nine people buried alongside this king, as well as his belongings, such as a drinking cup with a small blue hummingbird and a pitcher with a coyote’s head, with the animal’s red tongue as a spout. Turquoise mosaic masks and gold rings were also included with the offerings.
Tomb 2 contained another large burial, with twelve persons. Plain grey Mixtec pottery was used for the ceramic offerings, and some superb pieces of gold work and carved bones.
I could not find any images of the burial offerings so instead, here is an example of the burial offerings from Tomb 7 in Monte Albán (the photo on the left, source: wordpress.com).
I wonder if the buried kings here were missing their thighbones when they were discovered. You may think my query peculiar but such practices were noted in Tomb 7 at Monte Albán where nine individuals were found with incorrect numbers of femura. The same applies to Mitla Fortress burial (near Lambityeco, about 2km west of the ceremonial centre of Mitla). This would have been the residential part of Mitla. It was a common practice to extract the thighbone from burials. Removing femura from war captives is one possibility (victors taking the thighbone of sacriﬁced captives, displaying them at home), but it is also believed that the femur acted as an ancestral emblem and could be used by families for protection. It would serve as evidence of lineal descent and legitimacy.
This must have been a widespread practice in Mesoamerica as even the famous king of Ek'Balam (Ukit Kan Le'k Tok') was buried with the sharpened femur bone of his father, which he used in his lifetime for his bloodletting rituals (for piercing the foreskin on his penis). It means a femur bone was removed from his father for subsequent use as a curated heirloom.
The Mystery: The step fret mosaic
This design is locally called Xicalcoliuhqui. It is composed of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral, that reminds you of a 'greek-key' (a continuous line shaped into a repeated motif). The word xicalcoliuhqui in Nahuatl means 'twisted gourd'. The mosaics were made with small polished stone pieces fitted together without the use of mortar. They are individually carved from rock and slotted together like a jigsaw, with continuous and repetitious frets of various sorts: running, interlocking, and stepped.
A lot of online sources say that Mitla is the only site with this elaborate design but that is simply not true. I have personally seen this motif in Teotihuacán, at the Puuc sites such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná and also at Chichén Itzá. And they made it equally intricate. So it was a common motif in ancient Mesoamerica. It was also common in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria and in Peru on their textiles, for example.
Mitla sits in the Eastern Valley of Oaxaca, called Tlacolula Valley. My first question would be: are there any other nearby sites that used the same or similar mosaic for decoration? Maybe in the Western Valley of Oaxaca? And surprise, surprise, yes, similar mosaic was also found at the site of Yagul, only a ten-minute drive away; and they were not limited to tomb façades. The two sites also have the same style of room arrangements (distribution of rooms, orientation, number of doors) and patios. Two tombs found in Zaachila also have façades with stone mosaic patterns. Zaachila is over 50km away from Mitla. The stone mosaic was also found at Tlalistac, about 30km away.
Parts of these buildings were adorned with paintings, which have not survived. Interestingly, the architecture of all the tombs in the sites is Zapotec while Mixtecs have added the mosaic decoration. Ignacio Bernal suggests that these motifs indicate a fusion of Zapotec and Mixtec cultural ideas. It does not mean that Mixtecs would have taken over the whole valley.
The motifs decorate not only the Palace of the Columns building; they are also found on the internal and external walls of almost every building. All this was done with chisel and hammer and even with today’s technology, including laser machine cutting, the scale of this decorative technique would be very expensive. So it was clearly of great importance to make the motif this way. The question is why.
Could they represent the sky? Water? Waves? A feathered serpent? Clouds? Symbols of life and immortality? Here in Mitla there are six basic patterns. The individual designs are in horizontal bands and each panel contains three of these bands. Apparently over 100 combinations could be achieved. Could this be a coded language? Well, certainly a coded message.
Some researchers say this labour-intensive technique was meant as a display of power and wealth for the city’s ruling class. I believe that it is more complex than that, having studied a lot of stone motifs in the Maya ruins.
If we accept that the stepped fret could be a modification of stylised waves, then at the same time they would be a symbol of birth. For the Mesoamericans, life begins in the water. But it also ends in the water (in a cave cenote). The steps could be leading down to the Underworld, then back to the top of the stairs, to the Upperworld.
Linda Schele, David Stuart and Karl Taube explored the step-fret motif and I like to go by their views. According to Karl Taube, the continuous repetition of the double-step-fret may be an abstracted representation of witz, a hill or mountain. In other words, stone buildings were envisioned as (artificial) mountains or hills. Taube calls it Flower Mountain; the mountain with flowers, which brings the deceased into paradise. It symbolises the whole process of reincarnation, when the deceased king is going first to the underworld and then to heaven (Flower Mountain). This is where the afterlife was spent, and not in the Underworld, as previously thought. The Underworld is only the first step on the deceased king's journey. And that is why the priest had to make such a complicated ritual, to help the king to get from the Underworld up to the Upperworld. Transformations (such as birth, accession, or death) occur through blood sacrifice. And the building's purpose in that process is clearly labelled with the step-fret motif.
The only trouble with this theory is that at Mitla not all step frets are double. When they are double, we can imagine one journey down to the Underworld and the other one up to the Upperworld. But if the step is single?
Karl Taube also explored the symbols of spiral shapes. It is possible that a spiral motif represented breath, when it was placed on a building. It expressed the idea that the mountain was breathing; it was a living being (for the Mesoamericans every stone was a living being).
The drawings below show the stepped Flower Mountain motifs on Mesoamerican ceramics and a petroglyph (picture d). Such iconography was also used by the Aztecs and Hopi people (from around Arizona). They illustrate the movement of life essence, or breath from the underworld, along a spirit path (the path in the middle, through a cave) into the human world at the top of the mountain (academia.edu). Note in picture C a flower and macaw within the spirit path. In other words, the spirit path is there for the breath of life to pass through to the world of mankind. An esoteric concept used in ritual practices by the ancient people.
Don't Miss: North/Church Group
The Church Group, as I have already indicated, was considered the Temple of the Underworld; that is why the Spanish destroyed it and built the church on its platform. Sadly, we did not have enough time to explore the church but I urge you not to miss it. Apparently, fragments of fine murals can be seen inside (although rather damaged), with images similar to those in the Codex Borgia, as pointed out by the great scholar Eduard Seler. The mural depicts the death god Bezelao and the rain god Cecijo, as you would expect at the Temple of the Underworld. However, the planet Venus and the Sun are to be found as principal themes. This is represented in an allegorical way. For example, Lord 9 Wind is actually Quetzalcóatl, who represented Venus as the Morning Star, while god Xólotl represented Venus as the Evening Star. Uff! So, the mural represents the entire Mixtec cosmology, an even more complicated matter than the scenes related to burials, rebirth and immortality.
How to get there:
You can take the colectivo (minibus) from the baseball stadium in Oaxaca for about 30 pesos or a private taxi (price negotiable). They will drop you off at the main transportation hub in Mitla. You can walk past all the shops and restaurants, or take three-wheeled taxis known as motos straight to the ruins.
If driving, take Highway 190 South towards San Pablo Villa de Mitla.
If you want to use a private driver, I recommend Gerardo Escalante (phone 951 170 1862), for a small or a larger group. He speaks very good English and knows the area like the palm of his hand.
As for a restaurant, I can absolutely recommend Donají on the outskirts of Mitla (it is also a hotel). This was recommended to us by our private driver Gerardo and without exaggeration, this was the best buffet meal I had in Mexico, in my entire five years here. Great choices of meat, even greater for vegetables and fruit, cooked in all manners. Very reasonable prices, around 200 pesos.
Mix & Match
If you are coming for a one-day trip with a rental car, then you are more flexible and you can combine Mitla with a number of sights and activities. Start with the village of Teotitlán for a carpet weaving workshop. Then go for a swim in the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua, followed by the visit to the ruins of Mitla and tasting the agave drink mescal at the mezcalería El Rey de Matatlán. Finally see the world's widest tree the village of Tule. It makes a long and action-packed day.