What makes this site special?
built on an artificially levelLed hill, with spectacular views
But it gets more complex. The Zapotecs most likely built this city to mark the zenith of the Sun (see more in the Focus section).
The modern city of Oaxaca is about 9km away. The hill is about 400m from the valley floor. Cutting away the hilltop gave the builders space to build the enormous main plaza with many temples. And why so large? Each temple was dedicated to a different ancestor or noble lineage and each of them had different access privileges.
I came here in February 2019, with a group of friends from Playa del Carmen. We all live in Mexico and I organized a five-day trip for us. Even in February it was hot but that is to be expected when you are south of the Tropic of Cancer.
In the photo below we are standing on top of Building E, at the North Platform. The South Platform is the last complex behind us. A defensive wall was built around the North Platform supporting the theory that Monte Albán was created because of an external threat.
The name Monte Albán means 'White Mountain' in Spanish. It was the Spanish who named the city. The Zapotec name was Danipaguache, meaning 'Sacred Mountain'. The Aztecs knew it as Ocelotepec, or 'Jaguar Mountain'.
Another Zapotec term likely used was Queche (Populated Place) or Quechecoqui (capital city, city with a hereditary lord). Another term that could have been used was Quechetaonabiy (Great Walled City).
Lord 1 Jaguar and Lady 2 Maize (also known as 1J and 10J), from Tomb 6 at Lambityeco. Scanned from Joyce Marcus’s book How Monte Albán Represented Itself (2009).
The etymology is difficult to establish because the city was very large and different parts of the city (different hills) had different names. For example, we know that the hill that the South Platform sits on was called the Hill of 1 Jaguar. It is possible that it got its name from the legendary city founder, Lord 1 Jaguar. His wife was Lady 2 Maize and they are often portrayed on pottery vessels. Another hill name that we know was Hill of the Tri-lobed Heart (carved on Stela 8). It is also known as the Hill of Sacrifice.
Monte Albán was built around 300 BC in 'no man's land', amidst the competition and warfare in the valley, during the rapid decline at San José Mogote. It is therefore likely that the elites from Mogote were directly involved in the founding of the future Zapotec capital.
By 100 BC Monte Albán was one of the largest Mesoamerican cities, with an estimated population of 17,200 people. It was expanding militarily into areas outside the Valley of Oaxaca and had trade contacts with Teotihuacán. What today is called Building J, is a place of 40 carved stones with hieroglyphic writing representing the provinces under Monte Albán’s control. They are referred to as 'The Conquest Slab'.
Between 100 BC-200 AD there was political disruption in the city. Stelae (stone slabs) of the rulers were dismantled and a defensive wall was constructed around the most vulnerable slopes; at the Main Plaza nearly 30 arrowheads were recovered, that emphasise that force was necessary to protect the area.
Between 500-1000 AD the centre's position declined while other centres became more prominent, such as Cuilapan, Zaachila in the Valle Grande and Lambityeco and Mitla in the east, in the Tlacolula valley. By about 1000 AD Monte Albán was abandoned.
The Zapotecs grew from the agricultural communities in the valleys. They are considered good engineers of irrigation systems. For example, at Hierve el Agua (near Mitla) there are artificially terraced hillsides irrigated by extensive canals fed by natural springs. To provide water for crops elsewhere in the main Oaxaca valley, the Zapotecs used canal irrigation. By using water from small streams and a dam, they were able to carry water to Monte Albán.
In the Preclassic period they established fruitful trade links with the Olmecs on the Gulf Coast and they also traded with Teotihuacán. Their capital was first at Monte Albán and then at Mitla. The middle class (architects, scribes, artisans and top military commanders) and the elite (rulers and priests with their families) lived within the city while the farmers and hunters lived outside its walls.
The inhabitants of Monte Albán achieved several important intellectual breakthroughs. They developed a calendar and writing system (as yet not deciphered). They used a logosyllabic system of writing where each character or glyph represents a word/meaning. It is thought to be one of the first writing systems of Mesoamerica and a predecessor of the writing systems developed by the Maya, Mixtec and Aztec civilisations.
They used the number system inherited from the Olmec civilisation. They had astronomical knowledge, which can be seen in the alignment of buildings, such as buildings J and P (see the next section, The Focus). Their architectural abilities are obvious. We have some sad clues pointing to the their medical knowledge, because the so called dancers (Danzantes) could represent castrated victims of sacrifice.
In religion, they were polytheists. They had a number of gods and made offerings (including animal and human sacrifice) and rituals for each of them. Among the important ones were the rain god Cocijo (who had a human body with jaguar and serpent features), the corn god Pitao Cozobi, the god of the sun and war Copijcha (symbolised by the macaw) and the death god Coqui Bezelao, who ruled the Underworld. Their cosmology was the same as that of the Maya. The world had three layers: The Upperworld (sky/heaven), the Middle World (Earth) and the Underworld (hell). From the Olmec they adopted the cult of the were-jaguars.
The treasures that were found in the tombs speak of their high artisanal quality. Zapotec art is also visible in carvings, stelae, geometric mosaic designs (used a lot at Mitla), urns, murals and sculptures dedicated to the gods they worshipped. Even today, Oaxaca is full of entire villages that specialise in specific art techniques, such as Coyotepec where they have made black pottery since ancient times or Teotitlán where there are many workshops of carpet weaving, using natural pigments for dyeing.
The Focus: The Main Plaza and Building J
The main plaza is enormous (60,000 square meters in size). You will need to decide what to focus on, unless you are prepared to walk about for hours. I recommend focussing on Building J and Building L with the slabs called Danzantes (I deal with them in the Mystery Section).
Building J in the Great Plaza catches one's eye right away. It is oddly shaped. The shape seems to be pentagonal. Some say it resembles an arrow, (one side resembles a triangle). Is the arrow pointing at something? It apparently did at the time it was built. The back of the building (opposite the arrow) pointed to the rising point on the horizon of the star Capella, the brightest star in the Auriga constellation and the sixth brightest star in the sky. In other words, Monte Albán is aligned to Capella. This alignment would have pointed to Capella on its heliacal rising between 275 BC and 100 AD, which is when Building J was constructed. A person looking out of a doorway on the building would have faced the heliacal rising directly. This special alignment also means that it is the only building at the site not following a strict North/South alignment.
So it seems that Building J was built as an Observatory. But what was all this obsession with the heliacal rising of Capella for? And what is heliacal rising? Why was it so important to the people of Monte Albán? Heliacal rising is the rising of a celestial object at the same time as the sun (or just before). Capella's heliacal rising took place within a day of the Sun passing directly overhead over Monte Albán. According to Thomas Hockey, the zenith was probably very important to people in the tropics. Capella could have been used as a signal that one of the zenith transit days was at hand. Right next to Building J there is Building P. Here the sun shines down a tunnel in the ceiling at noon on the two zenith passage days. Such a vertical tunnel is called a zenith tube. It served for nohting else but the zenith phenomenon. About 50km from Monte Albán is another ancient city where they have buildings in the same shape as Building J. and P. So this leads us to the question: did Zapotec know there was such a place as the Tropic of Cancer? Did they realize that there was a place where the sun appeared at the zenith just once per year?
Apparently people from Teotihuacán searched for such a place (in the Temple of the Sun?) And another city north of Teotihuacán, Alta Vista, sits only 2km from the Tropic of Cancer. It has a Temple of the Sun. So were all these cities built in proximity to an imaginary circle, the tropic, (and not with regard to natural geography such as water sources or easy defence)?
See below one example, a zenith passage at the Xochicalco pyramid (source: researchgate.net).
It is certain that Monte Albán would have celebrated the zenith day with a religious festival in Building J. Is it possible that the Conquest Slabs don't represent slain enemies of Monte Albán but the victims of human sacrifice for some astrological ritual? What is confusing is that apparently each person has a city glyph written on the slab, where they came from.
I rather like the explanation of this mystery by Robin Heyworth in his blog uncoveredhistory.com. See below his coloured slab, to help us understand the figure. We can see a torso with arms outstretched and legs and the person's head is upside-down. This position looks unnatural but Heyworth is encouraging us to imagine this man lying on his back on a sacrificial altar, with his head hanging down towards us. The line across his face is in black paint, used for the victims of sacrifice (also for the priests performing the act of sacrifice), as was portrayed in the Selden Codex. As for the city glyph, Heyworth believes it was the place that was sacrificed, that the local lords were symbolically sacrificing their cities to Monte Albán (with no physical sacrifice or death at all). A rather appealing thought, very peaceful.
$$$ I personally think they could have sacrificed the captured rulers from the defeated cities around, then hold them at their court and sacrifice them at the right astrological moment. From the sources that I read about the Maya, the sacrifice date of the captives was calculated by the priest based on astrological events (such as position of the Venus). Sometimes the king had to wait years for the right moment to sacrifice his victim. Here they could have done it at the time of the zenith day. We must also not forget that defeated cities became vassals and had to supply people for human sacrifice for years to come.
Some scientists (i.e. Joyce Marcus) believe that the military prowess of the rulers of the city was so strong that they did not have to prove it with a propaganda of displaying individual names of the captives. Instead, the names of defeated regions was sufficient. Hence Building J served as a territorial map listing 40 or more places up to 150 km distant, that they defeated.
Apparently, excavations show that the site had been used for some centuries before the city was built. So, it would seem plausible that the hill was used as an observatory long before the idea of building an impractical hill city came along.
Another evidence of the astrological importance of this site is Stela 18, referred to as the Astrological Stela. It was used to mark the midday zenith each day. Midday was one of only four subdivisions in a day for pre-Hispanics. In addition, the stela’s shadow also marked the changing of seasons. During the summer and winter solstices, the shadow would extend the furthest south and north respectively.
Stela 18 stands in front of the Building Group IV Ceremonial Complex. From this centre there was a tunnel connecting to the altar in the Great Plaza. Sacrifices and offerings probably occurred at this central altar, a show for the commoners who were allowed to the Central Plaza (while only the elite would be able to ascend to any palace in the North and South Groups). The purpose of the tunnel is interesting. The priests most likely did a ritual at one end, then hid down in the tunnel and appeared at its other end, thus performing 'a miracle'. Well, religion has been developed to oppress people with power, so no wonder.
The Mystery: Danzantes (The Dancers)
The 'dancers' are situated in the vicinity of Building L on the Main Plaza. The carved stone monuments represent naked men in twisted poses, some of them genitally mutilated.
The 19th century notion that they depict dancers is now largely discredited. Their bodies droop limply and they lack the sense of balance. There are also slabs of people that look like swimmers, or handing in the air. It is more likely that they represent tortured, sacrificed war prisoners, some even identified by name. Those may be the leaders of competing kingdoms captured by Monte Albán. The tattoos cover their genitals, which are absent, indicate castration. According to Michael Coe, the tattoo is actually a glyph for blood so that would fit the castration and torture theory.
Another theory? The slabs could portray an epidemic. Look at an image in a woman's womb, of a man who wears a hat and earring. Is that somebody important who died in her womb? O the other hand, how can we claim 100% that it was a woman?
It could also be a catastrophic epidemic, perhaps caused by a fall of a meteor, which spread along the trade routes, decimating the Olmec civilisation.
The other common way for epidemic diseases to be transferred is via foreigners from another continent. This is what happened when the Spanish arrived here, a lot of the natives died of small pox. Could Danztantes be foreigners? Apparently Chinese traders visited Teotihuacán. After all, there are bearded men among them.
In any case, it seems that the figures were not Dancers. They portray slain dead people, sacrificed war victims, or sacrificed ball players or sacrificed victims of the zenith astrological rituals. For more details on this mystery see my post Zapotec Dancers Blog link)
Don't Miss: The Museum and the tombs
In the building L you can enter the tombs. You will find a series of reliefs on the interior wall if you duck your head and enter the semi-exposed chamber. All other tombs are closed (do check if Tomb 104 is open, by any chance).
The site museum has a few relics from the burials, but not from the famous Tomb 7 (that is held in the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca. The museum is small and nicely laid out and lit. It has the original slabs of the Dancers and some great artefacts from the site.
Other attractions: the Ball Court and the South Platform. The ball game was popular across Mesoamerica and the objective was to put a rubber ball through a hoop placed high on each wall. However, it was also a complex ritual. For the details see my post Ball Players.
The South Platform has amazing views of the valleys below.
If you do walk about, notice the trees around, such as Silk floss tree (a ceiba), considered sacred. When the fruit opens, it releases fibres, that were once used as cotton for filling up the pillows and cushions. You will also spot Jacaranda tree with the purple flowers from a distance and loquat tree with orange fruit.
But above all, watch out for the Huāxyacac tree. When the Spanish arrived in 1521, they found a region called Huāxyacac, after this tree. It is the Nahuatl word Leucaena Leucocephala. We also know it as Guaje tree [waheh] or Wild Tamarind. Its seeds are edible, similar to pumpkin seeds. Spaniards could not pronounce neither Huāxyacac hence the name Oaxaca (Wahaca) for the city, the valleys and the whole region and the state.
The site is open daily 8 am to 5 pm. The entry fee is 75 pesos (in 2019). On Sundays, admission is free for Mexican citizens and foreign residents (with proof of residency). There is a restaurant on the site, with a great view of the valley below, and the souvenir shop.
How to get there:
If driving, take a road Carretera Monte Alban, which leads out of town and onto the road to Monte Albán. Driving a car in Oaxaca is very safe but watch out for the potholes.
Regular local buses make the trip from Oaxaca to Monte Alban, all-day, every-day, Take a bus marked for Alamos or Atzompa from Calle de Tinoco y Palacios, north of the Zócalo (main plaza). The journey takes about 40 minutes.
You can find the Oaxaca to Monte Albán shuttle bus tickets for sale at a booth in front of a store in the Zócalo, next to the Subway. They will advise you where the buses depart (when we were there in February 2019 they departed from Hotel Rivera del Angel just outside Oaxaca City center). The journey takes about half an hour. They run every hour on the half hour from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm.
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.
Mix & Match
Obviously, visit the Museum at the site of Monte Albán. This is a large site so you will need a minimum of two hours to walk around and perhaps half an hour is neded for the museum. You can have lunch here in the restaurant.
I was here with a group of friends from Playa del Carmen and we visited two villages in the afternoon, to see the art workshops. One was in Coyotepec, the black pottery workshop of Doña Rosa (about 40 minute drive from Monte Albán), and the other in the village of San Martín Tilcajete, the workshop of Jacobo Angeles and his wife María. Here they make the famous wooden sculptures called alebrijes.