15th March – Brilliant civilisations such as the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs, have all left their marks on Mexico’s landscape. The most ancient civilisation was that of the Olmecs, whose hieroglyphs were possibly the first writings in Mexico. They were also highly skilled in carving, particularly jade and basalt.
Spreading out from the cIty of Oaxaca, are the three Valles Centrales (Central Valleys), where even today, the mostly indigenous Zapotec population still hold colourful weekly markets, produce fine handicrafts and celebrate their own special fiestas.
A few kilometres west of Oaxaca is their most famous site, the hilltop city of Monte Alban, the name of which means ‘White Mountain’. This ancient Zapotec capital and archaeological site, has a spectacular mountain top location overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca. This raised, strategic position, standing approximately 400m above the valley floor and looking out across the valleys, was surely one of the reasons why the ancient Zapotecs chose this site for their capital.
When this ancient city reached its peak, there was a population of thousands, with villages spreading up the hillsides and extensive farming in the valleys below.
The 300m long and 200m wide open area on the flattened mountain top was known as the Grand Plaza. It was the centre of this city and it had a wealth of pyramids, palaces, temples, a ball game court, observatories and tombs. Today it is where most of the main structures can be viewed. Climbing the wide, steep staircases of the North and South Platforms at each end of the Plaza, gives us excellent, panoramic views of the many buildings and the surrounding mountains, simmering in a haze in the intense heat. Plenty of water and sun protection are needed today and as we arrived, the hat stall by the entrance was doing a roaring trade!
A number of underground tombs and tunnels have also been discovered. Many of them have been excavated and have revealed a variety of elaborate paintings and stone carvings. A number of unusual carved Danzantes (Dancers), can be seen around this building with open mouths and closed eyes, their expressions possibly it has been said, as a result of receiving some unpleasant torture.
This tall, stone slab or Stela, is not only the highest but also the oldest discovered at Monte Alban. It had an important function, as it was thought to have served as an astronomical instrument to verify midday, according to the position of its shadow when the sun was at its highest point. In addition to serving this important daily function, its shadow was at its maximum to the north during the winter solstice and was at its shortest to the south during the summer solstice.
In its final phase, Monte Alban was abandoned and its many structures began to decay. Mixtecs began to arrive and reused some of the old Zapotec tombs to bury their dead.
Monte Alban was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and this enormous and very interesting site we think, is well worth a visit