Inside the Tomb: San Pablo Villa de Mitla Archeological Site

Some of our fiesta group: Feliz Cumpleaños, Martha

Many visitors make a stop in Mitla as a side trip, along with a whirlwind shopping extravaganza to the Sunday tianguis Tlacolula Market, or a bypass on the way to Santiago Matatlan, the mezcal capital of the world, to imbibe in a tasting.

Culture juxtaposition, Zapotec and Catholic in perspective

For my friend Martha’s BIG birthday celebration, a dozen of us started out with early pre-fiesta festivities on Friday before the big Saturday party. Our destination was an archeological immersion into Mitla, once called Mictlan in Nahuatl, which means place of the dead.

Inside a chamber of the original monastery, a reconstruction

We were led by Eric Ramirez Ramos from Zapotrek. Eric is a very knowledgeable guide who is from Tlacolula and tells all the stories about mysteries and myths in the region that he heard from his grandfathers.

Eric tells us about Zapotec culture at Mitla

The Aztecs named Tlacolula, which means Land of the Twisted Branches, because of the ancient trees here. The Zapotec name for Tlacolula is Guish Baac, that means Old Town. Today, locals from nearby villages still say they are going to Baac, when they travel here, according to Eric. 

Tree with a twisted branch at Mitla archeological site

Not yet restored, fallen lintel

As we travel along the Pan American Highway, that goes from our starting point in Teotitlan del Valle (also an Aztec word), we see pre-Hispanic glyphs at Yagul, the small but important archeological site of Lambiteyco, and hills that look like mounds. Eric points out that when there is a hill covered in cactus, that is usually a sign that a ruin lies underneath. Everywhere there is a cross installed by the Spanish conquerors is a designation that this was an ancient Zapotec ritual site. 

Deep inside the tomb, second patio

Along the highway, just before coming to Mitla, lies the village of Union Zapata. In adjacent caves, fossilized corn was found, proving that maize was domesticated here 7,000 years ago. Squash seeds were dated to 10,000 years ago. I live among ancient agricultural peoples who continue to thrive. 

One arm of the “cross” in the tomb — one of the 4 directions

Detail, end of tomb chamber

At Mitla, we see Zapotec and Mixtec walls of a ceremonial burial site for the priestly class. They are carved with intricate designs, named grecas by archeologist Guillermo de Pie, who thought they looked like the Greek keys.

This tomb carving could be “lightening”

The tombs are open in the patio of the second structure and I decide to climb down the steep steps, then duck under two narrow passageways to get inside. I’m short but it still wasn’t easy! 

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple, traces of cochineal-painted plaster

The tomb is laid out in the shape of the cross, which has a pre-Hispanic meaning for the Four Directions and the Four Elements, meaning the cycle of life and unity. When the Spanish came, this symbol made it easier for evangelization of indigenous people. In Maya territory, the cross is the symbol for the God of Wind, so it was easier there, too. 

Columns atop stairs of first plaza, perhaps roof support

Some of the other symbols carved on the walls of the temples and inside the tombs represent fire, lightening, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and water. We learn from Eric, too, that the pre-Hispanic dog Xoloitzcuintle was revered as a sacred animal, god of the underworld. The Xolo’s were put in the tombs to guide the spirits of the dead, the important first step on the journey to the Nine Levels  of the heavens. 

Steep stairs: bow your head in supplication

We ended the day with a tasting of pulque and then mezcal in Matatlan, and then with a fine meal prepared by Traditional Cook (cocinera tradicional) and teacher, Reyna Mendoza. A great way to celebrate your birthday, Martha.  Thank you!

Native landscape, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Self-portrait at the pulque bar
Traditional Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal accompaniment, orange slices and worm salt
REAL tostadas, hot off the comal, crunchy and fresh

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