Monte Alban: Closer to the Gods

Atop the Zapotec world and about 15 minutes from the historic center of Oaxaca is the great Meso-american archeological site of Monte Alban, named by the Spaniards after siting the mountaintop covered with the blooms of the white morning-glory tree (left photo below).


The Spanish Conquistadores named Oaxaca for the  plant, called in Nahuatl huaxyacac, which they could not pronounce (pictured above right).  The pods contain edible green seeds used to flavor soups and stews.  Today, we see them nondescriptly bundled and sold in local and regional markets rarely remembering the important origins of this humble pod.

The Zapotecs of Monte Alban believed that the higher they built, the closer they would be to their gods to whom they prayed for rain and corn, for protection from earthquakes, for sun to yield more crops, and for other essentials of daily life.  Here, the sun, moon and stars determined life and its future.  The observatory, the geometry of the buildings, the size of the plaza were all determined by the solar calendar. The record of conquests were carved in the ancient rock — named swimmers and dancers by archeologists.


You can read much more about Monte Alban in archeological and history books or visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where Monte Alban is cited among the great civilizations for its advanced organizational and government structure.


Sacred elements are carved into the stone.  The tiny steps were designed to hold the colored plaster that covered the temples, observatory and ball court.  Here is where the elite lived, closer to god, their ears pierced with plugs and their foreheads sloped as infants to signify their stature.  There were no human sacrifices at Monte Alban, according to our knowledgeable guide Pablo Gutierrez Marsh, only the offering of animals.

According to the Zapotec calendar, each day begins at noon.  The writing system is pictographic and has not yet been deciphered.  The plaza, which could hold 13,000 people, is flanked by two tall pyramids that visitors are allowed to climb.  They each lead to a high plaza where you can get a 360 degree view of the Oaxaca valley below.


During the Monte Alban I and Monte Alban II periods, farmers lived below and provided food for the ruling class who lived on the high terraces.  Ornamented pottery vessels were crafted in the village of Atzompa at the foot of Monte Alban.  Ceramics are still made there today.

I managed to climb the steep steps to the top of both temples flanking each end of the plaza.  At the top, humans appeared as if in miniature and the magnificence of place was astounding.  At the time when Monte Alban was first inhabited and construction began, around 700 A.D., there were no wheels or draught animals here. Only human labor carried huge slabs of stone up the mountain from the valley below.  Our group spent over two hours here capturing a sense of place.  The day was clear, sunny and brisk.  Perfect for climbing and walking.  I was on top of the world and so were our workshop participants!

Pablo, Deanna, Carey, June and Carole at Monte Alban

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