Suitcase and World: Las ruinas. Mitla.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Las ruinas. Mitla.

Located about an hour's drive from Oaxaca City are the ruins of the ancient Zapotec city of Mitla.  While Monte Albán was most important as the political center, Mitla was the main religious center.  The name Mitla is derived from the Nahuatl name Mictlán, which was the place of the dead or underworld. Its Zapotec name is Lyobaa, which means “place of rest.” The name Mictlán was *Hispanicized* to Mitla by the Spanish.

Coming from Monte Albán, the first thing that strikes you about Mitla is the landscape.  Whereas Monte Albán is situated high up on a mountain plateau surrounded by lush landscape, Mitla is situated on the valley floor and the landscape is arid and peppered with cactus.

Juan Jose dropped us off at a parking that was ringed with souvenir and handicraft shops.  There were more vendors lining the path to the entrance of the site.  So much stuff :-(

Then, we saw them.....two women.  One selling tamales.  Oh....we're in trouble.  Bro cannot resist a good tamale and the fact that they are so cheap makes it even more difficult to say no.  One tamale in hand and we were good to continue on our way.

The grecas.  What distinguishes Mitla from any other Mesoamerican site are the detailed, repeating geometric patterns that adorn both the interior and exterior walls of the buildings of both the Church and Columns groups.  The patterns are created by thousands of cut, polished stones laid one atop the other, some protruding, some recessed.  The stones are fitted together without mortar.  Instead, the stones are held in place by the weight of the stones that surround them.

The patterns, perhaps because of similarity to Greek designs, are often called grecas.  Each set of designs is unique within the complex; there is no repeat.

The site contains five main groups of structures.
  • Grupo de las Columnas (Columns Group)
  • Grupo de las Iglesias (Church Group)
  • Grupo del Arroyo (Creek Group)
  • Grupo de los Adobes (Adobe Group)
  • Grupo del Sur (Southern Group)
The first three are classified as palaces, comprised by several chambers, set around square yards. From these five groups, the best two are the Columns Group and the Church Group. The last two have been classified as ceremonial centers, formed by the presence of mounds and central squares.

The Church Group lies at the entrance to the site. In the 16th century, the Spanish built the Church of San Pablo here, which remains on top of a large pre-Hispanic platform which serves as the church atrium.  When I saw the Church of San Pedro, it threw me off because I was expecting to see Zapotec ruins, not a Catholic Church.  We didn't go inside the church but we did enter the atrium.

The Church Group also contains the main temple, called the yohopàe, which translates to “house of the vital force.”

The temple faces a large courtyard. The portal to the temple is flanked by two large columns, which leads into an antechamber. This antechamber once had a roof, supported by six columns, but only the columns and walls remain. Beyond the antechamber is the main one, where priests burned incense, made sacrifices and performed other rites. Behind the main chamber is the living quarters of the priests. Walls everywhere in this building are covered by intricate mosaic fretwork and murals depicting mythological scenes and characters.

The Columns Group is situated nearby the Church Group. In my pre-trip reading Mitla, I remembered seeing a structure with a bright red wall.  As we walked towards the Columns Group, passing the Patio of Mosaics, I asked Francisco about the building with the red wall but he had no idea what I was talking about. Not like Francisco to not know about something but I was was sure the red walled building was at Mitla.

As we rounded the corner of one of the Church Group buildings, we entered a very large plaza.  I turned around to look at the building I had just rounded and realized that I was looking at the Palace, the iconic building at Mitla.....the one with the bright red wall!

We climbed the steps of the Palace and at the top is the Grand Hall of Columns. It measures 37 by 6.4m (120 by 21 feet) and has six columns of volcanic stone that once supported the roof.

Tomb 1. There are two tombs open to the public.  I didn't realize what Francisco was trying to, when he hurried us along, until we got to one of the Tombs and there was a line to get down inside.  We headed for the other tomb instead.  The entrances to the tombs are low and narrow so you have to scrunch down to get inside.  In Tomb 1 is a stone pillar named the Pillar of Death.Legend says that if you can wrap your arms around this pillar and feel it move, then your death is imminent.  It used to be that visitors to could give this a try but nowadays, there's a wooden gate separating people from the pillar.  So, all you get to do is look at the giant stone and wonder how the heck the Zapotecs got this rock down the entrance and placed into its position. 

Back outside, there was still a line to go down into the second tomb.  According to Francisco, there wasn't much to see inside so we opted to forgo the visit.

That was the end of our visit to Mitla.  After having seen both Monte Albán and Mitla back to back, I couldn't help but draw comparisons between the two.  While Monte Albán has temples and wide expansive views, Mitla has relatively smaller buildings and much more *intimate* spaces.  The grecas and red walls also give it a beauty that Monte Albán lacks.  In a way it's a shame that the Spaniards built the Church of San Pedro at Mitla because who knows what beautiful buildings and grecas were destroyed in the process.

As with my visit to Monte Albán, my visit to Mitla was much too short.  Maybe an excuse to one day return to Oaxaca and see both sites again :-)

On the way back to the van, we stopped to do some window shopping but by now, it was early afternoon and we were hungry.  Our growling stomachs overruled any desire to buy stuff so we piled into the van and headed off.

Next destination.  A restaurant for a buffet lunch of regional Oaxacan cuisine.  Yum!!