Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Las ruinas. Monte Albán.



Perched on a mountaintop high above the valleys that surround Oaxaca City, lies the ruins of the ancient Zapotec capital, Monte Albán .

After breakfast this morning, we piled into our van for the short 20 minute ride from our hotel to Monte Albán .  Along the way, we made a quick pit stop to buy bottled water.

Juan Jose dropped us off in the parking lot and we walked up a short flight of steps, pass the souvenir vendors, to the entrance of the park which has a museum on the grounds.

The Museum.  Francisco got our tickets but before we would visit the site, we would go to the museum first; a great idea because I'm finding out that Francisco is like an encyclopedia when it comes to ancient Mexican history that I learned a lot from him.  A quick tour of the museum would set the stage for what we were about to see.

By now, I was spoiled by the high quality of the museums I had so far visited in Mexico.  I had high expectations and although the museum at Monte Albán was a small museum, it did not disappoint.  Artifacts from the site were artfully displayed and a few were well described.  Francisco filled in blanks for us.  In addition to the expected stone and porcelain carvings and pottery and large slabs of carved stone, there were two very unusual artifacts.  One was an intricately carved shell and the other was a human skull that was also very intricately carved.  It may be a bit gruesome to see a carved skull but putting it in context, it's not because back in Zapotec days, human sacrifice was part of daily religious life.
 

After the museum visit, we headed back outside and passed through the entry turnstile to enter the grounds.

It was still fairly early in the morning and it was slightly overcast.  It's still the middle of rainy season so the highland landscape was lush and green.  











The Tomb.  Archaeologists have discovered over 200 tombs in Monte Albán the most famous of which is Tomb 104.  We had seen a recreation of the tomb in the National Archeology Museum in Mexico City and now we were getting to see it for real.  I wasn't sure what to expect but I didn't expect to see what I saw....if that makes any sense.


Tomb 104 turned out to be the ruins of what archaeologists believe was a small compound of houses, perhaps the living quarters of a family.  In Zapotec days, people were buried underneath their homes, ergo the reference to this spot as a tomb.

In the middle of the tomb grounds was a metal cover that protected the steps leading down to an actual tomb. A plaque on the site gave us an idea of the layout of the tomb.

Francisco also told us that sometimes a rock wheel was rolled across the entrance to the tomb to seal it against intruders.  Reminded me of the stone wheels I saw in the underground city of Kaymaklı in Cappadocia, Turkey. 

An interesting side note about the plaques.  They were written in 3 different languages - Spanish, English and the native dialect spoken by the modern day Zapotec people in Oaxaca.

Leaving Tomb 104 behind, we continued on our walk.  By now, I was wondering when we would get to the main part of the site.....that part that I had seen in countless pictures.  Patience!  In the meantime, I enjoyed the landscape I was walking through.....spring green grass dotted with ruins.


And then.....as with so many other places I've been to.  When you least expect it, you come upon a view that makes you gasp and that's when you know you've arrived!


The Ruins! Before me lay the magnificent grounds of Monte Albán.  The first thing that struck me was the expansiveness of the site.  Then, it struck that the site was built on a plateau....not a natural plateau but one that had been manually carved out of the mountainside.  Like the Incans did in Machu Picchu, the Zapotecs had leveled a mountain top to build their capital and most likely, the stones they uncovered in the process went into the building of their temples.  What an amazing feat!


As we entered the main part of the city, we were standing on the North Platform.  Before us laid the central part of the ancient city with the South Platform in the far distance, opposite the plaza from the North Platform.  Surrounding us were views of the valleys of Oaxaca.

 It's very to capture a view like Monte Albán in photos, video is always better.  Ayşe shot this video.  It starts with her narrating in Turkish.  If you speak Turkish and can understand what she's saying, you're in luck.  Otherwise, just watch the view and about 40 seconds into the video, Francisco chimes in, in English, and explains about the ball court.   According to Francisco, the ball game played on this court had ritual significance, and losers were usually put to death as an offering to the gods. The game wasn't easy, either: players had to manipulate the ball using only hips, shoulders, knees and elbows.



And if you don't speak Turkish and you want a full explanation in English, here's the video I shot :-)



We took our time to soak in the views and then followed Francisco down the steps to the main plaza.  Along the way, he pointed out a unique feature of Zapotec architecture - the overlapping panels known as scapulas.  Here, on the structure known simply as Building M, the scapulas adorn the base platform.  They are the two layers of stones - the top layer overlapping the bottom layer.

The Dancers?  The next place Francisco took us to was Galeria de los Danzantes, Gallery of the Dancers.

Determined by archaeologists to be the oldest of the structures at Monte Albán, the Gallery of the Dancers contains glyphs which depict naked warriors, ejaculation, childbirth, dwarfism, captives, the sick, or the dead with contorted body positions (like dancers). The meanings of these fertility symbols, people, positions, or history is subject to interpretation.  These pictures that are the oldest artifacts found in Monte Albán and date back to the origins of the city itself.  Several of the glyphs are displayed inside the museum but the majority have been left in situ.






As we walked away from the Gallery of Dancers, Francisco pointed out another building with scapulas.  Lucky that he did because to be honest, I didn't get what he was trying to tell me the first time around :-)





The Odd One. We strolled across the plaza, passing the South Platform on our right and the structure known as Building J on our left.  Francisco pointed that unlike all the other structures in Monte Albán, Building J is aligned at a diagonal (45 degree angle) to all the other buildings. The building is oddly shaped; Francisco described its shape as an arrowhead.  Building J's architectural orientation has led archaeologists to believe that its purpose had something to do with the sky.





We continued our walk, essentially heading back to the North Platform, passing the ball court on our way.





Back up on the North Platform, we followed the path to lead us out of Monte Albán.  Usually, I'm at the back of the pack and when I noticed that I was in the lead, I turned around to see where the other three were. Francisco was deep into explaining something and the other two were deeply concentrating on what he was saying.  Out of curiosity,  walked back to where the three of them were standing. Lo and behold Francisco was explaining to them the symbols on the 10 peso coin.  I think Ayşe asked him some question that led him to pull a coin out and start deciphering the symbols for them.

That's the kind of guide Francisco was and it's just one example of why we grew to appreciate him so much. We learned a lot from him.


 I can't put my finger on it.  I don't know if it was the location of the site or if it was because it was not crowded but there I felt a sense of serenity at Monte Albán.   I could have stayed a bit longer but we had a full day's agenda ahead of us so we had to bid goodbye to this amazing place.
 
Next destination.  Mitla.