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Monte Alban

Monte Alban

Monte Alban in Mexico. By 700 CE, the Zapotecs had built a flourishing empire with Monte Alban as its capital.

The wonderfully preserved mountaintop ruins on Monte Alban in southern Mexico allow visitors the chance to visualize life in an ancient Mesoamerican capital city, a once flourishing sacred center that offers breathtaking views of the Oaxaca Valley, similar to those enjoyed by the Zapotecs of old, the civilization that made this strategic location their home for centuries.

The history of Monte Alban began at a time when three groups of peoples lived in three separate settlement s on the branches of the Oaxaca Valley. The competitive groups left an uninhabited neutral zone in the center of the valley for years, until sometime between 700 and 500 BCE, when the largest of these groups made their way into the neutral area with plans of literally carving an ambitious new city out of a strategically located mountaintop in the center of these valley lands. These early city founders carried out the daunting task of leveling the top of Monte Alban. The new home land’s panoramic view of neighbors and would be invaders afforded a helpful military advantage, not to mention awesome views of rolling hills and distant Mesoamerican horizons.

By 700 CE, the Zapotecs had built a flourishing empire with Monte Alban as its capital. The empire covered a vast region that extended far beyond the valley’s mountain peaked skyline observed by Monte Alban residents for countless generations. Capital city residents lived among many monuments still standing today: stone buildings, a ball court and majestic pyramid temples all built around a central town square. The square itself contains buildings with mysterious functions and carved images. A secret tunnel connects a palace to one of the buildings in the middle of the plaza. Writing found on one of these buildings may declare the names of ancient places the Zapotecs conquered. Human head images may be portraits of the rulers of these places. Some heads are depicted upside down, suggesting the Zapotecs conquered the kingdoms of these rulers by use of force. The oldest known structure displays the Gallery of the Dancers, so named for the 300 stone monuments with life sized carved drawings of human figures captured in curious poses. It is not clear who the images represent and why they appear frozen in mid-dance step.

Monte Alban rulers had political contact with other powerful urban centers such as Teotihuacan, hundreds of miles to the north, near today’s Mexico City. These contacts played an important role in the development of the city, as many architectural concepts employed here were taken from the northern neighbors. Masks and various structures with Teotihuacan flavorings have been discovered within Monte Alban ruins.

Shortly after 700 CE however, the city’s influence declined and it ended up abandoned for a time. Around the 13th century, long time residents of the region, the Mixtecs, quietly settled in the uninhabited, once glorious empire capital city. Mixtec rulers requested to be buried in the tombs of Monte Alban’s forefathers. In 1932, these tombs were discovered along with hundreds of artifacts buried with the rulers.

You can easily access this UNESCO world heritage site by bus from the city of Oaxaca. It is only about 6 miles from the colonial Spanish town, which provides a perfect contrast in style to the ancient Monte Alban. Here, a short bus ride separates visions of to two worlds that collided in the 16th century, a collision that continues to define Mexico. A tour of the site only costs around $4. Guided tours run around $15. The memorable experience of visiting Monte Alban, one of the first cities in Mesoamerica, the sacred city of the Zapotecs, once a bustling home to more 30,000 people, will connect you to distant past, and give you intimate insight into the lives of the Mesoamerican ancients.