After recovering a wee bit from the driving and the altitude, and having wandered around the actual city of Oaxaca and its markets. It was time for something a bit more old school, old school as in 1500 to 2500 years old. The ruins at Monte Alban.
These ruins stand out to us for two reasons, the first is that they are not Mayan and have the distinction of being our first Zapotec ruins (not to be mistaken for the Zapatista, who protest for Mexican rights and cause people to be late to their destinations). The Zapotec pre-dated and existed at the same time as the Mayans and have a similar style of architecture, writing system and culture. The second reason is that these are the first ruins we have seen high up. This adds and element to the viewing pleasure as I am sure anyone who has been to Machu Pichu would attest (I haven’t, yet).
The views from the top of Monte Alban
We jumped in the car and made our way through the surprisingly hectic traffic of Oaxaca to the outskirts of town and started climbing the surrounding hills. The ruins sit at about 600 meters above the city for a total of 1900 meters above sea level. This isn’t much compared to say Everest base camp (which I have done), but it is enough to feel the thinning air and its side effects, a surprising amount I realized as I had to pull off the road when my head started to spin. But 10 minutes later things came back into focus and we were off again.
The ruins are pretty spectacular and the earliest parts date back to around 200 BC all the way up to 1000 AD. They look over the valley and as you walk around you can imagine these ancient peoples going about their business with that amazing view before them. Their business by the way seems to have involved an inordinate amount of genital mutilation.
The aforementioned genital mutilation depicted in stone
Now that’s a room with a view
You read about Mayan sacrifice and warring and all that, but it is only through certain times and certain groups where this sort of thing was prolific. It seems that these fellas way out here in the hills of Oaxaca were one of those groups, and at least during different periods fell into the stereotype of ancient Meso-American cultures. They were a warring bunch and there are dozens of stone tablets around the ruins which attest to their conquering of other groups and the subsequent torturing and aforementioned genital mutilation of opposing leaders. I suppose if you really want to scare the shit out of people, tearing a guy a new one in his old fella is a pretty effective way to do it.
Regardless of this penchant for Genital mutilation, the Zapotecs sure knew how to build a pretty pyramid and the ruins are spectacular, mostly for their location and the image this ‘far off in the mountains’ place evokes of how and why they came all the way up here to make a life. At one point around 20 000 people lived in and around the ancient town of Monte Alban, until, as all empires do, they waned and died. Now there is only an incredible view from some pretty amazing structures. If you ever come out this way you should go have a look.
Thanks for reading. Peace.
Monte Alban in all its Oaxacan glory
If you missed them check out the others in this series
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