[Part 2] This travel diary explores what are now many destinations in three of our tours – Flavour of Oaxaca, Day of the Dead and Treasures of Oaxaca and gives a taste of what that part of Mexico is like.
After a long but useful day of meetings with operators and NGOs, it was time to check out some of oaxaca’s sites (I mean Oaxaca state this time – both city and state are called Oaxaca). So after a quick dash past the alluring aromas of Mina street, a street famous for its chocolate (more about this later) we hopped on a bus to Monte Alban, one of Mexico’s most ancient sites and the first urban complex in Mesoamerica. An ancient Zapotec capital a few kilometres west of Oaxaca city, Monte Alban (meaning “White Mountain”) sits on a flat hill top overlooking the surrounding valley.
After a 30 minute climb through small villages we arrived into Monte Alban. The museum is excellently done but sadly only in Spanish – though with a guide in tow this will be less of a problem for the groups we bring out this way. Fortunately my Spanish is not as rusty as I feared and once we entered the site itself the signs were in Spanish, Zapotec and English.
The location of the site gives rise to spectacular 360 degree views of the valley and across the extensive site of Monte Alban. First built around 500BC, early hieroglyphs found in Monte Alban suggest the Zapotec elite here may have been the first to use writing as well as a written calendar.The buildings of the site are excavated to various degrees meaning some are well excavated and the purpose well known whereas others are at an early stage of excavation and the purpose can only be guessed at. In addition the buildings are spread over an unusually large period of time as Monte Alban is not only a very ancient site it is also one of great longevity, lasting up until the early 16th Century when it mysteriously fell into decline. One of the site’s most important and most impressive buildings is the Ball Court, its prominent position a clue as to the importance of games to the early Zapotecs, games in which the losing captain is believed to have been ritually slaughtered. Watch out Stephen Gerrard!
Building L (also known as the Dancers Building) is one of the most shocking with stone carved figures of males with mutilated genitalia. The physical features of these carvings with plump short bodies, round heads, flat noses and slanting eyes suggest those of the Olmecs, enemies of the Zapotecs and may bear witness to the human sacrifice that almost certainly took place here. They originally believed to be dancers at some form of ritual dance. In addition to this several buildings are believed to have astronomical functions including building P (the guy who thinks up names has clearly been on holiday for some time) with its enormous stairway. Various buildings – platforms, palaces, mounds, shrines and tombs – dot the site, none perhaps more important to our understanding of Zapotec history and tradition than tomb 7. Tomb 7 was discovered in 1932 by Alfonso Caso, one of Mexico’s most renowned scientists and was found to contain some 200 ritual objects made from materials as diverse as Gold, silver, jade, turquoise, obsidian, pearl, alabaster, coral, as well as human and feline bones. This also provided us with clues as to the extent of the sophistication of trade in Zapotec times, many of these items’ origins lying in very distant lands. The items are on exhibit in the Museum of Oaxacan cultues in Oaxaca itself. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the human skul encrusted with turquoise mosaic, jade and gold. It is easy to see why Cortes was tempted by such obvious wealth in the new world. Sadly his greed, and that of many other conquistadors means that few ancient sites have survived as well as Monte Alban, whose mysterious downfall before the Spanish arrived may have been the key to its long term survival.