The Zapotec Ruin of Mitla, Oaxaca

The Zapotec ruin of Mitla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is one of the most fascinating Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic structures, yet remains in the Monte Albán shadow. Many travelers to Oaxaca visit the Zapotec ruin of Monte Albán, without contemplating a trip to Mitla, located at the opposite end of the main central valley in Oaxaca. Mitla warrants consideration. The construction of the Mitla ruin is quite different, representing a much later period in the history of the indigenous cultures of Oaxaca

Mitla versus Monte Albán
 The Zapotec Ruin, cr-flicker

The Zapotec Ruin, cr-flicker

Monte Albán is at first glance much more impressive than Mitla, perched atop a high mountain, its size and expansiveness daunting. It provides an excellent view of the City of Oaxaca in the valley below. And yes, it was built 2,000 years ago, whereas Mitla dates to 1,000 years ago. But estimates indicate that upwards of 70 percent of Monte Albán has been reconstructed, whereas the most important structures at Mitla are 90 – 95 percent intact, with much more precision in its construction. Some researchers have referred to Mitla as the zenith of Zapotec architecture.

Accessibility of Mitla

Mitla is a 50 minute drive from Oaxaca, along Highway 190, the same route leading to and a bit further beyond Santa María el Tule, Tlacochahuaya, the Sunday Market at Tlacolula, the ruins of Dainzu, Yagul and Lambityeco, a series of touristy mezcal factories, and numerous less-visited villages. It’s the starting point for visiting the Xaagá pictographs, Hierve el Agua, and the Mixe district.

Main Mitla Attractions

The precision of the angles of the hand-cut limestone walls and the fact that almost all remains intact without reconstruction, is wondrous. A major reason Mitla maintains its structural integrity is its dry construction. No mortar was used in its most impressive constructions. Approximately 100,000 mosaics at the “palace” site are fit on top of and beside one another, embedded in clay, forming impressive fretwork.

Oaxaca is in an earthquake zone. Conservative estimates peg the number of tremors at 200 per year, with a couple of quakes annually. Over the course of the 1,000 years between the Monte Albán construction and earthquake destruction of that site, and the building of Mitla, there must have been a realization through scientific advancement that using dry construction would result in a greater likelihood of structures being earthquake resistant. Mortar cracks during quakes, dry construction shifts.

The mere size of some of the rocks that were carved and brought down from the mountains kilometers away is almost unfathomable. Some lintels weigh twelve tons. They were rolled down mountain valleys, then pulled up peaks, time and again until reaching the Mitla site … and then lifted into place using logs, rope made of agave leaves, and labor … upwards of 200 men to place each lintel.

Without metal tools, the mosaics, lintels and other constructs were cut by stone against softer limestone. It is presumed based on physical evidence that the tools used to cut and shape the limestone were made of quartz, obsidian and jade.

Some of the original glyphs remain, painted with red iron oxide from mother earth. They recount family genealogies and stories.

One can only hypothesize as to the significance of the six, ten-ton columns reaching to the sky, in one of the buildings. Phallic symbolism? Similarly, it would only be guesswork attempting to determine the meaning of some 16 different repeating mosaic designs throughout. Are they representations of mountains, of lightning, of fertility?

Main Mitla Buildings

While it is said there are five main groupings of buildings at Mitla, three comprise the predominant Mitla site. However it is common knowledge amongst locals that the town itself was built atop other pre-Hispanic structures. Accordingly, estimates are misleading.

About 1590 the Spanish built a church on top of one of the sites, using stone they had dismantled from sacred Zapotec buildings. There is an interesting juxtaposition between that site, behind the church, with its ancient carved walls and mosaics, and a satellite dish on a rooftop five meters away.

The “columns grouping” is the most intact, having been spared by the Dominicans. The outer walls are concave so that only the cornices have been blackened by centuries of weathering due to primarily rain. Four chambers enclose an open courtyard, with drainage. Two sides of the adjoining structure which contained an altar, were destroyed by the Spanish.

Footsteps away is a further construction with two tombs, one of which extends underground for several meters. The same designs are repeated in this tomb. But rather than mosaics, multi-ton below-surface stones were carved to maintain structural integrity, yet with consistency of pattern.

Mitla Bonuses

Gilberto is an excellent bilingual on-site guide, usually available to take tourists to the main Mitla structures and offer detailed and interesting explanations and hypotheses.

The handicraft marketplace beside the ruin has rock bottom prices. Its diversity of product is impressive: silver jewelry, alebrijes, shirts and blouses, onyx and marble, the full range of ceramics and pottery, as well as wool and cotton textiles including rugs and tapestries, tablecloths and a diversity of other personal and household adornments.

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