Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ruins in the Sun - Mitla, Oaxaca

Written by Karen.
Approximately 26 miles outside of the city of Oaxaca, in a small town named San Pablo Villa de Mitla, lies the significant pre-Hispanic archeological site of Mitla.  It is considered to be one of the most important religious sites of the Zapotec culture.  It is further believed that Mitla was still occupied and active as the main religious center for the Zapotecs when the Spanish arrived in the early 1520’s. 

According to Wikipedia, the Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Colombian culture that goes back at least 2,500 years and flourished in the Oaxacan valley.  

There are two major archeological sites in the Oaxacan valley: Monte Albán and Mitla.  According to the Mitla museum's information, ‘In the Zapotec language, this site is called Lyobaa, which may be translated as “resting place.” At Mitla there is evidence of human settlement as far back as 0 - 200 A.D.  After the disappearance of Monte Albán as a power nucleus, Mitla become the most important Zapotec city functioning as a power center in the entire valley.  It flourished between 950 and 1521 A.D.’

In 1553, the Archbishop of Oaxaca ordered the near total destruction of Mitla and erected a Catholic church, the Church of San Pablo on the site.  The Church of San Pablo still stands on top of some of the Mitla ruins. You can see the domes of the church as you walk through the various rooms and halls of the Mitla ruins.  

It’s a small thing, but it was noticed. The information throughout the large archeological site was in three languages: Spanish, Zapotec and English.  

Walking around archeological sites and ruins can be a conflicting activity for me.  On one hand, I love history and to walk on and around historical sites is brilliant.  On the other hand, walking around religious archeological ruins like Mitla are distressing in that more questions wind up being asked than answered.  

I’m not naive enough to think that we can all just get along, but questions about the morality and hypocrisy of forced conversions of entire populations of indigenous people to a new religion wafted through the air and into each corner within the Mitla archeological ruins that we explored.  

It's a sad but often repeated act of history. People and cultures get conquered and it always seems that the conquerors erect a church on top of the previous church or temple. And, such was the case here.

It was a hot afternoon when Adam and I paid our entrance fee and stepped through the gates and into the sprawling Mitla archeological site.  Even the vendors selling bright, colourful embroidered garments, hand woven rugs, novelty items, ice cream and cold refrescos that lined the streets leading to Mitla stayed in the shade.  We pretty much had the place to ourselves.  We could climb stairs, crawl through tunnels, crawl into old tombs and get a feel for this 1,000 year old place. 

It was a rare moment of quiet and reflection within a typical Mexican city limits.  There were no horns honking, fireworks exploding, loud music, dogs barking or goats baa-ing, or cars backfiring - it was simply hot and quiet.  

Mitla was a bit of a surprise.  Despite the ravages of time and personal impetus, what has survived is surprisingly well preserved.  Of particular beauty were the friezes, geometric patterns and fretwork carved out of stone and put together without any mortar.  There are no repeat patterns throughout the archeological site, and in fact the friezes and fretwork of Mitla are unique throughout Mesoamerica. According to the museum, it was thought that the facades and floors were generally finished with a red-colored stucco making the friezes and fretwork pop with their intricate, delicate designs and colors.  

We were told that many of the geometric patterns from the Mitla ruins are now woven by the Zapotec weavers into handmade rugs that are so prevalent in the Oaxacan valley today.  These patterns are still considered important and traditional design elements even to this day. 

Later that day we drove through several small towns known for their weaving.  Huge wooden looms stood in front of homes, with large knots of naturally-dyed yarn laying in heaps against the fence. Large and small rugs hung from the roof and danced in the wind. We saw many beautiful rugs - many that tempted us to take them home - but we could not due to our current space limitations.  We saw designs that reminded us of the friezes, geometric patterns and fretwork that we had seen earlier at the Mitla ruins, and marvelled again at the Zapotecan skill and artistry.  

The Church of San Pablo amidst the ruins
Frieze mosaic work on an interior courtyard wall

Main entrance to the Palace 
Walking up the stairs to the Palace.  The stairs were narrow - about 6 inches wide - and the height of each stair was about 18 inches tall.
The Grand Hall of Columns.  There are 6 columns that held up the roof in a space of 120 feet by 21 feet.  The lintels over the doorways are also single pieces of stone.  These stone frameworks can weigh up to 18 tons each.
The inner courtyard of the Palace.  We had to walk through a small tunnel about 5 feet high to get to this inner courtyard.
One of the four interior rooms filled with handcrafted friezes and geometric patterns

With the original red background, these complimentary cream, yellow and gold stone work patterns must have been striking.  
Although there were tombs throughout the site, visitors were allowed access into two tomb areas in this particular section.  You climbed down some narrow stone steps and entered a tunnel that you could crawl through until you reached a larger room.  All of the rooms and tunnel walls were covered in friezes and stone mosaics.
Adam coming into one of the tomb 'tunnel' areas.  It's a good thing there were no earthquakes that day!


Anonymous said...

Hi Adam & Karen--another great blog entry! Steve S

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Steve!

Thanks! Always good to hear from you. Talk to you soon :)