Woman in long skirt looking out at a view of mountains
Mexico,  Monday walks,  Ruins

The magic of Monte Albán

Monte Albán is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began.

Visiting Monte Albán

We visited the site one morning with our local guide Montse (in my feature photo above), arriving soon after it opened for the day. The weather was perfect, warm (hot later) and sunny, and the light was lovely for photography. What followed was one of my favourite mornings of the trip, exploring what was also to be one of my favourite places in Mexico. Please join me for a ‘Monday Walk‘ around the site.

Montse gave us a really thorough tour and had a knack of avoiding the tour groups, especially during the first part of our visit, so I was able to get some good photos of the ruins as well as the dramatic views. I realised afterwards that she had led us in the opposite direction to the usual tours, which must have helped in avoiding those groups.

Looking through trees towards mountains
View from Monte Albán

Right from the start I was captivated not only by the ruins but also by the wonderful views from this elevated spot. It was easy to see why the Zapotecs had chosen this spot for their capital. In order to build it they even flattened part of the mountain to give them the space they needed for their temples and other structures. On the hillside below were terraces with houses and farm plots, while more people lived in the valley below. At its height, from 100 AD to 600 AD, the city along with this wider area had a population of around 100,000.

Our walk took us past some of the smaller structures, including one where archaeologists were at work.

Ruins with round columns
Edificio X
Ruins with three men under a shade with buckets
Archaeologists at work
North Platform

We arrived at the North Platform, with more extensive views over the surrounding countryside.

Bare tree on a mountainside with ruins
Near the North Platform
Man sketching under a bare tree
Sketching near the North Platform

After taking lots of photos here we made our way around the North Platform to the side facing the Gran Plaza. This is the most complex structure here, remodelled several times over the centuries to respond to changing needs. A number of different pyramid-shaped edifices are dotted over the platform. I managed to climb part of the way up it, to a point where I got great views of the Gran Plaza below.

View over extensive ruins with mountains beyond
Looking back from part way up the North Platform
View over extensive ruins with mountains beyond
View of the Gran Plaza from the North Platform

There were several columns here that would once have supported a portico.

Stepped stone platform and round columns
On the North Platform

While Chris continued to the top I enjoyed taking photos in this area, including trying to capture some of the birds of prey circling on the currents below us and, more successfully, the bees buzzing around the wildflowers growing among the ruins.

Ruins in foreground, misty mountains beyond
View from North Platform (bird just visible lower centre!)
Close up of a bee flying near a wild flower
Busy bee

In front of this platform is a stela, known simply as Estela 9. A nearby sign explains that it is one of the most important archaeological finds here. My photos are of the south side with what the sign describes as a ‘richly adorned male character’, and of the east with a figure thought to be a priest.

Another stela nearby, numbered 18 (and on the right above), is the tallest in the complex at 5.8 metres. It dates from between 100 BC to 300 AD and is believed to have been an astronomical instrument, used to mark midday. It also indicated the winter and summer solstices.

Gran Plaza

Montse then left us to explore the Gran Plaza on our own. This plaza is roughly 300 metres long and 200 metres wide and was the heart of the city, surrounded by temples and elite residential quarters.

Stone ruined platform with steps
The South Platform from the Gran Plaza

At the far end Chris climbed up the South Platform but I decided to explore the nearby structures more closely. I was fascinated by the carved stones on Edificio J (most of the buildings are identified simply by a letter). A sign explained that each stone ‘has the place glyph of Monte Albán, and below this is an upside-down head, identified as representing conquered peoples’.

Ball Court

Finally we made our way back in the direction of the exit where we were to meet up again with Montse. But first there was one more significant structure to see, the Ball Court.

Stone slopes facing each other with grass between
The Ball Court from the south
Stone slopes facing each other with grass between
The Ball Court looking south west

Unlike Mayan ball courts, this Zapotec example appears never to have had rings attached to its walls. These sloping walls would have been covered with a thick mixture of lime creating a polished surface. When the ball landed there, it would slide back to the floor level where the players were located. Players apparently hit the rubber ball with hips, elbows, and knees.

This was the last structure on our walk around the site (had we followed the usual route it would have been the first) and a great place to finish.

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