Alternate Perceptions Magazine, August 2019
Mysterious Mitla – Religious Center of the Zapotecs
by: Jim Windisch
The air was a bit cool and musty as I descended the steps into the entrance of one of the burial chambers at the site of Mitla, once a popular religious center for the Zapotecs. It was slight relief from the heat above, as the sun was kindly reminding our group it was already May in Mexico. For a moment, the darkness restricted my view, as my eyes had not yet adjusted from the brightness above. And then, there it was…
Beautiful fret work decorated on both side walls of the chamber. Cut in beautiful, mosaic design, the artwork is as detailed as the astonishing creations found everywhere on this site. Above and below the strips of artwork were large blocks of stone, cut and fit together perfectly. I reminisced that this type of block work had also been seen in Peru. Realizing I had not been able to see immediately was due to a light bulb being burnt out. I stood for a few more moments admiring the creations I was witnessing.
Burial chamber at the archaeological site of Mitla - Photo by the author My wife, MariCarmen and I were accompanied by our designated tour guides, niece Anita Sabido and her boyfriend David. Our home base for this trip was the historic city of Oaxaca, which is located in the same state name. Oaxaca contains the most important ancient city in the state, Monte Alban.
Traveling on Route 190, San Pablo Villa de Mitla is located just over 30 miles southeast of the city of Oaxaca. The scenic country is filled with fields of the agave plant used to make Mezcal, a famed liquor for this part of the country. There are production facilities along the route where you can take tours of how it is made, and even partake in samples of the different flavors. These taste testings usually convince the customer they need a bottle or two to take home with them.
Arriving in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, we found it as picturesque as any postcard you may find. Located in the upper end of the Tlacolula Valley, the town spreads out moderately, with signs of major growth ahead as the main freeway is currently being expanded. Driving through cramped streets, we suddenly arrived at the site. Lyobaa, interpreted as ‘Place of Rest” was the Zapotec name for Mitla, which came later from the Nahuatl Mictlan, meaning ‘Place of the Dead”. Indications give the site’s age to at least 900 BCE.
Paying our admission, we discovered that the sight consisted of five portions: the South Group, Adobe Group, Arroyo Group, Columns Group, and where a Spanish church had built over other ruins, the North Group. As what is a common theme throughout Mexico, and other countries, this site was built directly to the cardinal points. This was intriguing indeed! For such a small site, it was a religious center, so held importance of maintaining this important layout. Beginning our walking tour, we immediately encounter what this site is most famous for: the incredible small cut block artistry, decorated on walls everywhere, without the use of mortar.
Mosaics found in one of the halls – Photo by author.
Everywhere are hundreds of thousands of tiny blocks that were used to create beautiful mosaics on the walls. This is found nowhere else in Mexico! Intriguing designs, meticulously constructed with the highest passion for perfection, it is difficult to keep yourself believing you are observing something ancient, and not modern. A quarry has been identified where the blocks came from, but there is no evidence found of how they were cut so perfectly.
Elaborate designs found on temple at Mitla. Notice the lower base, as compared to upper, mosaic construction. – Photo by author
As we continued our walk, walls and courtyards were seen with the same construction, only the designs were different. Why was this? Another item that kept my mind racing was the difference in the construction styles. Earlier (lower stages) of the walls were very rudimentary; basic stone walls, filled in with mortar. On top of these walls, there was a sudden change! Found are much larger blocks cut perfectly, placed together with no mortar, along with the already aforementioned mosaics. At some point in the history of this site, there seems to have been a sudden increase of building technology. Where did it come from?
As Mitla was the “Place of the Dead”, there are numerous burial chambers found here. Built in a “cross” form, they would have held the bodies of the rulers and priests that lived here. The couple of chambers I entered had the entrances in courtyards, and were all similar to the picture at the beginning of this article. There are also stories of underground passageways that were first described by a Spanish Chronicler Toribio de Benavente, but have yet to be found. Being able to enter these places are quite exhilarating, and a must see when there.
The Columns Group seemed very similar in style as to that found at Chichen Itza. Six spectacular, basalt stone pillars run down a center of a temple hall. These would have held up thatched grass roofs, keeping the elements of the weather off of the inhabitants.
Columns Group Building – Photo by author
Lastly is the Church, or the North Group. This church was built by the Spanish over a sacred site of the Zapotecs, where they believed the “devil resided in the Underworld”. This was common practice by the Spanish in efforts to Christianize the inhabitants.
Even though this site is not at the notoriety level of Monte Alban, Teotihuacan, and so many others throughout Mexico, there seems to be much more to investigate here. With its religious prominence, why was this site chosen? Was it due to the myths of the Underworld tunnels that supposedly existed here, and possibly covered by the Church on the North End? There are still mysteries here, and future investigations may reveal evidence of how the mosaics were constructed. For now, it remains mysterious and a must see when in this beautiful region.
Wikipedia - Mitla