Friday, January 09, 2015

a day in ruins

I am finally catching up with my mother.  And it has taken me almost 50 years to do it.

In the late 60s, my father, my mother, and my mother's cousin took a trip to Mexico.  I suspect that trip had some impact on where I chose to retire.  What I remember most, though, is Mom's tales of Monte Albán and Mitla.

When we started our day Thursday, we had every intention of seeing Monte Albán and then driving to the coast to stay the night at Juchitán de Zaragoza.  It was not a very ambitious idea.  But it didn't quite work out as we had planned.

We did see Monte Albán, and it was well worth the short and vertical drive  to walk through the ruins of one of Mesoamerica's primary cultures.  From its formation in 500 BC to the start of its decline around 750 AD, Monte Albán was a major influence on its contemporary neighbors and the subsequent civilizations of Mexico.

Monte Albán's site is its most obvious characteristic.  It sits high atop a terraced hill.  The Zapotecs took almost two centuries simply to level the top of the hill to create a platform that is every bit as impressive as the acropolis in Athens.  And it served a similar purpose as the religious and political center of the emerging Zapotec culture.

No one knows why the various Zapotec villages decided to come together as a large city.  We don't know because no one has yet decoded the hieroglyphs that decorate many of the stones found at the site.

In fact, we know very little about the culture other than what can be deduced from the stones that make up the city.  But that is not unique to Monte Albán.  Archaeologists and anthropologists conjure up tales that must constantly be revised.

Take these stones.

When they were originally uncovered in the 1800s, archaeologists believed they represented dancers in motion.  The majority view has now shifted with the theory the stones show the corpses of captive warriors whose genitals have been damaged.  Our guide, Clemente, offered the latest theory.  The stones are medical records of specific people.

The point is that no one knows much about the details of Zapotec society.  What we do know is that the Olmec civilization (about which we know less) had at least an artistic (if not social) impact on the culture at Monte Albán.  The features on this "dancer" are evidence of that.

We also know the society was not only advanced enough to build monumental structures, it was sophisticated enough to develop medical and surgical techniques.  This skull contains a head wound where the pressure of bleeding was relieved by drilling holes in the cranium.  The fact that the holes had begun to heal show that the operation was successful -- at least, for a bit.

Like the people of Teotihuacan, the Zapotecs eventually abandoned their beautiful mountaintop home.  When the Mixtecs conquered the Zapotecs, the tombs were used by the Mixtec nobility, even though the site was not used by them as a ceremonial city. 

Remember the gold and alabaster pieces we saw in the museum at the Santo Domingo convent yesterday?  They came from a Mixtec tomb (tomb J) under this humble house.

The Zapotecs were not a peaceful people.  At least, that is the conclusion from their own public records.  The building known as the "observatory," is surfaced with stones depicting communities that have been dominated by the people of Monte Albán.

Every sacred site in Mesomamerica has a ball court.  To our ears, that sounds a bit odd.  Who would build a sports field next to a temple?

Our guide explained there is no contradiction.  The ball court as not simply a sport field.  It was a field for the practice of religious rituals.  The game was designed to reflect the circular motion of the moon and the sun.  At the close of the game, the team captain would die an honorable death as a sacrifice -- to act as a messenger to the gods.

Before we leave Monte Albán, let me remind you the city played a very important role in developing cultures throughout what we now know as Mexico.  It was a mother culture before most of the other major cities came into existence.

When I started learning archaeology as a hobby, the general belief was that the Maya had developed the triangular arch to counter the effect of gravity on massive stone buildings.  It turns out they were not the first Americans to develop that style of arch.  The arch appears several places throughout Monte Albán -- in the Observatory and the tombs.

But we eventually needed to get on the road.  And that is when our plan changed. 

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that looked as if the owner had invited us into her kitchen.  Even though I managed to escape Oaxaca City without trying a spot of mole, I did get a nice plate of boiled pork and rice.

While eating, we decided to visit the archaeological site at Mitla and spend the night there.  My mother has talked of Mitla quite fondly.  And I now see why.

The site is much smaller than Monte Albán.  That may be what I liked about it.  I am not very impressed with monumental sites.  But that was not the only reason I find Mitla so impressive.

Mitla is far younger than Monte Albán.  It reached its peak around 750 AD, just as Monte Albán was declining, and was still a thriving city when the Spanish arrived.

What makes Mitla such an attraction is its friezes made up of small, finely cut and polished stone pieces.  Those pieces are fitted together without the use of mortar.  No other Mexican site has anything similar.

My first reaction was that the friezes looked as if they had come off of a Greek temple or palace.  I was not alone in that response. 

Even the placement of the buildings struck me as being classically Greek.  Each of the buildings creates the illusion of harmony with its surroundings.

The columns that once supported a roof appear massive, but in their context, they bear a proportional relationship with the palace's façade.

When we climbed to the top of the palace platform, this is what we found.  Four large rooms surrounded by a courtyard.

It only took me a moment to realize why these cleans lines were so attractive to me.  They were the same lines that Luis Barragán attempted to create in his contemporary Mexican homes -- and the same lines my architect lent to my new house.

When we started the day, I had no idea I would now be able to sit down with my mother and discuss two of her favorite places in Mexico.  But that is one of the joys of spontaneity.

By the time you read this we should be on our way down Highway 190.  To where?  I would not put all of my chips on red for that spin, if I were you.

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