The extraordinary Mesoamerican city of Monte Albán is one of the world’s great archeological treasures, legacy of the advanced Zapotec culture that dominated this part of Mexico well over one thousand years ago. Founded around 500 BC, most of the city was abandoned by 950 AD, though the Mixtecs later used it as a magnificent burial site, and the main structures were cleared and restored in the 1930s. Today it’s the great flattened mountain-top (750m by 250m), the scale of the monuments and the views over the valley that impress more than any individual aspect of the site. Late afternoon, as the sun sinks into the valley, is the best time to see it.Read More
You enter the site at its northeast corner. Sombre, grey and formal as it all appears now, in its heyday, with its roofs and sanctuaries intact, the whole place would have been brilliantly polychromed. The Plataforma Norte, straight ahead as you enter, may have been the most important of all the temples at Monte Albán, although now the ceremonial buildings that line its sides are largely ruined. What survives is a broad stairway leading up from the Gran Plaza to a platform enclosing a square patio with an altar at its heart. This ceremonial centre was constructed between 400 and 750 AD, when Monte Albán was at its zenith. At the top of the stairs are the remains of a double row of six broad columns, which would originally have supported a roof to form a colonnade, dividing this plaza from the main one.
The Gran Plaza
The main path takes you south along the eastern side of the Plataforma Norte to the Gran Plaza, the vast, ceremonial focus of the city surrounded by all the major buildings of Monte Albán. As you enter you’ll pass the Juego de Pelota (ball-court), a simple I-shaped space with no apparent goals or target rings, obviously an early example. The ball-game was used as a means to solve conflict – it is believed that the losing team was sacrificed to the gods (see The ball-game). Otherwise, the platforms on the east side of the plaza are relatively late constructions, dating from around 500 AD onwards. Facing them from the middle of the plaza is a long tripartite building (Edificios G, H and I) that must have played an important role in any rites celebrated here. The central section has broad staircases by which it can be approached from east or west – the lower end temples have smaller stairways facing north and south. From here a complex of tunnels runs under the site to several of the other temples, presumably to allow the priests to emerge suddenly and miraculously in any one of them. You can see the remains of several of these tunnels among the buildings on the east side.
South of this central block, Monticulo J, known as the observatory, stands alone in the centre of the plaza – at 45 degrees to everything else – and its arrow-shaped design marks it out from its surroundings. Although the orientation is almost certainly for astronomical reasons, there’s no evidence that this was actually an observatory; more likely it was built (around 250 AD, but on the site of an earlier structure) to celebrate an earlier victory. The carvings and hieroglyphics on the back of the building apparently represent a list of towns captured by the Zapotecs: much of the imagery at Monte Albán points to a highly militaristic society. In the vaulted passage that runs through the heart of the building, several more panels carved in relief show danzante figures (dancers) – these, often upside down or on their sides and in no particular order, may have been reused from an earlier building.
The southern end of the Gran Plaza is dominated by its tallest structure, the unrestored Plataforma Sur, a vast square pyramid offering the best overview of the site, as well as fine panoramas of the surrounding countryside. Heading from here back up the western side of the plaza, you’ll pass Monticulo M and Sistema IV, probably the best-preserved buildings on the site. Both consist of a rectangular platform reached by a stairway from the plaza. Between Monticulo M and Sistema IV, the gallery and building of Los Danzantes (the Dancers), are the most interesting features of Monte Albán. A low wall extending from Monticulo M to the base of the Danzantes building forms the gallery, originally faced all along with blocks carved in relief of “dancers”. Among the oldest (dating from around 500 BC) and most puzzling features of the site, only a few of these danzantes remain – the originals are now all preserved in the museum and what you see here are replicas. The significance of the nude male figures is disputed: many of them seem to have been cut open and may represent sacrificial victims or prisoners; another suggestion is that the entire wall was a sort of medical textbook, or that the figures really are dancers, ball-players or acrobats. Whatever the truth, they show clear Olmec influence, and many of them have been pressed into use in later buildings throughout the site.