The extraordinary city of MONTE ALBÁNis one of the world’s great archeological treasures, legacy of the advanced Zapotec culture that dominated this part of Mexico well over a 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. 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. 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. Late afternoon, as the sun sinks into the valley, is the best time to see it.
There’s a car park, restaurant and souvenir shop by the entrance, and a small museum in the same complex: the collection is tiny, but there are some important finds on display, including the carvings of the “dancers”, intricate sculptures, ceramics and some gruesome mutilated skulls, presumably victims of the Zapotecs.
It seems almost madness to have tried to build a city here, so far from the obvious livelihood of the valleys and without any natural water supply (in the dry season water was carried up and stored in vast urns). Yet that may have been the Zapotecs’ point – to demonstrate their mastery of nature. By waging war on potential rivals, the new city soon came to dominate an area that extended well beyond the main valley – the peculiar danzante figures (“dancers”) carved in stone that you can see at the ruins today are widely considered to be depictions of prisoners captured in battle.
By 200 AD, the population had expanded to such a degree that the Zapotecs endeavoured to level the Monte Albán spur completely to create more space, essentially forming a massive plateau. The resulting engineering project boggles the mind: without the aid of the wheel or beasts of burden, millions of tonnes of earth were shifted to build a vast, flat terrace on which the Zapotecs constructed colossal pyramids, astronomical observatories and palaces. What you see today is only the very centre of the city – its religious and political heart. On the terraced hillsides below lived a bustling population of between twenty five thousand and thirty thousand craftsmen, priests, administrators and warriors, all of whom, presumably, were supported by tribute from the valleys. It’s small wonder that so top-heavy a society was easily destabilized. That said, there is still much speculation as to why the site was ultimately abandoned.