Sunday, May 3, 2009

Monte Alban--Sacred Ceremonial City

Gouache painting--Oaxacascape: Mercado below, Monte Alban above

Influenced by the Olmecs, the Zapotecs built Monte Alban(Danibaan in Zapotec) on a mountaintop near what is now the city of Oaxaca. Construction began in 500 BC. The site was abandoned around 800 AD. Monte Alban functioned as an inhabited sacred space for over 1000 years, at least 1500 years before the Aztecs came to power in 1200 AD in central Mexico. According to Marcus Winter, an INAH archaeologist who helped excavate it, Monte Alban was one of the first ceremonial cities built by any culture in Mesoamerica. The top of the mountain was leveled and pyramidal bases with temples on top were constructed on an immense flat plaza. They flattened the mountain top without draft animals, wheels or slaves-- an act of devotion to their pantheon of deities. From Oaxaca city you can look up and see the tree and stone walls of the North Temple Complex miles away.

Although Monte Alban wasn’t "discovered" by outsiders until the 20th century, the locals continued to use it as a ceremonial place after its abandonment between the 9th-11th century. Shamans, priests,kings, midwifes and commoners climbed the sacred mountain to make prayers and rituals on top of earth covered pyramids which looked like mounds. So, Monte Alban, while abandoned as a public ceremonial center, continued to be used as a revered, sacred space.

Linda Schele (The Mayan Cosmos) said that the Mayans destroyed their pyramids on purpose and covered them with earth when they abandoned their cities around 800 AD. It was their way of “closing” down these sacred, energy centers. I assume the Zapotecs did the same. Local farmers started planting corn in the old plazas. Danibaan seemed to return to nature. Hernando Cortez and his soldiers never saw the old city on the mountaintop.

Going to Oaxaca, where the archaic integrates with the modern, I finally discovered our continent’s ancient, pre-European civilizations. Standing on a pyramidal temple base at Monte Alban in 1982, I remembered the overgrown "Indian" mound I played on as a child in southern Indiana--it too was built around 500 BC. I intuitively understood their connection. It inspired me to dig into the mystery of our old cultures in the Americas.

excerpt from "Mi Querida Oaxaca" an unpublished manuscript by Mitzi Linn

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