Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oaxaca Day 5

Today, we are set to visit the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. Nothing around here is as simple as that though. First we had to find transportation to the site. Everyone we talked to had a different idea of how to get there. We were directed to places for guided tours, the crazy local bus system (where you need to interpret abbreviated versions of places I have never heard of on their front windshields), taxis, and taxis with a guide. We eventually found the place for bus rides directly to the site.

With 45 minutes until the bus left, it was time for breakfast. I got enchiladas verdes with tortillas that were folded uniquely into quarters. Shane opted for huevos Mexicanas.

After an awesome breakfast, it was time to get on the bus and check out the ruins.

I am leaning on Bruce Whipperman's handbook "Oaxaca" and inscribed slabs from the ruins to provide supporting information in this post.

Around 500 BC the Zapotec people founded this summit that is believed to be the earliest metropolis in the Americas. Here they raised monumental platforms, pyramids, palaces, and ceremonial ball courts. They were decorated with inscriptions recording the exploits of the god-kings.

For centuries, Monte Alban flourished. By 500 AD, the population reached its height of 40,000. The city was overflowing with ordinary families living just below the ceremonial summit to halfway down the hillside.

The strategic positioning of this location is amazing. It lays on top of a hill with a 360 degree view of the valleys that lie below. Hence, it was a valuable for defending the site as well as controlling the land below.

After dominating Oaxaca and beyond for more than a thousand years, the land was abandoned around 1000 AD. Experts argue over what was a combination of drought, disease, war, or overpopulation that caused its ultimate demise.

Archaeologists have organized the history of these times into three periods, known as Monte Alban I to III. Over those centuries, the hilltop city was repeatedly reconstructed with new walls, plazas, and staircases on top of the previous construction. Period I (500 BC to 1 AD) style depicts a graceful Zapotec style. Period II (1 to 300 AD) is influenced more from Chiapas and Guatemala in the south. Period III (300 to 800 AD) reflects the grand style of the Teotihuacan structures from the Valley of Mexico.

The Juego de Pelota (ball courts) were constructed around 100 BC. The game was a ritual practice common to precolumbian Mesoamericans. It took place in religions ceremonies as well as everyday lives enabling people to resolve conflicts like land disputes and trade controls.

In the game a hule (rubber ball) was hit by the players hips, elbows, and knees through a disk located in the center of the wall. Monte Alban has five of these courts signifying their importance.

Edificio P (Building P), was originally constructed during Period II (100 BC to 350 AD). It was topped with a temple and contained a tunnel leading to the altar in the Main Plaza. During Period III, (500 - 800 AD) the facade of the building was extended and the staircases were remodeled. A light chamber formed by a chimney in the stairway was used to record the passing of the sun when it was at its zenith. This occurs only twice a year and are significant days in the Zapotec calendar.

El Palacio (The Palace), was constructed around 350 to 800 AD. It is the most outstanding in the Great Plaza and was probably occupied by people within the noble or priest class. The rectangular blocks of stone which crown the doorway are examples of advanced architectural techniques for this time period.

On to one of the big guys. Platforma Sur (South Platform) was constructed during Period III (500 - 800 AD). It hosts limited access via a single stairway and defensive walls on the three other sides. It is the rear structure in the picture below and offers some awesome vantage points. The only difficulty is climbing down the steep, narrow stairs.

Next, we made an entry into an ancient cavern from Period I. Within it were bas-reliefs from 500 to 200 BC. Figures were engraved in dynamic dance positions and are therefore named danzantes (dancers). The figures exhibit common traits: they are all nude males, the majority obese, with wide noses and thick lips that have been attributed to the influence of the Olmec culture. Recent interpretation propose that the figures represent leaders of Monte Alban.

The next structure was a little different. Stela 18 (I don't know the interpretation) is a square column erected during Period II (100 BC t0 300 AD). It seems to have served as an astronomical instrument to verify midday. In addition to this daily function, annually the shadow of this stela extends to its maximum north during winter solstice and decreases to the south during summer solstice. On the side, you can still identify signs of the ancient writing.

Edificio P (Building B) is a temple that displays a construction phase during three distinctive time periods. The oldest is represented by a temple with walls of stuccoed vertical stones painted red (350 to 500 AD). Later the facade stairway was built (500 to 650 AD). Finally, the southern and western sides were partially covered with walls (650 to 800 AD).

Finally, we made it to the largest and most complex structure in the city, Platforma Norte (North Platform). It has many buildings and patios as well as interconnected accesses. Construction here was between 500 and 800 AD.

It was time to leave Monte Alban. We lucked out getting the last two seats on the hourly bus out of here. Vamanos.

After all that climbing around and sight seeing, it was time to grub. Someone had told me the hotel restaurant had a good three mole taster combination. Since I really need more of an understanding in this dish, I decided to give it a try. The 97 peso price tag (less than seven bucks) was hard to pass for such an opportunity. For the three moles (they had five to choose from) I picked almendrado, amarillo, and coloradito. They came with a fat chicken breast and tortillas. Shane took the safer bet with taquitos.

I have to say, all three moles were excellent. I never heard of the mole almendrado (almond mole) before. It was creamy and rich with only a slight taste of almonds. The mole amarillo (yellow mole) was my favorite. It had chunks of chayote and string beans, a thick consistency, and a complex chile mixture. The coloradito (no interpretation) was also a new one for me. It is actually a mole negro (black mole) combined with tomato sauce. The flavor was milder than a mole negro has, but you can definitely taste all of the complexities underneath.

That is it for today. I've decided not to crash the tamale class tomorrow since I have already taken a tamale class at the same cooking school with a different instructor. I will probably get out to the many incredible churches around town and take an easy day. Need to rest up for the following three days of cooking classes. Hasta luego.


  1. oops--i tied to leave a comment last night but i realize now i never did the "final step" where you write the word to show you aren't a robot.
    anyway, i love all this information. it sounds like you had an amazing time at the ruins.
    shane's taquitos look super yummy. but i happen to know he doesn't like white cheese. did he push it off?

  2. You might be surprised at the things that Shane is eating now. The Oaxacan cheeses are so fresh and delicious. I think he might even be turning the corner on moles.

  3. Really?
    you know, when i met him, he didn't even like guac!