No one knows what happened to the Olmecs. This fierce Central Mexican tribe came to the rich valleys near present-day Oaxaca, where they founded a settlement whose name has been lost to history.
Around 500 B.C., some newcomers arrived in the region: the Zapotecs, who defeated or merged with the descendents of the Olmecs, whose rich culture was then in decline. Together they leveled the top of a mountain and built a mighty city from which they could command three valleys. The Zapotecs named it Danibaan, or â€śSacred Mountain.â€ť The Zapotecs ruled for centuries before falling into decline themselves: by the tenth century A.D. the site was mostly abandoned.
The Mixtec culture arrived in the twelfth century and set up nearby. They considered the ruins sacred, however, and did not occupy many of the larger structures. Instead, they used the area as a burial ground. The Mixtec referred to the ruins site as Sahandevul â€“ â€śat the foot of the sky.â€ť The Mixtec lived near the ruins until they were conquered by the Spanish.
Today, the ruins of Monte AlbĂˇn are one of Central Mexicoâ€™s greatest tourist attractions. The ruin complex is situated on a high, man-made plateau with a breathtaking view. The land is very dry, giving the ruins a sun-baked, haunted look. The complex is large, so if youâ€™re going to visit, be sure to dedicate at least two hours to do so.
One of the highlights of Monte Alban is the gallery of the dancers. Among the oldest of the archaeological treasures at Monte Alban, the dancers are a series of relief carvings of naked figures in contorted positions. The carvings are definitely Olmec, left by the first culture to colonize Monte Alban. The meaning of the figures is not known, although it may be related to fertility or health.
Another fascinating stop is the ballcourt. A ritualistic game played by two teams was played there. Players had to move the ball using only their hips, knees, shoulders and elbows. Ballcourts are common in Toltec and Maya sites. Often, the game had religious significance and the losing team or captain could even be sacrificed.
There are over 170 tombs at Monte Alban, most of which are attributed to the latecoming Mixtec culture. The most spectacular tomb is tomb 7, which contained more than 500 pieces of gold, silver and jade. Many of the relics from tomb 7 are on display at the impressive on-site museum.
Building J, an oddly arrowhead-shaped building is built at a peculiar 45 degree angle to the rest of the buildings on the main plaza. Archaeologists believe the structure served as an observatory of some sort, because the tip of the arrowhead points out the exact location where Alnilam, the center star in Orionâ€™s belt, sets at night.
In the northern area of the complex youâ€™ll find the cemetery and tombs. Some of the tombs are open to the public and are worth a visit. Youâ€™ll see paintings and stone carvings of Gods, birds, animals and symbols. There are over 170 tombs at Monte Alban, most of which are attributed to the latecoming Mixtec culture. The most spectacular tomb is tomb 7, which contained more than 500 pieces of gold, silver and jade. The tomb itself is closed to the public, but many of the relics from tomb 7 are on display at the impressive on-site museum.
The south platform offers a good view of the surrounding valleys. The platform once contained a number of impressive stelae â€“ tall, upright stone carvings â€“ but theyâ€™ve mostly been moved to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Two of them remain, however: they show prisoners of war, bound hand and foot. Monte Alban is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Hours: Mon. â€“ Sun. 0800 â€“ 1700 hrs. Entrance fee is about $4, bring a senior or student ID card if you have one for a discount. Maybe. Knowledgeable local guides are available for an additional fee.
The ruins of Monte Alban are only about 5 km. from the city of Oaxaca: nevertheless, due to the steep climb and altitude, it is suggested that you take a bus or taxi to the ruins or you may be too tired to enjoy them.
Buses leave every hour or so from the hotel MesĂłn de Angel. Round trip about $4. Phone: 951 516 1215 (Museum and gift shop)