As time passes and cultures evolve, our appreciation of great achievements is enhanced with the remaining few that best describes the people or culture that made them. One such achievement is Monte Alban, once the ceremonial capital of Mexico’s Zapotecs who laboured and toiled to create an Olympus in honour of their gods, priests and the nobles.
Located on top of an artificially leveled plateau, Monte Alban was founded in approximately 500 B.C. and it rivaled the Maya wonders of Chichen Itza and Palenque. All of a sudden it was deserted after nearly 1300 years of existence, at the height of its splendour. The site boasted huge four-tiered pyramids, great palaces and surrounding villages that were once filled with activities. Today, this site remains the Mesoamericas’ most puzzling and intriguing mystery.
It was called Danibaan or “sacred mountain” before it was renamed Monte Alban from a 17th century Spanish noble Don Montalban. The sprawling 8 acre site is dominated by a great plaza and it rose to its pinnacle of power and influence during the 6th century and after 200 years began to decline rapidly. By 800 A.D. the site was totally abandoned and reduced to ruins. It became more than a glorified cemetery of the Mixtec aristocrats.
The towering stone was buried and the structures are now a thing of the past. The once vibrant ceremonial centre became a silent ruin, a Mesoamerican ghost town. Nature then made its presence felt when encroaching foliage engulfed and smothered the neglected temples and pyramids and buried the stone under a tangle of vines and weeds.
A year after Queen Victoria’s death, Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres began his pioneering excavations at Monte Alban, but his efforts failed to shed much light on why the site fell into decay. After 20 years, Alfonso Caso devoted 16 years in an extensive effort to reclaim the neglected city from vines and foliage’s.
The Zapotecs, inhabitants of Monte Alban, were an ancient people and were generally known by the Aztecs as Nahuatl, but they called themselves the Be’ena’a, meaning “the people”. They are divided into three classes. The peasants and artisans laboured in the fields and worked on civic projects to maintain and restore the temples. Nobles and priests ruled them and their rulers worshiped an array of gods and demigods, similar to those of ancient Greeks and Romans.
Among these gods, the rain god Coeijo (lightning) was a powerful figure who was worshiped and received sacrifices from the aristocracy atop the pyramids of the Great Plaza. While religion were central components of Zapotec’s life, Monte Alban also served as a governmental and administrative site during its apex of glory. Many leading scholars agree that a new coalition of previously separated political entities in the Oaxaca valley led to the creation of Monte Alban. It went through five stages of development and the ruling class of priests and novels were remarkably small but dominated the daily lives of the majority of commoners who served them and were responsible for maintaining the complex of palaces and ceremonial sites. Living conditions of the peasants were poor, unlike their rulers, who enjoyed luxury services received from their servants.
Although Monte Alban sat on a remote mountaintop and built without fortifications, it was never invaded. It enjoyed trade and exchange with other great civilisations, such as the Teotihuacan to the north and the Tikal of the Maya lowlands. They enjoyed centuries of peace and prosperity and the culture grew increasingly sophisticated and complex. It rose to new heights in architecture, sculpture and metallurgy, through its processing of gold and silver. The priests devised two distinct calendars; the 365 day calendar and the 260 day ritual calendars used for divination and rites. Their system of pictographic writing has never been deciphered, due to its complexity. With a logical mind-set, how could such symbols of grandeur and splendour of a great civilisation so suddenly be abandoned and left to decay.
There are few solid clues and many theories surrounding this mystery. Ernesto Gonzalez Licon and Marcus Winter, both archaeologist, offered possibilities when they wrote at the beginning of the 20th century that Monte Alban’s demise must have been a result of a irrevocable and resolvable crisis. It was theorised that there existed some discontent and around the 7th century, there seemed to be unrest spreading among the peasants.
The ruins tell that the peasants ceased their sacred duties of maintaining the great buildings of the ceremonial centre. The once proud Zapotec city became a decaying site due to indifference and willful neglect. By the year 750 AD, the capital was all but abandoned, with only a handful of the population remaining. It would soon be abandoned totally and 500 years later the great plaza and its majestic buildings would be a tombstone of a dead civilisation.
Other great civilisations of the region suffered the same fate. Teotihuacan, their main trading partner, was razed around 700 AD when a great fire swept through the vast city. Afterwards, Tikal and other Maya sites to the south were also abandoned in the 9th century. However, economic stagnation was not the sole reason for Monte Alban’s decline, since they have other Mesoamerican trading partners and share many of the social problems of its allies. Problems of overcrowding and population growth could have attributed to its decline.
Over the centuries, its population increased and this could have been encouraged, since a great amount of labour force was needed to carry out its civic projects. As a result, land that was used for cultivation became barren over the passing centuries and the few cultivable lands were not enough to feed its population. This could have led to unrest and discontent by the peasants leaving the site to be abandoned hastily.
The dawn of the 9th century saw the diaspora of Zapotec community settled in Oaxaca’s valleys where they cultivate crops, hunt and trade with neighbouring tribes. The Zapotec culture did not die with Monte Alban but endured to become vital and creative community up to this day.
Modern day Zapotecs speak their traditional language and many live in towns and villages at the Oaxaca valley, such as the Teotitlan del Valle – the city of thousand weavers. They continue the creative spirit of their ancestors who built one of the Modern Wonders of the World. Meanwhile, Monte Alban became a UNESCO Cultural Patrimony of Humanity site in 1987, where its great buildings and ceremonial sites were restored to their former glory. Monte Alban testifies to the capacity of people in attaining seemingly impossible heights but there is a darker side through Monte Alban’s ruins, where even the most cherished and splendid achievements can crumble as fast as it was created.