About Monte Alban
Monte Alban was once the capital of the Zapotec civilisation and the second-largest ceremonial site in Central America. The site remains no less impressive today: it was created by an incredible feat which involved carving a flat space out of a mountain rising to an elevation of over 1,600 feet above the valley below it.
History of Monte Alban
Monte Alban was inhabited for approximately 1,500 years by a succession of civilisations, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs and, at its peak, had a population of around 25,000 people.
The earliest inhabitants of Monte Alban were the Olmecs, who are credited with the over 140 carved stones known as the monument of Los Danzantes, depicting mutilated figures. There has been much debate over what these figures represent. ‘Los Danzantes’ means dancers, but it has since been posited that these were actually war prisoners.
However, whilst Olmec contributions remain, most of the structures found at Monte Alban today were built by the Zapotecs, who are thought to have arrived between 800 BC and 500 BC. Construction continued over the centuries and was later influenced by the culture of Teotihuacan.
Monte Alban is characterised by over 2,200 terraces as well as numerous pyramid structures, large staircases, ornate palaces, elaborate tombs and even a ball court known as Juego de Pelota, mostly arranged on its “Grand Plaza”. The ball court is very well-preserved, made up of two facing stepped platforms with the playing field in the centre. The ball games played were ritualistic and often ended in the death of the losers.
In approximately 800 AD, the Zapotecs were threatened by the Mixtecs and fortified Monte Alban before being driven out. The Mixtecs took over the site and, in around 1400 AD, started burying their leaders in the Zapotec tombs. Whilst many of these ornately decorated tombs were looted, vast riches were found in one particular tomb – Tomb 7 – which can now been seen at Museo Regional de Oaxaca. Some tombs are open to visitors, although this is sporadic.
Monte Alban today
The site gets quite busy, especially at weekends. Monte Alban covers quite an expanse so it’s worth wearing comfy shoes. There’s little shade, so bring a hat and water if it’s sunny. The views from Monte Alban are great, especially on a clear day.
There’s a good museum at the entrance to the site with objects from the excavations undertaken at Monte Alban, although there’s not much signage in English. Guides are available – they lurk outside the entrance. Some are official, some are not, so be sure to check their credentials.
Getting to Monte Alban
Monte Alban is about 10km south west of Oaxaca – hop in a bus, colectivo or taxi to get there.
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