We were travelling in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, moving along the mountain range of Sierra Madre. The mountains climb there from 500 to 3 250 metres above sea level, bringing low temperatures with frequent frost in their higher parts. For some, it does not even sound like Mexico … especially in February.
Shivering from the cold and … excitement
When the alarm rang it was 5 am. That morning was really chilly. I forcefully shivered when my feet touched the icy cold stone floor. The unpleasant feeling made me literary jumped into my shoes. Then I quickly switched on a small electric heater. The red diode came on together with a characteristic loud noise. Finally I felt a gentle blast of warm air. Still shivering I grabbed my clothes and went to the bathroom, of course, dragging the buzzing heater behind me.
With a cup of hot coffee, warming up my hands, and wrapped up in my balmy cardigan, I felt much better when we finally arrived at Monte Alban. Outside it was still cold but just a thought alone about the site filled with a mystery, a myth and a legend recharged my battery and I was ready to give up my warm seat inside the car.
Like an eagle perched high-up
Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest; it is located around 1 940 metres above sea level and 400 metres above the Altiplano of the Oaxaca Valley, which offered us breath-taking panoramic views of the horizon and so of the huge area surrounding the site (“Monte Albán” 2019; Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Precisely, Monte Alban occupies the meeting point of three arms of the Valley, known as the Etla, Tlocolula and the Valle Grand (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Before the fifth century BC., they were inhabited by various tribes, of which the most important was the community of San Jose Mogote in the Etla branch (Ibid.). That population is believed to have initiated the city of Monte Alban and effectively unified local tribes under their control, either by means of a peaceful alliance or by force (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
It is thought that Monte Alban had played a very important role in Mesoamerican history since its rapid development around the third century BC. Its importance ceased only in the eighth century AD., when the site was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Archaeologically, the history of the city is divided into several successive stages, such as ‘Monte Alban Early I’, ‘Monte Alban Late I’, ‘Monte Alban II’, ‘Monte Alban III’ and ‘Monte Alban IV’, etc., which all correspond to certain periods of time, from the fifth century BC. to the beginning of the fifteenth century AD. (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Strom 2019). The first phases with the Zapotec dominance correspond to the city’s cultural growth, where it had played the role of a religious center till the eighth century AD., whereas during the last two phases the gradual fall of the city was followed by its final abandonment; it was the time of the Mixtec and later cultures (Strom 2019). Only during the latter phases, the city became surrounded by fortifications (Strom 2019; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Origins shrouded in mystery
The matter of the city’s origins itself is strongly debated (Heyworth 2013). Apparently, the very first settlement appeared on the site already before the fifth century BC. but with a limited population till the time when the Zapotecs grew in number and became more powerful, mainly due to the centralization (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Generally, Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec empire, where approximately 20 000 people had lived at its heyday (Ibid.). Between the first century BC. and the second century AD., Monte Alban developed to an influential political metropolis, being in lead within the Oaxaca region and possibly beyond it (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). We can even assume that the city owed its pivotal role not only to its central role in the Valley but also for that it was built at the crossroads of trade routes between the highlands of Teotihuacán to the west and the Mayan lowlands to the east (Ibid.).
Real architects of the city
Although it was the centralization process that eventually gave the beginning of the dominant Zapotec civilization, it does not mean that the people of San Jose Mogote were the real architects of the city (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In fact, none of the tribes in the Valley, including the ancestors of the Zapotecs, had built anything that would be even slightly similar to the style of the sophisticated architecture found at Monte Alban (Ibid.). The Zapotecs had also been far from using such advanced engineering and building techniques as those employed in the city (Ibid.). What is even more thought-provoking is that among the construction phases of Monte Alban, the earliest ones are the most innovative (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). As a matter of fact, the architects of Monte Alban, just like the Olmecs, made their calculations by means of the bar-dot code, proving their advanced knowledge of mathematics (Hancock 2016:155). They also used the calendar invented by the Olmecs, which has commonly been ascribed to the Mayans (Ibid.:155). If the calendar, astronomy and counting of time occupied such a prominent place among the inhabitants of Monte Alban, maybe they themselves were heirs of the Olmecs, or even their descendants? (Ibid.:155). The Maya, on the other hand, would have to be regarded as devoted guardians of this cultural heritage (Ibid.:155).
One of the most puzzling features of the city of Monte Alban is the fact that it was actually built atop an artificially flattened hilltop (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Such a position could obviously provide a sense of security and make a city a fortified stronghold (Ibid.). But was it the case? In truth, a gradual development of a rather ceremonial space and the use of principles of sacred topography suggest that Monte Alban was built for quite different purposes than to play just a defensive function (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Strom 2019). Besides, as discussed above, “the city’s [fortifications] were added several hundred years after the city had risen to power” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Successive phases of construction
Officially, it is assumed that monumental architecture had appeared on the site since the third century BC., however, other theories say it may have happened even earlier (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Irrespective of the real time of its initiation, the city was built in successive phases (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Firstly, the hilltop must have been artificially levelled, primarily in the areas of the Main Plaza and the North Platform with the Sunken Patio (Ibid.). Then there emerged its first huge constructions, such as the System IV, Monticle M and J (the so-called Observatory) (Ibid.).
Monticle J aka the Observatory
Particularly the latter seizes viewers’ attention (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), especially while being observed from the bird’s eye view. The observatory, consisting of a strange arrow-tipped structure, stands at an angle of 45 degrees to the main axis of the city, deliberately shifted a few degrees from the northwest (Hancock 2016:154). Although the Monticle J was one of the first building constructed at the site, its peculiar shape (Ibid.) and “juxtaposition to the rest of the Main Plaza and its temples” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014) make it unfit to the overall plan of the city (Ibid.).
Graham Hancock (2016:154-155) crawled inside the Observatory during his visit to Monte Alban. Afterwards, he described it as a labyrinth of narrow tunnels and staircases from which various parts of the sky can be observed (Ibid.:155). Indeed, I was sure that it must have been once used as an astronomical device. The building’s “odd pentagonal shape points, literally, like an arrow to the south-west and it is believed it was deliberately designed to align with the star Capella on its heliacal rising” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). It is supported by the fact that the Observatory’s shape itself reproduces on earth the position of five dominant stars of Auriga Constellation, in which Capella is the brightest one (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).
In addition, “the understanding of heliacal phenomena is important to the growing studies of archaeoastronomy and the history of science [in general]” (Schaefer 1987:S19) What is it all about?
Bradley E. Schaefer (1987:S19) explains that “celestial bodies undergo periods of invisibility, when the Sun is nearby. These periods of invisibility are bounded by the dates of the star’s heliacal rising and setting. The star is first glimpsed during morning twilight on the date of heliacal rising”, when it re-emerges at sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). “The apparition […] of the star ends on the date of heliacal setting when the Sun approaches too close to the object” (Schaefer 1987:S19), that is to say, when the star rises after the sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). Aveni (1978) claims that “the heliacal rise of Capella from Monte Alban occurred on the day of the first solar zenith passagein the year 275 [BC.]” (Schaefer 1987:S31), which is actually the theoretical date of the construction of the Observatory (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). In order to capture that event, the building was provided with the so-called zenith tube (Ibid.) – a narrow horizontal passageway or shaft (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Strom 2019) “which only allows light to shine directly through it on a specific day, when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky” (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). That phenomenon takes only place on 2nd May (Strom 2019).
 [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).
As much as the Building J proves the importance of astronomy to the inhabitants of Monte Alban, their real feat of high level engineering was achieved by the artificial flattening of the hill (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), or as we should rather say – by the cutting off the top of it in order to build the city. “The Main Plaza alone stretches for 300 [metres] from north to south and 200 [metres] from east to west” (Ibid.). Additionally, to the north of the Main Plaza, there is also the so-called Sunken Patio (Patio Hundido), which was hewed further down into the rock (Ibid.) and so “scientifically designed to reflect sound and amplify it” (Ibid.). Actually, a much easier way to achieve the same effect would be a construction of walls around the perimeter (Ibid.). Yet, for some reasons, the city’s architects had chosen to accomplish a gargantuan task of “[digging] down into the hilltop to carve the space out” (Ibid.).
Actually, I am getting used to this ancient phenomenon of making things far more complicated than necessary. Here we can ask the question usually posed by alternative archaeologists: ‘Was it then a difficult task to them at all?’
To make the thing even more intriguing, “the Patio Hundido is replicated twice at Monte Alban with smaller scale versions known as System IV and [Monticle] M” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Furthermore, all these three patio groups are aligned in such a way to reflect not only celestial events but also to show their mutual geometric relations with other compounds of the city (Ibid.). That fact, in turn, makes the whole city “an observatory or [even a complicated] celestial timepiece” (Ibid.).
Gathered evidence shows that the inhabitants of Monte Alban were able to understand and predict such celestial events “as the passing of comets, eclipses, helical risings, equinoxes and solstices” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In these terms, Monte Alban may not have been originally designed as a fortified stronghold, whose function would be narrowed to controlling the region (Ibid.) “but rather [as] a sacred sanctuary dedicated to reading the celestial objects of the skies” (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, “the astronomy may have been the real reason for building [the complex] on the craggy impractical hilltop – for Monte Alban is one of the few cities in the world that enjoys incredible 360° views of the horizon” (Ibid.).
When we climbed up the hills in the proximity of the South Platform, I looked down at the city spreading in front of me and valleys of Oaxaca below me. The whole picture seemed to be suspended in the background of the dark mountains and white clouds in the sky. In the center, the Main Plaza gleamed in the morning sunlight (Hancock 2016:153). It was fringed by clusters of pyramids and other buildings arranged geometrically to each other (Ibid.:153). The whole arrangement gave an impression of perfect proportion and symmetry (Ibid.:153).
With every kilometre I took through Mesoamerica, the mystery of its ancient cities kept growing and deepening (Hancock 2016:153). Consequently, I have felt magnetically attracted, although it does not promise to be revealed.
Featured image: Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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Barnhart, E., Powell, C. (2010-11) The Importance of Zenith Passage at Angkor, Cambodia, pp. 1-23. University of Texas at Austin Chautauqua Program courses to the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia.
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