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Sunday December 17 2017
Oaxaca: Experience 2000 Years in a Single Day
Tony Burton

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The warm afternoon breeze wafts a gentle mist of dust across the floor of the Oaxaca valley and into Oaxaca city, softening the colonial patina of the richly carved, 300 year old cathedral. The dust is 2000 years old, the dust of Monte Alban, the first major city in the Americas. Now a ghost city, Monte Alban sits perched on a promontory overlooking the modern city which sprawls across the valley floor far below. Two millennia ago, the Zapotec Indians who built Monte Alban trampled parts of the hillside into this dust, as they traded in the city's thriving market or gathered to witness important ceremonies.

While they went about their daily tasks, Monte Alban's resident priests and astronomers were discussing how to achieve two great objectives: where to construct a new, state of the art astronomical observatory, and how best to help civic leaders 500 km away in central Mexico construct another major urban centre Teotihuacan, "City of the Gods".

Given the long and rich history of the Oaxaca valley, and the balmy afternoon sunshine, is it any wonder that sitting in the city's main square sipping a cool beer, my thoughts repeatedly turn to what it must have been like in the past and to ponder on possible scenarios for the future?

The cities of the Oaxaca valley have welcomed tourists for over two thousand years. Among the earliest tourists anywhere in Mexico were those families who accompanied the traders arriving to barter their wares in Monte Alban. In recent times, a steady flood of tourists, from Europe, the United States and Canada, streams through Oaxaca's airport before fanning out across the valley in search of the vestiges of the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec cities, seeking to find, in these long abandoned sites, clues to timeless questions. A steady stream of modern day tourists scours city stores for indigenous handicrafts; a few tourists trek to the source of these colorful ceramics and textiles, to one or more of a score of otherwise drab Indian villages, each with its own particular specialty and weekly market.

Past and present merge together during even a brief trip to Oaxaca. In the morning, you can journey from the creature comforts of your twenty-first century hotel room to a nineteenth century craft studio, where artisans toil from dawn till dusk, creating imaginative works of art. At mid day, your lunchtime food can range from such pre-Columbian menu delights as fried grasshoppers to modern fast foods like hamburgers. In the afternoon, visit a museum housing seventeenth century treasures, before climbing the time worn steps of an ancient city.

There is so much to see here than a single trip is never enough. But even those staying just a single night can capture the elusive flavor of Oaxaca by combining a downtown hotel with visits to just three separate sites that lie in close proximity to one another just outside the city.

The ancient city of Monte Alban
Let's start by visiting Monte Alban. Ideally, set out early and arrive at the site as it opens (8 am), if only to get a head start on the day’s invasion of tourist buses. Allow at least three or four hours to explore the site. The morning light can be very special here, and watching the overnight mist dissipate slowly as the sun lazily filters through to the valley floor nine hundred feet below is a magical, almost mystical experience.

Nomadic peoples first wandered through this region around 8000 BC. Eventually, the domestication of crops allowed small concentrations of Zapotec Indian families to live year round in a single place. The earliest villages date back to around 1400 BC, by which time Mexico's staple foodstuff - tortillas -had been "invented". Signs of trade appear of such exotic items as obsidian (for cutting implements, arrowheads and mirrors), greenstone (religious effigies) and shells (jewelry, musical instruments). Gradually the village becomes a small city of 25,000 or so people. Within this city emerge writing, calendars, social stratification and ceremonial functions.

The emergence of Monte Alban as a major city is well illustrated in the museum at the site’s entrance. This museum explains many key aspects of Zapotec life. Particularly impressive are the displays detailing the practice of skull trepanation, where (for unknown reasons) some people had small holes drilled into their skulls. Their healing scars prove they survived the experience, though we have no idea whether their lives were made better or worse by such surgical interventions. Other displays highlight the details of congenital defects and malnutrition and of cultural practices like multiple burials.

The museum also contains numerous artifacts relating to the trade links between the Zapotecs of Monte Alban, the Olmecs along the Gulf coast, and, later, the people in central Mexico and Teotihuacan. The links to Teotihuacan are especially interesting. Specimens of the naturally occurring mineral mica found in that city almost certainly originated in the Oaxaca region; the numerous obsidian items found in Oaxaca just as surely came from workshops in Teotihuacan. Indeed, researchers have shown that the sprawling city of Teotihuacan contained a clearly defined quarter specifically for Zapotecs.

Entering the site, you emerge into an extensive grassed square or plaza, with stairways, temples and constructions on every side. In all, the site covers some 20 square kilometers, spreading over five interconnected hills.

To your right as you enter main plaza is the North Platform, the site of the Zapotec king's residence and the temples of the nobility. Wandering around the hillside behind the North Platform, you will discover various sunken courtyards, some with vaulted tombs below. Distinguishing between residences and temples is relatively easy the former have narrower entrances than the latter.

To the left, on the eastern side of the plaza, are the distinctively shaped ballcourt (shaped like a capital I) and The Palace, presumed home of an important dignitary. Most of the constructions you can see were built and then rebuilt several times. Further away are the temples of the South Platform. Standing on the windswept South Platform, admiring the view below, leads one to ponder on the improbability of this site from the point of view of water or food supplies. It may have enjoyed military superiority (given its height) but where did they get the water and food needed to sustain this sizeable city?

The Zapotec not only engineered numerous water storages, but reorganized them as needed. Most cultivation (corn, beans, squash, chiles) took place on the valley floor; some fields were irrigated. It has been calculated that about 17,500 people could have been supported by the annual production of crops within an eight kilometer radius of Monte Alban. At its peak, the city housed twice as many 35,000 inhabitants.

On the far side of the main plaza from the entrance, two temples, each with decorative panels, flank the Building of the Dancers with its large bas reliefs depicting human figures in various contorted poses. These strange figures were christened "danzantes" (dancers) long ago and the name has stuck, despite a total lack of evidence that they really portray performing artists.

Fifteen years ago, a local guide tried to convince me that these bas reliefs, undeniably Olmec in style, were portraits of sick people and functioned as a kind of combined medical textbook and hospital out patients' list. In his view, Monte Alban had been the Americas' original General Hospital, a place of healing somewhat akin to Houston Medical Centre today! Other guides have claimed these sculpted stones show priests in various stages of ecstasy. The truth is almost certainly much more prosaic.

The invisible mystery of Monte Alban is how the most enduring of all the Classic civilizations of Mexico (lasting from about 500 BC to 800 AD) could suddenly collapse in a heap. As with similar collapses of pre-Columbian cities elsewhere in Mexico at about the same time, theories range from the collapse of the economic system involving the payment of tributes, to political unrest, climatic change, large scale epidemics and soil exhaustion. Whatever the cause, Monte Alban declined and Mixtec Indians displaced the Zapotecs, pushing them to the east where, before long, smaller city states, such as Mitla, sprang up on the valley floor.

In Monte Alban, the Mixtecs did little more than occupy existing buildings, and utilize existing tombs for burying (or reburying) their ancestors. One such tomb, known simply as Tomb 7, was excavated in 1932, during Alfonso Caso's very first season of work on this site. The spectacular contents of this tomb including gold items with a combined weight of 3.6 kilos are now on show in the Regional Museum in Oaxaca city. If you only have time to see a single thing in the city, then make sure that this is it!

While you wander around Monte Alban, it is quite likely that someone will shyly offer you "genuine pieces of Zapotec art". Such pieces may be genuine, but they are certainly not old! One afternoon, years ago, I was the last person to leave the site as it closed. Driving back towards the city, I passed a young boy, about seven years old, walking down the hill with his sister. With a dark sky threatening an unseasonable downpour, I offered them a ride. Once in the car, the boy began to extol the virtues of the "genuine pieces" he clutched in a dirty old rag. A few minutes later, expressing my interest in his "highly desirable antiquities", I asked him about the deities they represented and gradually gained his confidence. When I slipped in a question about when they had been made, his pride shone through as, instantly and unthinkingly, he responded, "Why, señor, in 1979!"

From Monte Alban, it is only a short drive through the gently rolling Zimatlán valley to Cuilapan and Zaachila. The huge ex monastery of Santiago Cuilapan, the largest in the region, is a national treasure and easily visible to the right of the highway.

As you walk towards the monastery, your eye is drawn not to the massive walls of the main building but to the extraordinarily evocative unroofed Basilica to the left. A long narrow nave is flanked by graceful arcades of beautifully proportioned arches. Either side of its main entrance are curious circular towers, built of locally quarried limestone blocks, with conical turrets that, in the words of colonial religious art specialist Richard Perry "might have graced a medieval French chateau". The Basilica served as the monastic church for many years; after it was abandoned a century ago, its wooden roof was destroyed in a fire.

There is something about ruins and partially finished buildings that speaks to the soul. Certainly, the monastery of Cuilapan speaks reams of colonial history. From the monastery's beginnings in the middle of the sixteenth century, plans for its completion were constantly delayed, in response to the vicissitudes of the time. Neither the monastery nor the church was ever completed. Hernán Cortés, who had claimed most of the Valley of Oaxaca for himself, had little desire to cede control of even this small part of his domain to the Dominican order. Funds were hard to find. Labor was in short supply. Officials in Mexico City and Spain considered the project overly ambitious.

But the parts that were built remain impressive. Constructed to withstand the earthquakes to which this area is prone, the walls of the monastery and church are up to three meters thick. Set into the floor of the unfinished church is the tomb of Princess Donaji, a Zapotec princess and early convert to Christianity who fell in love with a Mixtec Lord, the Lord of Tilantongo (a town north west of Oaxaca).

The feast day of Santiago Cuilapan (Saint James Cuilapan) is celebrated each year on July 25. The Dance of the Conquest, a reenactment of Cortés' defeat of the Aztecs, is presented by plumed dancers wearing spectacular, oversized disc shaped headdresses. The dance, performed in the atrium of the monastery, has roots extending back to the annual commemoration by the Mixtec people here in Cuilapan of an ancient victory over their Zapotec rivals. At the time of the Conquest, Cuilapan was a Mixtec enclave in otherwise Zapotec territory.

Inside the monastery (modest admission fee), some parts of the interior are slightly spooky. On a quiet day you may be the only person wandering the corridors. But you are not really on your own. Apart from the custodian and any art restorers, the spirits of the past accompany you. Near the entrance is the cramped cell where Mexico's second president - Vicente Guerrero - was held prisoner for 48 hours in February 1831 prior to execution. In his honor, the formal name of the town became "Cuilapan de Guerrero". Close to the main stairway is a mural, "The Tree of Friars", depicting branches spreading out from St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order. On each branch are rows of saints and martyrs, some clutching their own severed heads. Upstairs, from the second floor, you have a commanding view over the surrounding countryside back towards Monte Alban.

Zaachila and Arrazola
From Cuilapan, it is but a few minutes drive to Zaachila. On a Thursday, this part of the trip is worth doing first, early in the day, since Thursday is Zaachila's weekly market day. If you start at Zaachila, return to Oaxaca via Cuilapan and plan to include the next stop, Arrazola, before spending the afternoon at Monte Alban.

When the Spaniards first arrived, Zaachila was a town of Zapotec speaking Indians ruled by an elite Mixtec minority. Zaachila had previously functioned as the Zapotec capital. Today, there is little to see except for a black Christ in the main church and a pair of Mixtec tombs excavated in the side of the hill to the north of the church. A steep staircase descends to Tomb 1 with its stucco decorations depicting owls and cat motifs and bas reliefs of a person whose torso is covered with a turtle shell and another figure whose head is shown emerging from a serpent. Do not rely on the Tomb always being open for viewing, however.

Thursday mornings is when Zaachila's market square comes alive, but things grind to a halt by midday. In the hot afternoon sun sleepy dogs warily scrounge whatever scraps of leftover food they can find from among the debris left behind after the morning market.

From Zaachila, it's time to return towards Oaxaca, but it's well worth making one short detour on the way back. To get a taste of the well hidden handicraft surprises that intrepid travelers can find in many of the small villages of the region, take the side road to Arrazola. Though not well signed, Arrazola is only a short distance from the main Oaxaca Zaachila road. The side road passes several tiny hamlets before climbing slightly to end at Arrazola's small, remodeled plaza.
On the plaza is a village co operative store selling examples of Arrazola's finest art hand carved, brightly painted, very distinctive wooden animal figures. The store may be closed, but any small child will eagerly lead you through the dusty streets to his or her family's workshop where you can watch the animals being made.
The wooden animal craze was begun by one Manuel Jimenez some thirty years ago and has taken the whole village by storm. Every family, it seems, has its own workshop, competing for the most fanciful designs. Once the basic form has been decided, strongly contrasting colors of paint are applied, often in dozens of tiny dots, to finish these whimsical figures. Expect to pay anything from a few dollars for an easy to pack unsigned piece to several hundred dollars for a large, signed masterpiece.

Bargaining is de rigueur, but don't expect to persuade the artisans that the price already marked on the piece you like is way out of line they've been surreptitiously watching your eyes dance over their display and recognize genuine interest when they see it, even if only caught out of the corner of their eye! And don't doubt the sharpness of their eyesight it is clearly and beautifully proven by the exquisitely detailed figures and animals they so painstakingly carve and color.

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