dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mitla - The Place of the Dead

Today we traveled to the archaeological site of Mitla, which is located about thirty miles from the city of Oaxaca.  Once again, we were planning to take a bus.  We went to the bus stop, but there already was an empty "colectivo" (shared taxi) waiting there for passengers.  We lucked out.  For more than half the route we were the only riders, but eventually three more crammed into the car.  It isn't the most comfortable mode of transportation, but it only cost 30 pesos (about $2 US) for each of us.  

We arrived at the little town of Mitla which is built around the archaeological site.  It's original Zapotec name was Liobaa, which means the Place of the Dead.  It was an important religious center, and was built as a gateway between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  The high priest of the Zapotecs, whom the Spanish compared to the Pope, resided there.  It was believed that nobles who were buried here would become clouds and could intercede for the living.  

Mitla may date back more than two thousand years.  However the buildings that we see in the archaeological site are relatively recent, dating from the 1300s when the city was at its height.  At that time the Valley of Oaxaca was invaded by the Mixtec tribe from the north.  The Mixtecs intermingled with the Zapotecs.  It is believed that the ruins that we see today are a mixture of Zapotec and Mixtec architectural styles.

Mitla continued to be an important town right up to the time of the Spanish conquest.  The Spanish destroyed many of the buildings, and used the stones as building material for their churches.  The Church of San Pablo, the principal church of present-day Mitla, is built on top of the site of the main temple which was regarded by the natives as the portal to the underworld.  Today you can see the Spanish colonial church, with its red tile domes, surrounded by pre-Hispanic remains.

The most imposing building of Mitla is a structure which most likely served as a palace.  It is known as the Palace of the Columns.

The architecture of Mitla is noteworthy for the geometric designs which decorate the walls of the buildings.  Thousands upon thousands of pieces of stone were cut and put in place to create these designs.

The Palace of the Columns receives its name from the six pillars in the entrance hall of the structure.  These columns are cut from monolithic pieces of stone and once supported the roof of the hall.

From that hall a passageway leads to a courtyard.  All four walls of the courtyard are covered with geometric designs.  Doorways on each side lead into rooms which are also decorated with these designs.

Just beyond the palace is another group of buildings which may have also served as residences or an administrative center.

There are two tombs beneath the courtyard of this group of buildings.  Visitors may descend into one of them, crouching to pass through the low doorways.  Within the tomb chambers are more geometric designs.

Mitla is an impressive place, but it pales in comparison to another archaeological site which we will visit next week.

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