Flat Ruins on a Table Top: Monte Alban
Oaxaca has to be one of the most well rounded cities in terms of tourist attractions. It’s a culinary haven of Mexico, the city centre is historic and charming, its mountainous surroundings are a hikers paradise, and for a lover of ruins such as myself? Why, Oaxaca has Monte Alban.
Perched 40m above the Oaxaca valley, atop the flattest portion of the surrounding mountains, lays the historic ruins of Monte Alban. Not only are they built on a tabletop, the ruins themselves are quite flat in stature. Monte Alban was the holy city of the Zapotecs between 800-500BC. The ruins consist of many smaller temples, all raising slowly from the central Gran Plaza. I’m thinking the inhabitants of the centre ruins had an issue with flooding. TBt that’s just my thoughts, because if you build your ruins in a structure similar to that of a bathtub, its bound to flood no? This is a really really really ancient bathtub.
Monte Alban has a sense of balance and symmetry to its design. The centre is a sunken grassy plain with two temples called the Gran Plaza. At each ends of the plain lie two sets of stone steps leading up and over a slight mound an onto another temple. The sides are flanked by more temples of different designs and purposes. Excavations have found over 170 tombs on the sight! Lastly, the mountain plummets down around the ruins into the Oaxaca valley and pops up again across the way into two strong lines of protective mountains.
When I first arrived atop the stairs at one end of Monte Alban I was disheartened by the lack of pizazz the ruins have. There wasn’t anything that completely amazed me. I just saw a bathtub. But as I clambered down the slicked stone steps, and reached the grasses, the design of Monte Alban peaked my interest. It was different than any ruins I had seen. I’d already explored both Tulum and Coba in Mexico, yet Monte Alban was of a completely different capacity than those. It was unique. I needed to see it for what it was, not expect it to be compared to the others. I was unfairly judging the ruin.
And my favourite aspect of Monte Alban wasn’t its temples, or its location (which on this day, was dulled by the grey clouds and drizzle), it was the stone carvings and glyphs that remained intact in the Building of the Dancers on the Western side of the Ruin. Slabs of stone were lined up against the wall of a temple (replica’s as the originals are in the museum at the entrance). The carvings were of people in odd positions, and like most ancient carvings, I always see them as dancing. They are warrior imagery, many of the carved images are of defeated captives from times long past. Turns out, these figures also are thought to connote disease or suffering, with some have representing childbirth, dwarfism, and infantilism. The stories remain unclear, but to me, they came alive in the postures and attitudes each carving held. The stones were once used as wall facings, stair treads, doors, and frequently as tombs.
And since its Mexico, they have no qualms about me going right up and touching the carvings. Nothing is blocked or off limits – you’re allowed to fully explore the ruins and get up and personal with all its facets and angles.
As I meandered around, staring off into the mountains, and climbing down the stairs to the centre ruins and around every corner I could find, I came to peace with the beauty of Monte Alban. I started to appreciate its small dominance from its location and its history brought to life through those carvings. I literally stopped and smelled the flowers.
And before the rain could wash me away, I hopped into the mini-van waiting in the lot and zipped around corners back to Oaxaca. Watching Monte Alban become smaller in the distance up on the mountain.