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The Oaxaca Valley
The groups of pyramids and churches, along the route from Monte Albán to Mitla, deserve worldwide attention for their beautiful architecture. These are clear examples of how architecture and ecology can make a whole.
This is a Savine tree, classified taxonomically as mucionatum according to botanists. It is a must to visit the famous Tule Tree. It is an approximately 2000 year-old Moctezuma cypress emerging from the central yard of the church of the town. In the next town you can find Tlacochahuaya, which means "Place with humidity." There, Spanish monks built a church with an open lateral entrance. The interior is decorated with paintings which have flower motives.
The City of Oaxaca is a colonial city founded by the Spanish conquerors and is a magical place with its main square called Zócalo, many churches and good museums. The three most interesting churches are the Cathedral, the Soledad Church and the Santo Domingo Church.
Three museums worthy to be visited are the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History (Museo Regional de Antropologíae Historia, MACO), the Rufino Tamayo Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Oaxaca City is the capital of Oaxaca State. The UNESCO officially declared the colonial center of Oaxaca City part of the Cultural Heritage for Mankind. During the last four decades the population of Oaxaca grew four times having now 244,727 inhabitants. People from the countryside continue to immigrate to the City looking for a job.
Around 500 BC the Zapotecs came to realize that they needed to defend themselves against invaders. They looked for a suitable place to build a new community center, which they found at the peak of Monte Albán (Monte means hill.) At that time, the area was an uninhabited forest.
The mountaintop rose to 400 meters above the valley. This was the best place to observe three valley branches in their entirety as well as the two rivers Atoyac and Río Salado. These rivers flowed parallel to the most prominent trade routes. By building a pyramid on this place it would be possible to control Oaxaca Valley.
If you climb Monte Albán at dawn, you will be able to witness the mourning mist. It lingers above the valley like a nocturnal shroud and it lifts as the sun rises. This is perhaps why the Zapotecs used to call themselves "the people of the clouds".
The Monte Albán civilization flourished from 500 BC until 1500 AD. At this cultural peak the city had 25, 000 inhabitants. The élite lived in palaces on the plateaus. The mountain was densely populated and was divided into terraces with houses and cornfields.
The pyramid plateau of Dainzú gives a fantastic panorama of the Oaxaca Valley. Mountains stretch out in four directions from the lookout, which seems to have been placed there on purpose like a giant compass.
What is characteristic for this settlement is the complex system of terraces and open spaces. Some of these open spaces were used for the well-known pre-Colombian ball game. On a temple wall each of a group of stones depicts a man wearing a mask and a small ball in his right hand. The location was occupied from 600 BC to 1200 AD.
Before the first excavations began in 1967, there was nothing but a cornfield. The maize plants had overgrown the pyramid mounds. In ancient times the site was suited for salt production. Zapotecs derived salt from the banks of Río salado (Salt River). They heated up the saltwater in clay pots. Salt has always been an essential product to trade for goods at the market. Presumably this bartering took place here as early as 700 BC. Clay pots and salt are still important items at the Tlacolula market nearby.
From Lambityeco towards Yagul the land rises to 1600 meters and becomes dry and barren. Before the Zapotecs began to work the land here, three thousand years ago, this had been a richly forested area. In Yagul there is a Palace with six patios, which dates from the 700 AD, but the area was probably uninhabited earlier than this. The ground plan of the interior depicts a complicated labyrinth, which only an original palace resident could figure out. A footpath leads to an observation post ahead, which bears the name, La fortaleza (The Fortress). Apparently the palace lords feared for their safety.
Around 700 AD, after the Monte Albán civilization began to decline, the Zapotecs built a settlement in Mitla, instead of being situated on a mountaintop. The pyramid groups were constructed in a narrow valley surrounded by protective mountain peaks.
The ambiance at Mitla differs greatly from Monte Albán´s with its magnificent views. Mitla, however, excels in architecture. Like in Yagul, the architecture is more focused more on comfortable living. In elite families' palaces a considerable of Mixtec influence is present in the artistic work and elaborate wall decorations. The stone mosaics are awe-inspiring. The decorations are so interwoven with the structure of the building itself that one wonders how it was done and motivated it all. Teotitlán weavers still incorporate the same motives into their sarapes, rugs and ponchos.
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