Friday, May 21, 2010

Ancient Mexico

We stood on the spot where Hernan Cortez watched a ceremonial ball game almost 500 years ago and gazed at the terraced stonework rising from the edges of the ancient I-shaped court. By 1520, just 2 years later, the entire civilization whose ancestors built the magnificent city around him fell to the Spanish conquerors, their people reduced to slaves. It would be another 20 years before Pope Paul III declared these people to be human, despite the advanced technology they employed in their construction techniques, the fine artwork that decorated their buildings and their clothing, their skills in weaving, pottery, and jewelry making, their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and much more we hardly know anything about.

We were visiting the ruins of the Zapotec capital at Monte Alban, founded in 500 BC and expanding to a city of 25,000 people over the next 1200 years. For some unknown reason, the place was then abandoned for several hundred years, before being taken over by Mixtecs, a tribe from the north, around 950 AD. These newcomers used the old tombs to bury their own kings, but the Spaniards later ransacked them for their gold, silver, pearls and precious stones. Only one tomb has been discovered with the burial artifacts intact, the treasure displayed at the local museum.
The sheer size of the ruins was impressive, a central plaza surrounded by pyramid style buildings. Each building has their own function, and all but one are aligned perfectly to north, south, east and west. The exception is a diagonally aligned observatory, which is covered in hieroglyphics, and the tip of the arrow shaped building points to the Southern Cross constellation at solstice. The ancient culture had 5 compass points, which included zenith. We were a few days short of seeing proof of their cleverness, when a shaft of sunlight would reflect briefly through a slot in one of the pyramids to signal the onset of rain and time to plant the corn. The high priests orchestrated such demonstrations to show the common people that they were in communication with the gods. They also had underground tunnels that enabled them to disappear from the central podium and reappear high on an outlying pyramid without being seen by the throng that was gathered to witness their magic.

Monte Alban, however, was not the place where the blood sacrifices were performed. These took place at other villages a few miles away, where the strongest young men, the winners of the games, conquering warriors and other successful citizens would be given the honor of having their still beating hearts torn out to appease the gods. Perhaps this had something to do with the doubts about their humanity.

We visited two of these outer villages. Mitla is an archaeologist’s worst nightmare. First, the Spanish built their San Pablo church right on top of a large section of the site. Then the town of Mitla sprang up, so that today pieces of the ruins are being excavated from under washing lines in someone’s back yard, or walls tumble into disrepair in a parking lot. The tombs and buildings that remain have been subjected to vandalism. This is a real shame because the finely painted frescos that recorded the history of the ancient village are all but lost. These must have been lovely set next to the intricate designs of the stone mosaics this site is famous for. Each wall is made up of millions of tiny, precisely cut stones, some with additional carving on their protruding side. Put together, they form the classic design patterns such as the Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent, or the eternal life square wave pattern. These and other designs are still used in their hand woven rugs and blankets. Despite the degradation, there were still plenty of halls, palaces, tombs and plazas for us to poke around.

Our third ruins in the Oaxaca area were at Yagul. Set at the top of a hill, well off the beaten track, the views of the valley below were stunning. A unique feature of this site was a labyrinth of interconnecting rooms. We wandered through this maze-like area until we came upon a bunch of workmen mixing the cement for the ‘original’ plaster on the walls. As with the other places, there were old men trying to sell us ‘genuine’ Aztec clay figurines, kids selling made-in-china looking toys, and women selling everything from local woven clothing to not so local shell necklaces.
The modern city of Oaxaca, nestled between these ancient neighbors, provided us with 4 days of markets, street fairs, music, museums, elaborate churches that rivaled any we saw in Europe, restaurants and food carts. The area is known for coffee, chocolate, mescal (a type of tequila), mole (a spicy chocolate and chili sauce for meats), embroidered clothing, black pottery, dot art wooden animals, as well as the lovely hand dyed and woven rugs. Many of the colors for the dye comes from an insect that lives on the local cactus, which are dried and crushed, then mixed with various compounds (lime juice, baking soda and others) to produce a surprising range of colors. Our ramblings took us to a ‘petrified’ waterfall, the minerals in the water calcifying on the rocks high in the cliffs to create the effect of frozen falls. We also visited the largest tree in the world here, a 2000-year-old cypress whose trunk is 14 meters in diameter – that’s the length of our boat!

This was to be our last side trip before our Tehuantepec crossing to El Salvador. It only whet my appetite for inland Mexico, and her ancient people.

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