This article focuses on Monte Alban, one of the greatest archeological sites in Mexico.
When we think about great Mesoamerican civilizations, we usually think about the great monuments and scientific achievements of people like the Mayas or Aztecs.
However, there is a city whose power lasted more than a thousand years. Its builders flatten the top of a mountain to construct it. Governors, priests, architects, artisans, and other powerful people had their dwellings inside the city.
It is believed that it had 30,000 inhabitants during its apogee. Two thousand terraces were created on the slopes of the mountain supporting the main buildings. Its main plaza is so big that you can fit the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of Cheops in it.
That city is called Monte Alban and many consider it the first great city of Mesoamerica.
Monte Alban was founded around 500 B.C and it dominated the central valleys of Oaxaca until 700 A.C. The site occupies a strategic place at the top of a mountain from where miles and miles of land can be observed.
In this place, ceramic, architecture, writing and astronomy flourished. All this knowledge developed a unique culture: the Zapotec. When the city collapsed, its inhabitants remained in the valleys where they have remained till today.
There are many theories about the present name of the city. Some say the name derives from a colonial era reference to a Spanish soldier by the name Montalban or to the Alban Hills of Italy.
My guide explained the name was given by the Spaniards that arrived in the region. The city was abandoned and covered by vegetation. A tree with white flowers was predominant and the soldiers started to call the place “Monte Albino” or White Mountain. The ancient Zapotec name of the city is not known.
Today, we can visit the core of Monte Alban (what the eye sees is not even half of the city). It consists of a main plaza surrounded by platforms and monuments.
Ball courts can also be observed on the site. The ball game in Monte Alban had many variants, rules, and ways of playing. The hands were used on some games and the players used long gloves to protect the extremities from the heavy ball. The game was a representation of the conflicts between earth and sky. It was a great spectacle.
The ancient observatory can be seen too. All the sites of ancient Mexico are aligned from north to south according to the path of the sun. The Zapotecs had knowledge about the behaviour of the sun and the stars.
They knew so much about the movements of the skies that they were able to construct their buildings with the sun marking a spot, or the moon and stars being visible thru holes, at determined times of the year.
The most famous stones on the site are called “Los Danzantes” or the dancers. Weird figures are carved on stones and they are believed to be inhabitants of the underworld.
And of course, nobody should miss the views from the top of the northern and southern platforms. From there, you can have an unmatchable look at the entire site and at the valleys surrounding the mountain.
After walking thru the buildings, observing rock carvings and standing at the highest point, I can understand why this place was chosen to build the city. And it is easy to understand why the culture developed in here has lasted thru the centuries.
How to Visit
Monte Alban is located about 5 miles from Oaxaca City. From the city’s center, you can take a bus to the archeological site. The ride lasts 15 to 20 minutes.
I visited Monte Alban as part of a full-day guided tour. Even though I am an independent traveler, I choose this option because of its affordability and access to a certified guide. The tour included visits to artisan towns in the Central Valleys and lunch. If you opt for a tour, make sure to go with a reputable company.
Take into consideration there is little to no shade in Monte Alban. Go prepared for sun exposure (wear a hat, glasses, sunscreen, and possibly long sleeves).
Have you been to Monte Alban? What archeological site has impressed you? Let me know in the comments section below.
David @ Malaysia Asia says
Nice, it looks like my kind of place that I could spend hours just absorbing the history and photographing.
Great, informative post, Ruth! Very much enjoyed.
Lauren, Ephemerratic says
Great photos. I’m heading to Oaxaca in a couple of months and can’t wait to go see Monte Alban. You’ve made it look even more enticing!