Monte Alban has been bewitching travellers for millennia. Amongst clouds of butterflies, fields of wild flowers, and the odd silver-tongued souvenir seller, seek out Mexico’s first civilisation in this 2,500-year-old city – recently explored by Elizabeth James…
I gazed into the statue’s stony eyes, and ran my fingertips over its cool, sandy curves. “It is over 2,000 years old,” whispered Jose, leaning towards me as we sat cross-legged on the dry grass. “She is Chicomecōātl, the Aztec goddess of plenty. See how her colour has lasted all these years?” The icon lay snug in my palm, light grey with hints of rusty red on her belly and feet. “I found her under a tree, in my field – she was buried treasure.”
I resisted the temptation to scoff. Did I believe silver-tongued Jose? Did I heck. But I wanted to. It was a story so enchanting, an idea so charming – who wouldn’t want to believe that you could find a 2,000-year-old Zapotec artefact in your back garden? I was surely being spun a line – but I was loving every minute.
“If I told the authorities I had found this on my land, they would take my home and dig it up for more,” said Jose with glittering eyes, a frown wrinkling his leathery forehead. “That is why you should buy it. I would be moved to the city, and my farm – my livelihood – would be gone.” Now this I could believe. I’d only been in Mexico four days, but already I’d witnessed the country’s fierce pride in its rich history.
It may be a staunchly Catholic country, but ancient gods sit side-by-side with crucifixes. Its beloved tequila has been the tipple of choice since Aztec times. Every Sunday, entry to archaeological sites is free for Mexican citizens – and they’re often overrun with people who want to know more about their past. If Jose admitted to finding Chicomecōātl just a few hundred metres from Monte Alban – one of Mexico’s most significant archaeological sites – I’ve no doubt that the government would swoop in.
Monte Alban – or White Mountain – is a flat-topped archaeological wonder. The peak of the mountain was lopped off by the Zapotecs around 500BC, and the stone was used to build lavish palaces, temples, and houses high above the valley. The hilltop is a couple of miles west of Oaxaca, today’s state capital, but in 300BC Monte Alban was the seat of regional power. 25,000 people are thought to have lived on the mountain, reigned over by a powerful cluster of priests and dignitaries.
They built vast pyramids and complicated structures, and were the first civilisation in Mexico to use calendars and writing – but for all their sophistication they were a bloodthirsty lot. Daily human sacrifices were made to appease fearsome gods, the bodies sliced up and fed to jaguars, and the priests enjoyed the fruits of their absolute, unquestioned power.
In the sweet soft breeze and dappled sunlight, it was hard to imagine the brutality of life 2,500 years ago. Scaling the south side of the mountain, we crunched through the dried undergrowth, keeping one eye on the view of sprawling Oaxaca and the other looking out for snakes in the grass.
Orange butterflies danced on the gentle wind, their wings catching the light. White puffballs shimmied on the cotton trees, while candelabra cacti stood sentry in the sun. I reached up to pluck the pearly blossom of a casahuate tree (the white blooms gave Monte Alban its name), my touch halting the song of the cicada which hid somewhere in its branches.
As we climbed higher, the sun’s intensity grew – but when we reached the pinnacle of the Southern Platform a shiver ran down my spine. Thousands of years of history lay before me; the ancient city has been painstakingly restored to reflect its original glory. A dozen pyramids towered over the casahuate trees, their steep peaks pointing towards the skittering clouds.
In the centre of this majestic cluster, a vast square trough lay like a huge empty swimming pool. In the middle, a simple slab sat baking in the midday heat: the sacrificial altar, upon which thousands of young children were butchered with a black obsidian blade. Above, three vultures circled on the thermals, their black wings outstretched against the baby-blue sky. I smiled at the sense of history repeating – although the only screams today were from those rowdy cicadas.
I crunched down into the central walkway, scuffing my trainers on the hot stone steps. Wild flowers peeped from the thousand-year-old crevices, their blooms tended by marigold-coloured butterflies. The site has been restored by expert archaeologists – and, thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status, is the focus of ongoing conservation work – but nature continues to claim its rightful territory.
At the base of the Northern Platform, a dozen stone slabs – at least 1.5-metres high – bore carved depictions of the Zapotecs’ slaughtered enemies, their faces forever contorted with pain. The figures spoke of ancient horrors, despite their frame of wild daisies.
As I gazed at the statues, I thought back to Jose, no doubt trying his luck again with another huddle of tourists in the shade of a cotton tree. Whether his story was true or false, I was truly under the spell of this ancient civilisation. I slipped my hand inside my jacket and ran my fingers over Chicomecōātl’s rough belly. In this place of myths and legends, what’s one more story? And for just US$20, I had a piece of it – however genuine – in my pocket.
Explore Monte Alban and the rest of Oaxaca on our Best of Mexico Journey – speak to a Travel Expert about this incredibly cultural trip today.