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The Ruins at Mitla

The Ruins at Mitla


Mitla is a short distance from the home of Porfirio Gutierrez & family in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. The ruins at Mitla give a glimpse of the former glory of the Zapotec civilization and how it lives to inspire the weavers of today.

Where is it?

Located just 46km from Oaxaca city, Mitla is definitely worth seeing! There is a bus connection from Oaxaca City to Mitla departing every half hour. The round-trip ticket costs just few dollars. The journey to Mitla is a swifty 50 minutes trip and from the bus stop in the two the ruins are a 10 minute walk away. The opening hours are 9am -5pm on from Tuesday to Sunday. Sundays are free, and entering any other day will cost you a few dollars. For a little bit more, you can opt for a guided tour.

Uncharted Ruins


[1] C. Lewis-Spence, The Myths of Mexico and Peru, 1913, Chapter IV: The Maya Race and Mythology. On-line resource: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/mmp/mmp07.htm
[2] Marshall H. Saville, Cruciform structures of Mitla and vicinity, Putnam Anniversary Volume, 1909
[3] Nelly M. Robles García, Las Canteras de Mitla, Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology, No.47, 1994, Nashville, TN
[4] Mitla, encyclopedia entry – From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitla


Again a great post. Perfect mixture of facts with awe!
Thanks a lot!
Ever thought making a book out of it?

Very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing your work. I thought you would be interested to know that the builders of the megalithic monuments in Peru actually did leave a written record of their people. The record shows they arrived in South America around 600 BC and the record goes through around 421 AD. Around 50 BC, thousands of them migrated north by ship to what is now Central America. We do not have a record of the ones who went north other that what is known in the Papul Va, etc. But it is likely they brought with them some of the technology from Peru- such as working with monolithic stones.

.The people were called Nephites named after their early leader Nephi (pronounced "knee fi"). Nephi kept a record on metal plates that were passed down from generation to generation with many other leaders adding their own record of their times. A final writer named Mormon wrote an abridgement of the many, many records and added some pages of his own. This record has since been translated and published in over 70 pages and is called the Book of Mormon. You can get a free copy from mormon.org or buy one at amazon or a bookstore. Yes, the book is considered scripture by the Mormon church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) as the ancient writers combine a good deal of their religious teachings along with the history of the people. But even if you have zero interest in religion, you should find the historical aspect of the book most interesting. For example, here is an excerpt from Nephi regarding the building of a temple which I believe was what is now called Coricancha as mentioned in your post about megalithic stones in Peru.
15 And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.

16 And I, Nephi, did build a temple and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine."

Feb 8 Monte Alban and Mitla Ancient ruins in Oaxaca valley

For one month we stayed in Oaxaca de Juarez. Our house is on a hill directly opposite Monte Alban, the large mountain that looms above Oaxaca city. Thinking like an ancient civilization, you can see why this would be a good place to settle, it can be easily defendable, it would be hard for your enemies to sneak up on you, and, if you are a very religious Zapotec (the indigenous people living in Oaxaca valley), mountains are interconnected with many myths and traditions. Monte Alban (in Spanish meaning ‘white mountain’ and in Zapotec, Danipaguache, meaning ‘Sacred mountain’) was settled during the 6th century B.C. Slowly growing larger and larger, until it became the largest pre-Colombian metropolis in Oaxaca valley. Monte Alban has even been considered the oldest metropolis in the Americas. We just had to check it out.

Because of covid restrictions, only 400 people a day were allowed inside. This being said, the best time to go is in the morning, so you have a pretty good chance of getting in. The park itself opens at 10:00, but when we arrived at 9:00, there was already a fairly large line. There is plenty of parking. The entrance fee is small, 3 to 4 dollars per adult, and kids 13 & under are free. Two websites to visit are the INAH Site (Spanish only) UNESCO World Heritage site on Monte Alban. You can learn more about the history, and find out the latest information about visiting.

The side buildings at Monte Albán

Once you pay for entry and get through security, there are indicated paths, but you can do some exploring on your own. There are signs all over, all in Spanish, English, and Zapotec (the language spoken by the prehispanic people in the region).

You start out walking up a hill, the steps were made nearly two thousand years ago. At the top, you find many stone buildings. These structures were made to have a wooden building stand on top. Most of these buildings were not residential, instead temples for their various gods. After walking past the first buildings, it opens up to a huge open area. More stone structures line the sides. It is incredible!

In the middle of the main field (surrounded by temples and structures) are two buildings. The second of the two is facing 90 degrees from all the other buildings. This is the observatory, where the priests (they were the well educated/knowledgeable people) would look up at the stars. The observatory faces precisely north. At the very end, you find a temple so tall, that at first, you think it’s a hill. Large stairs lead up to the top. This is the main structure, and it is magnificent. Walking around and reading the signs can last you a few hours on top of the mountain.

Now for a bit of history, as I mentioned above, it was first founded in the sixth century, B.C. by the Zapotec people. Monte Alban was inhabited until about 850 A.D (50 years shy of the end of the Mayan classical period). After this, the area was gradually abandoned. The people at Monte Alban interacted with other peoples as far away as the Teoticuacans. The site had more than 17,500 people in its heyday. Being a history nerd, I loved it. The views were also impressive and worth the visit.

The largest temple at Monte Albán (for scale you can see the person on top)

About two weeks after visiting Monte Alban, we took an hour's drive to Mitla, other ruins in the Oaxaca valley. Mitla is known for its geometric patterns on the walls of the ruins. A fun fact is that Mitla is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the Americas. Due to Covid, just like at Monte Alban, Mitla has a restriction on the number of visitors per day. Because Mitla’s archeological site is smaller, only half as many people can visit it (200 people a day).

Stationed around the site are many hand sanitizers and everyone wears masks. You can immediately see the patterns cut out into the surrounding walls. There are waves, spirals, and diagonals. This site doesn’t have as many informative signs, and to really understand you would probably have to get a guide. Some of the tombs that you could previously enter and explore, are now closed due to covid.

We walked around and saw it all in about 30 minutes. Around the town of Mitla, there are a few more sites, some made out of adobe (sun-baked bricks) and others similar to the insides of the one the site. The only ones that have the patterns are inside the site itself. We spent around 3 hours in the city of Mitla (this included a stop for lunch at the local market!)

Visiting and exploring these sites was awesome, and I learned quite a bit about the prehispanic cultures in Oaxaca valley. If you come to Oaxaca, you should definitely check them out. The little money you do have to pay is well worth it, but don’t take my word for it, visit them yourselves!

Sanctuary of Mitla

Entrance to the sanctuary, ruins of Mitla, near Oaxaca, Mexico

Situated at an elevation of 4,855 feet (1,480 meters) and 24 miles (38 k) from the large city of Oaxaca, the ruins of Mitla are one of Mexico's most fascinating and enigmatic sacred places. Archaeological excavations indicate that the site was occupied from as early as 900 BC. Mitla's visible structural remains, however, date from between 200 and 900 AD when the Zapotecs were present, from 1000 AD when the Mixtecs took control of the site, and from 1200 AD (some sources say 1500), when the Zapotecs were back in control. The word Mitla is a term from the Nahuatl language meaning 'Place of the Dead', and the earlier Zapotec name of Lyobaa means 'tomb' or 'place of rest'. These two names, as well as the findings of the archaeological excavators, indicate that the village had great importance as a place of burial during both Zapotec and Mixtec times.

The archaeological zone of Mitla includes five main groups of structures, and by the beginning of the Christian era the town had stretched for more than two thirds of a mile along either side of the Mitla River. The photograph shows part of the 'Hall of Columns' and the entrance to the main sanctuary. We do not know what these structures were called by their builders the name 'Hall of Columns' comes from the first Spanish explorers who visited the site. The Hall of Columns, 120 by 21 feet in size, has six monolithic columns of volcanic stone that originally supported a roof covering the entire hall. The darkened doorway leads through a low and narrow passageway to the interior of another enclosure, now roofless, but also covered in ancient times. This chamber is one of the most astonishing artistic artifacts of Pre-Columbian America. Its walls are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic known as stepped-fret design. The motif of these intricate geometric mosaics are believed to be a stylized representation of the Sky Serpent and therefore a symbol of the pan-regional Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatl.

Archaeologists are mystified regarding the use of this chamber. An early Spanish explorer, named Canseco, who visited Mitla in 1580, wrote of the Hall of Columns, "In this building they had their idols, and it was where they assembled for religious purposes, to make sacrifices to their idols, and to perform heathen rites". Regarding the interior chamber, Canseco says it was the residence of the high priest who was "like our pope". The oldest bit of information we have about the chamber however, and possibly the most revealing, is a legend that says the chamber was used for the final initiation of shamans who had been trained in magic and healing in the school of Mitla.

In the 'Patio of Tombs', adjacent to the Hall of Columns, is a 2.8 meter tall column known as the 'Pillar of Death'. Legend says that if a person holds their arms around this pillar and feels it move, then their death is immanent. Nearby to Mitla, along the road to Oaxaca, is the town of Santa Maria del Tule with its famous Arbol del Tule (tree of Tule) in the chuchyard. This mighty tree, having a circumference of over 160 feet at its base, is between 2000 and 3000 years old, making it one of the oldest living things on earth.

Ruins of Mitla, Mexico

Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study and documentation of pilgrimage places around the world. During a 38 year period he has visited more than 1500 sacred sites in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide web site is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.


Early History
Between approximately 1500 and 500 B.C., the Zapotecan city of San José Mogote in what is now the state of Oaxaca was the largest and most important settlement in the region. Historians estimate that during the pre-colonial period, Oaxaca was home to 16 separate cultures, each with its own language, customs and traditions. However the Zapotecas and Mixtecas constituted the largest and most sophisticated societies with villages and farmlands located throughout the region.

Did you know? The Zapoteca were skilled in astronomy and excavation, and leveled the top of a local mountain around 450 B.C. and created the ceremonial center now called Monte Albán. One of the most densely populated cities in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán is estimated to have had 18,000 Zapotecan residents at its peak.

San José Mogote, considered the oldest agricultural city in the Oaxaca Valley, was probably the first area settlement to use pottery. Historians also credit Zapotecas with constructing Mexico’s oldest-known defensive barrier and ceremonial buildings around 1300 B.C. The culture also predates any other in the state in the use of adobe (850 B.C.), hieroglyphics (600 B.C.) and architectural terracing and irrigation (500 B.C.).

Skilled in astronomy and excavation, the Zapoteca leveled the top of a local mountain around 450 B.C. and created the ceremonial center now called Monte Albán. One of the most densely populated cities in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán is estimated to have had 18,000 Zapotecan residents at its peak.

Before migrating to Oaxaca, the Mixtecas lived in the southern portions of what are now the neighboring states of Guerrero and Puebla. By the end of the 7th century, Mixtecas established themselves in the western and central parts of Oaxaca, building cities such as Apoala and Tilantongo. During the 13th century, the Mixtecas continued to move south and east, invading the Central Valley and conquering the Zapotecas.

By the 15th century, the Aztecs had arrived in Oaxaca and quickly conquered the local inhabitants, establishing an outpost on the Cerro del Fortín. Consequently, trade with Tenochtitlán and other cities to the north increased, but the basic fabric of living was unchanged by the Aztec presence.

Middle History
In 1519, conquistador Hernán Cortés set out to conquer central Mexico on behalf of Spain. Two years later, through mass killings and strategic alliances, he succeeded in overthrowing the Aztec Empire. Cortés promptly sent Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval to the Pacific and into the Sierra Madre region in search of gold. On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco took possession of the Central Valley in the name of Cortés. The arrival of de Orozco prompted the construction of housing for Spanish newcomers under the administration of Cortés’ brother-in-law, Juan Xuárez. On July 6, 1529, Charles V, Emperor of Spain, awarded Cortés the title Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca and presented him with lavish gifts, including a large tract of land in the area.

In Oaxaca, the comparatively few natives who survived the invasion returned to their remote villages and continued to cultivate the land and labor in the mines. Some found work on haciendas, large estates granted to Spanish nobles who were settling in the region.

During the 300-year colonial period, a rigid class hierarchy ensured that the best government posts were filled by Criollos (Spaniards and their descendants). Only near the end of the colonial period were Mestizos (citizens with both European and indigenous ancestry) allowed to hold public office. Under Spanish rule, the region’s social practices, politics and religion were Europeanized. Schools and churches were erected for the Indians, Mestizos and Criollos alike. However, with all the power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the Spanish landowners and clergy, most Oaxacans remained impoverished.

When the movement to free Mexico from Spanish rule began, Oaxaca was at the forefront. Bishop Antonio Barbosa Jordan encouraged Oaxacans to take up arms against the Spanish crown. In 1811, Valerio Trujano initiated guerilla action against Spanish forces and won several important victories. Besieged at Huajuapan, Trujano held out for 111 days until he received reinforcements sent by the revolutionary leader José Maria Morelos. With the help of the extra troops, Trujano won the battle of Huajuapan, giving the revolutionaries control of Oaxaca.

Recent History
Two Oaxacans played an integral role in Mexican history during the late 19th century. Benito Juárez became Mexico’s first Indian president in 1858 and served several terms, one of which was interrupted by the French occupation from 1863 to 1867 after he refused to continue paying long-standing debts owed to France.The second major Oaxacan figure of the 19th century was Porfirio D໚z, who contended for the presidency several times before assuming power in 1877. He ruled initially from 1877 to 1880 and again from 1884 to 1911.

When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Oaxaca, like many southern states, rallied around the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who proclaimed that the land belonged to the workers. This rhetoric resonated with Oaxacans, since many of them were being exploited by the large landowners.

After D໚z was removed from power, dissension among the revolutionary leaders continued to divide the people of Mexico. Venustiano Carranza, who opposed some of Zapata’s populist positions, seized control of the federal government and eventually triumphed over the armed forces of Zapata and Pancho Villa. With Carranza in power, the relationship between Oaxaca and the federal government deteriorated. Oaxacans disliked the new president so much that Carranza’s brother was assassinated in Oaxaca. The period from 1916 to 1920 was filled with constant struggle for control of the new government in the end, federal troops won out.

Monte Alban is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Arguably the most majestic of Oaxaca’s ancient ruins, Monte Alban, meaning “White Mountain,” is an ancient Zapotec capital with a spectacular mountain top location overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca.

Being one of the most culturally and historically significant places to visit in Mexico, the site received UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1987.

The pyramids, temples, plazas, and other residential structures all center on the Great Plaza, which offers excellent 360-degree views of the city and valleys below. Across the way, the north platform, home to the largest complex of structures at Monte Alban, rivals the Great Plaza in size and offers the best views of the surrounding area.

Along the eastern side you’ll find altars and a ball court. While towards the west, ceremonial platforms line the border, including the earliest known structure at Monte Alban that houses the site’s most important discovery, a series of rock carvings known as Los Danzantes.

At the far north end, near the entrance, is an area with tombs, some of which have been excavated revealing a variety of paintings and stone carvings. There are 170 known tombs in Monte Alban and a collection of artifacts discovered in them is on display in the Regional Museum of Oaxaca in nearby Oaxaca City.

Close to the nearby ruins of Mitla, Monte Alban is an authentic look into the lost world of Mayan civilization and, at times, a haunting representation of Mexican history and its former ancient glory.

Dainzú is another Oaxacan archeological site that has been built into the hills around it. It was inhabited at the same time as Monte Alban but is believed to be older. There are a series of stone reliefs on one building that depict ancient ball players and other structures that include residences, religious centers and a ball court. It’s believed to have had residents from 750BC to 1200AD.

The Ruins at Mitla - History

Zapotec seated figure B.C. 300 - 200 Monte Albain

The Zapotecs dominated the area around Oaxaca with their city of Monte Alban for centuries. Monte Alban was one of the more ancient Classic period city states, with sites there as old as 600 B.C..After 650 A.D. Monte Alban was one of the most powerful cities in Mexico . Around the 800s, the city began to lose its power and by 900 A.D. the city was abandoned . However, the Zapotec culture still remained vigorous and other cities, such as their capital at Zaachila remained .The Zapotec city of Mitla are masterpieces of Classical architecture with dazzling geometric patterns .

Mitla is a short distance from the home of Porfirio Gutierrez & family in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. The ruins at Mitla give a glimpse of the former glory of the Zapotec civilization and how it lives to inspire the weavers of today.

The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logosyllabic system of writing that used a separate glyph to represent each of the syllables of the language. This writing system is one of several candidates thought to have been the first writings system of Mesoamerica and the predecessor of the writing systems developed by the Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec civilizations.

The history of the rich and complex societies that arose and

flourished in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Video of ruins at Monte Alban

Zapotec funerary urn 300-800 AD, Monte Albain. the Zapotecs built monumental tombs in which they placed urns with offerings, often with the face of the deceased upon them .The headdress is a mask of the eagle and jaguar .

At the present time, there is some debate as to whether or not Olmec symbols, dated to 650 BC, are actually a form of writing preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC.The Zapotecs tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people, while the elite that governed them believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today resulted from this belief. In Central Valley Zapotec "The Cloud People' is "Be'ena' Za'a."

Terracotta jaguar 300-800 AD, Monte Alban.The Zapotecs were heavily influenced by the Olmecs, who also worshipped the jaguar. The collar around the neck shows that they were worshipped alive and in captivity

The last battle between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs occurred between 1497 and 1502, under the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl . At the time of Spanish conquest of Mexico , when news arrived that the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards, King Cosijoeza ordered his people not to confront the Spaniards so they would avoid the same fate. They were defeated by the Spaniards only after several campaigns between 1522 and 1527.

The interpretation of the symbols and patterns woven in Zapotec rugs

a Mixtec breast ornament, made with the lost wax method

In pre-Columbian times, the Mixtec were one of the major civilizations of Mesoamerica. Important ancient centres of the Mixtec include the ancient capital of Tilantongo, as well as the sites of Achiutla, Cuilapan, Huajuapan, Mitla, Tlaxiaco, Tututepec, Juxtlahuaca, and Yucuñudahui. The Mixtec also made major constructions at the ancient city of Monte Albán (which had originated as a Zapotec city before the Mixtec gained control of it). The work of Mixtec artisans who produced work in stone, wood, and metal were well regarded throughout ancient Mesoamerica.

A Mixtec turquoise tile serpent, laid over wood

The term Mixtec ( Mixteco in Spanish) comes from the Nahuatl word Mixtecapan , or "place of the cloud-people". The area in which Mixtec is spoken is known as the Mixteca .

The Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus an ritual-calendrical and genealogical document contains lists of Mixtecian rulers and priests. It is not certain where the codex was discovered. Probably it was discovered in Veracruz and sent to Sevilla, together with the other manuscript Codex Zouche-Nuttall, as a gift for Charles V in 1518. See a larger image here .

After the Spanish conquest,Mixtec Indians were important for cochineal production. Cochineal is an insect that yields a red dye, used by the British for their uniforms.

Mitla – The Zapotec “Place of the Dead”

Mitla is an archaeological site associated with the Zapotec culture, located in the Oaxaca Valley in the present-day state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

The Zapotec was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilisation emerging in the late 6th century BC, that originated in the Central Valleys of the Etla in the west, Ocotlán in the south and Mitla in the east. The Zapotec civilisation was centred on Oaxaca, San José Mogote, and Mitla, with the site of Monte Albán emerging as the civic-ceremonial centre.

At its peak, the Zapotec had a population of more than 500,000 inhabitants, having developed sophisticated construction techniques, a writing system, two calendar systems, and complex agricultural cultivation.

Several conflicts between the Zapotecs and Aztecs led to the Zapotecs avoiding conflict with the Conquistadors (also in part to avoid the same fate of the Aztec centre of Tenochtitlan) however, they were defeated by the Spaniards after several campaigns between AD 1522 and 1527.

Mitla was first inhabited by the Zapotec during the Classic Period (AD 100-650), having first developed from a fortified village. The village expanded into a large religious centre that demonstrates a mix of Zapotec and Mixtec architectural styles, featuring intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs.

The Zapotec believed that Mitla served as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead for the burial of Zapotec elite, with the Nahuatl name Mictlán, meaning the “place of the dead” or “underworld.”

The site consists of five main groups of structures built on the valley floor—Grupo de las Columnas (Columns Group), Grupo de las Iglesias (Churches Group), Grupo del Arroyo (Arroyo Group), Grupo de los Adobes (Adobe Group), and Grupo del Sur (Southern Group).

The Southern Group and the Adobe Group have been classified as ceremonial centres, featuring central plazas surrounded by mound structures. The Columns and Church groups (as well as the Southern Group) have been classified as palaces, with rooms surrounding square courtyards, with the Church Group containing the main Zapotec temple, called the yohopàe, which translates to “house of the vital force.”

Zaachila Ruins

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The Zapotecs and Mixtecs are the most numerous indigenous groups in Oaxaca, and theirs were also the largest settlements in the area before the Spanish conquest. Like the best of neighbors, their relations were at times strained, amicable, and often a bit of both. As Zaachila was considered the capital of the Zapotecs during the Classical period in the 13th century, the city shows perhaps a stronger mix of these two cultures.

Cosijoeza (also known as Cocijoeza or Cosiioeza), the penultimate Zapotec ruler before arrival of the Spanish, lived in Zaachila when the Zapotec empire was attacked by the Aztecs, lead by Ahuitzotl. With help from the Mixtec lead by Dzahuindanda, Zaachila was able to repel the Aztec offensive.

A second attack in the late 15th century was more successful. A truce was only achieved once Cocijoeza agreed to marry Ahuitzotl’s daughter, known as Xilabela in Zapotec and Coyolicatzin in Náhuatl. Cocijoeza and Xilabela were the parents of Princess Donají and Cocijopii, the last Zapotec ruler. With this, the importance of the Zaachila lineage to Oaxacan history cannot be overstated.

Following Cocijopii’s contact with the Spanish and eventual baptism and conversion into Catholicism in the 16h century, Zaachila was slowly abandoned by the Zapotecs and became buried and overgrown. Archeological works on this site were lead in 1962 by Roberto Gallego Ruiz. The majority of the structures explored were tombs. While many of the artifacts found within were moved to museums in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and abroad, the halls of the tombs are now open for exploration in Zaachila itself.

They are notable for the many figures on their walls. Some feature the geometric patterns typical of Mixtec-Zapotec sites like Mitla. Another shows an owl, considered the emblem of Zaachila. Perhaps the best-known however, is that of a Zapotec ruler in a flight-like position.

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Watch the video: Mitla (November 2021).